September 24, 2015

Photo Essay: The Ghostly Shadow of the Red Car (Updated for 2020)

[Last updated 2/11/20 3:24 PM PT]

I don't know how I hadn't made it to the Red Car River Park until now, nearly five years after moving to LA. I mean, it was dedicated as a parklet (a.k.a. "pocket park") way back in 2005, and it's the nexus of two of my favorite LA things: streetcars and the LA River.

Even when I went—even when I got there—I didn't really know what it was, other than some obscure access point to the east embankment of the LA River under the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge.

But that's more important than it sounds.

Recently, the fate of the landmark Hyperion Bridge has been hotly debated. It needs a seismic retrofit to protect it from any future earthquake damage, but the proposed improvements haven't included any pedestrian walkways or bike paths. That's kind of a big deal for a bridge that connects Franklin Hills and Silverlake to Atwater Village—with lots of young, socially-conscious, pro-environmental, outspoken people on both sides of it, crossing back and forth.

This comes at a time when it looks like the LA River actually will be revitalized—now that the summer recreation zones have survived their pilot programs, and the masses are starting to realize we have a river (that you can kayak in!).

And, boy, do we have a river. The concrete that had been poured into it to control and channelize floodwaters couldn't withstand the force of nature, and the rushing waters have broken it apart, returning this section of the river—the "soft bottom" Glendale Narrows—to the wild. There are even fish to catch. And fishermen to catch them.

Still, this part of the river seems frequented only by locals who know it's there, and who don't mind the industrial blight that detracts from its natural (albeit overgrown) beauty. The park itself is hard to find, and hard to get to because of the traffic patterns with the bridge and the 5 Freeway. You have to intend to go there; you likely won't just happen upon it.

But there life here: this section of the river is actually quite residential.

The east side is lined by houses and fences and trees and other plantings.

It kind of feels like walking down an alley behind people's houses—where only the unsavory creatures roam.

It's hard to escape the power lines...

...and transmission towers...

...that you're definitely not supposed to climb... to the river you're definitely not supposed to swim in.

Having lived in NYC for so long, I have a thing for river crossings. I love bridges. I love seeing the view from a bridge. And many of these old LA River viaducts (like the one at 6th Street, a.k.a. Thunder Road) are threatened. But the Red Car River Park pathway only extends from one bridge—the Glendale-Hyperion—to another, at Riverside Drive.

I suppose you could cross the bridge there to the other side of the river, and then cross back over the Glendale-Hyperion to get back to where you started, but I decided to walk back the way I came, and get another look at the Red Car River Park to try to figure out what I was looking at, and what I had seen.

Magic Hour was passing, and the light changed just enough to make everything look different on the way back.

It was about to become very desolate.

The neighbors weren't enjoying their river bank. I hope they have a good view from inside their houses.

In fact, it seems like they are less focused on creating access to the river and more on keeping the river people out of their yards.

And that's OK...

...though rusty, barbed wire usually beckons me...

...signaling that there is something worth protecting inside.

As I made my way back to the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, I realized it wasn't just one bridge I was looking at... was two.

Downstream from the automobile bridge are the concrete footings of a former streetcar bridge, where Pacific Electric's Glendale/Burbank Red Car line ran until 1955. (The concrete replaced a wooden trestle that washed out in 1928). From Silverlake (then "Edendale"), it took passengers through Atwater Village, into Glendale and Burbank, and then back to the Subway Terminal in Downtown LA.

Urban legend has it that General Motors bought and destroyed the Red Cars to ensure the success of automobiles in the thriving metropolis, in what became known as "The Great American Streetcar Scandal" (see also: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). Regardless of how it happened, motorized busses did replace the electric streetcars, and the 5 Freeway was built right through several neighborhoods (see also: Corralitas Red Car Property).

And so here we are. Soon, you won't be able to get to the other side of the river safely now without a car.

Circa 1952 (Photo: Alan Weeks)

For the time being, the abandoned pylons are a haunting reminder of what once was. Perhaps those concrete footings could support a future bridge for walkers and bicyclists. Or, considering the extensions of the Gold Line, Purple Line, and Expo Line ("to the sea"), maybe a train will once again run in the Red Car's ghostly shadow.

Update: A new pedestrian bridge spanning the old footings opened to the public in January 2020. Currently called the Red Car Pedestrian Bridge (and formerly known as La Kretz Bridge), it's also open to equestrians and their horses. Stay tuned for photos. 

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Go With the River
Los Angeles River's Ugly Beauty
Photo Essay: Corralitas Red Car Property
Photo Essay: A Last Ride on the Last Red Car

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