Greater Streets — Street Vacations: When Streets Get Taken Away

About a month ago, following the introduction of a car-free section of Griffith Park Drive in Griffith Park, I wrote a piece celebrating ten Los Angeles streets that have been reclaimed from automobiles over the past century. After that, I wrote about open streets events, like CicLAvia, that have for 20 years provided tantalizing if temporary glimpses of what a less car-centric Los Angeles could look like. I feel that Los Angeles is generally moving in the right direction — if at a glacial pace. The city is on track, for example, to implement Mobility Plan 2035, albeit by about 2215.

Sometimes, though, the city moves backward. The flawed car-centric design of the new 6th Street Viaduct led to its closure. City Councilman Paul Koretz killed Uplift Melrose. City Councilmen (and Rick Caruso-endorser) Gil Cedillo and Mitch O’Farrell both removed bicycle lanes and allowed private individuals the pleasure of locking gates across public streets in order to create their own mini-gated communities. In a wonderful Freudian slip, Cedillo trumpeted his support for “Zero Vision” which is a wonderful name for anti-transit activism. The other day I learned of another planned “street vacation” — which is municipal jargon for the process in which a government (in this case the City of Los Angeles) transfers ownership of a public right-of-way to private individuals.

The lower 1700 block of maltman as seen from below

The street vacation in question is cumbersomely referred to by the city as the Maltman Avenue/Crestmont Avenue/Effie Street/Street Vacation (Vacation: E1401386). It refers to a stretch of the 1700 block of Maltman Avenue — between Crestmont Avenue above and Effie Street below. As a concerned Silver Laker and co-chair of Silver Lake Neighborhood Council‘s Transportation and Safety Committee, I brought it to the attention of the committee’s other co-chair, Andrew Warner. He, like I — and many neighbors who’ve written us letters since — know and cherish this wonderful block, which more closely resembles a pocket park than a normal city street. If the street vacation goes forward, it will likely be gated. It will then probably be sold and developed with a uniplex. And this city with more parking lots than park space will lose one more urban oasis. On the other hand, it’s our hope that rather than letting go of this public good, the city will improve it and allow it to be another example of how to do a street-to-park conversion.

The lower 1700 block of Maltman is a strange one that has long fallen through the cracks. Since it has no stairs, it is less well known than the dozens of treasured public stairways and stair streets (colloquially known as “secret stairs”) that Silver Lake is blessed with. It’s a bit closer to a walk street. Walk streets are public thoroughfares that have addresses along them but do not line the sides of streets — and thus aren’t true sidewalks. Venice has a lot of them. Silver Lake has only one — Garcia Walk — which for decades has been illegally gated. Silver Lake, unfortunately, has several such illegally gated streets: Adelbert Avenue paper street, the lower Hidalgo Stairway, and the Parkman-Westerly Stairway, to name a few. The Silver Lake Neighborhood Council is currently focused on getting O’Farrell to open the Fargo Stairway. When a stakeholder asked O’Farrell about these illegally closed stairs, O’Farrell told him that he was unaware of the issue and, with just five months left of his nine years in office remaining, will “look into it.”

Aldelbert Avenue from below (illegal gates not visible)
The lower Hidalgo Stairway, illegally gated
The illegally-gated Parkman-Westerly Stairway
The illegally-gated Garcia Walk (the “Garcia Walk” sign has been removed)
The illegally gated Fargo Stairway

To save anyone the need to look into it, let me point them to the case of Citizens Against Gated Enclaves v. Whitley Heights Civic Assn. (23 Cal. App. 4th 812, 28 Cal. Rptr. 2d 451). In that case, some neighborly types in Whitely Heights decided that they’d like to erect gates across publicly-owned and taxpayer-funded streets. Some neighborly types took them to court and won. The judge ruled in favor of the latter and concluded that “public streets can not be withdrawn from public use and gifted to private individuals.” And yet, most of these illegally gated streets so common in O’Farrell’s City Council District 13 have been gated since the 1990s. There are a handful, too, in Gil Cedillo’s City Council District 1 but voters resoundingly voted him out of office in favor of a left-wing democrat, Eunisses Hernandez so he’s even less likely to take action as a lame duck. I get it. Gates can be cool. I’m totally in favor of erecting whatever gate you want across your own driveway — or even inside of your home — but public streets belong to the people

The lower 1700 block of Maltman from above

The lower 1700 block of Maltman is neither a stair street, public stairway, or walk street — it’s a block of Maltman Avenue, a residential street that connects Bellevue Avenue in the south with Carnation Avenue in the north. The lower 1700 block, though, is the only stretch that’s inaccessible to cars — and although it’s lined by sidewalks, it was never paved — probably because the grade is about 24%. Maltman Avenue has existed since at least 1889. At some point, curbs were erected, wooden fences were installed, and red reflectors were mounted to make clear to motorists that they were not to drive here. The sidewalks are crumbling. Try as I might, I couldn’t make out the name or date on the very worn contractor stamps.

A crumbling sidewalk and contractor stamp

Between the sidewalks is something like an arboretum. There are blue agave, Mediopicta Alba agave, and Fox Tail Agave. There are prickly pears. There are palms, Chinese elms, and what I think are Benjamin Ficus and a Norfolk Island Pine. There are other trees I don’t recognize at all. In the 1950s, a landscaper well-known in the Japanese community lived next door, James Noboru Ishitani. I wonder if he planted some of these trees, shrubs, grasses, succulents, and cacti. In 1959, he was elected to the board of governors of the Arboreta and Botanic Gardens. As I listened to the breezed flutter in the leaves, a Western Fence Lizard moved its scowly gaze back and forth between me and the skin it was in the process of shedding. A postal worker descended the sidewalk and a student headed in the opposite direction. We need more spaces like this.

A Western Fence Lizard shedding its skin

In Los Angeles, we’re constantly told that there’s just no money to maintain public goods, though. No money in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world (and therefore, presumably all of existence). No money in the couch cushions of the city with the third highest gross municipal product in the world — right behind Tokyo, which has many nice and well-maintained things. I find this hard to believe. After all — we never routinely find the money for memorial square signs and plaques honoring local politicians. Surely we could afford a sundial, a gazing ball, a drinking fountain, an ishidōrō… or just a bench or two. It’s already pretty serene as is and it’s abundantly clear that over the decades, people have volunteered their time, money, and sweat into making it a treasure. Maybe the neighborhood council’s Adopt A Stair program could be extended to an odd street like this one. If there are accessibility concerns, maybe there are ADA-compliant solutions. If there are safety concerns, maybe a motion-activated light would help. It’s already car-free, which means the biggest menace isn’t a danger here.

A student passing through the lower 1700 block of Maltman

If you’d like to share your thoughts and opinions about this proposed street vacation, please come to the next Silver Lake Neighborhood Council Governing Board meeting (online) on 3 August. After that, the matter will be up for discussion by the City Council on the 9th of August. You can also email the office of Mitch O’Farrell at councilmember.ofarrell@lacity.org.


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesVICEHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture.
Brightwell has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles.

You can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Mastodon, Medium, Mubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

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