March 22, 2016

Photo Essay: Belmont Tunnel and the Hollywood Subway's Fade Into Oblivion

You would think that after five years of hardcore exploration (thanks to an irregular work schedule), there wouldn't be many places left on my bucket list.

At least, not many places that have been on there for a while.

But I've had my eye on the Belmont Tunnel since May 2012, when I first passed it on a nighttime urban hike under the so-called "Supermoon." It was closed off and undeveloped back then.

I find myself passing the Belmont Tunnel pretty much every time I drive east, since I love taking the First Street Bridge and go out of my way just to cross it.

The Belmont Tunnel—for the former Pacific Electric Railway's Red Car trolley—is located just behind Belmont Station...

...which, like the Subway Terminal Building, is a condo tower on top of a whole lotta history.

Like the Subway Terminal Building, Belmont Station has paid tribute to its transit history in photographs...

...and a map or two.

But to really understand what this place was, you have to visit the tunnel out back—where from 1925 to 1955, the "Hollywood Subway" took passengers from underground at the Subway Terminal Building to above ground, all the way up in Glendale.

On its last ride on that last day of service, the Red Car's destination sign read, "To Oblivion."

And once you're there, you won't really "get it" unless you get to see the inside of it. This isn't just about the history of public transportation in LA, or even a place that once was.

Because the tunnel itself—and the railyard and walls that used to surround it—had a whole history of its own across 20 years while it was abandoned, before it was sealed off for good.

Sure, the abandoned tunnel drew the typical street vandals and gang taggers that places like this seem to attract, but it also acted as "ground zero" for the burgeoning art of graffiti lettering and muralism—and not that rounded, bubbly stuff that they were spray-painting on subway cars in Brooklyn.

This place witnessed the birth of LA-style graffiti, with pointed lettering and a political message—so powerful that many writers and artists had to audition their work before they'd be allowed to contribute any art to the walls that surrounded the tunnel opening.

Those walls were torn down for the sake of "development," or "cleanup," or whatever, but the historical value of the tunnel itself and its adjacent power station were so undeniable that they were both saved from demolition with the construction of Belmont Station...

...though the graffitied exteriors were painted over...

...and dressed with patio lighting and seating for the new residents.

Inside the Toluca Substation...

...although the condo complex uses it for storage and other utilitarian purposes...

...there are still messages from the past...

...communications from the beyond...

...and a roll call of names that few people remember.

Surely the work inside wasn't preserved as "art," per se.

It's probably just cheaper to leave it than to paint over it...

...especially if nobody important is ever going to see it.

And even if they did, they probably wouldn't understand the abbreviations and acronyms and other genre-specific language that more or less acts as "code," readable only to the insiders of the spray paint-wielding crews.

I couldn't believe that I got to see it...

...this mecca for kids not fortunate enough to be sent to art school to learn classical technique... they taught themselves how to make their mark.

But when those doors get closed up and locked again, the history of this place once again gets squirreled away, hidden from view.

For incredible historical photos and more of the backstory behind the Belmont Tunnel, Toluca Substation, and Toluca Yard, click here and here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Subway Terminal Building, Above Ground
Photo Essay: The Ghostly Shadow of the Red Car
Photo Essay: Corralitas Red Car Property
Photo Essay: A Last Ride on the Last Red Car
I've Outdone Myself Again

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