This is the third in a sequence of Public Spaces essays that I’ve been compiling here on NMDNet. The first essay began at New York’s Wall Street not long after the police there shut down Occupy Wall Street and noticed how the streets in downtown had become “dead space.” The second visited Florence Ave & Normandie Ave, reflecting on how the site of the start of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots is now a passthrough for cars and gas stations. This third essay gained inspiration from a 2010 blog post and a walk to a neighborhood bus stop. First, I was cruising some keywords in the blogsphere and stumbled on “Downtown Loses Its Cherry Street, Becomes ‘L.A. Live Way’” by blogdowntown‘s Eric Richardson. This was no surprise as Downtown LA, about a mile north from where I live, has seen a massive redevelopment named LA Live that includes the Staples Center arena. After reading the blogdowntown article I didn’t think much of Cherry Street until I walked to the nearby bus stop with a few minutes to spare.
Waiting for the bus I casually walked down busy Washington Blvd about a half block to a small intersection. Stopping to look at an air raid siren, I looked to the right, caught a glimpse of the street sign and did a double take: I found myself standing in the middle of Cherry Street. Though what I came across wasn’t much of a street, rather a culdesac about five car-lengths long and ending under an Interstate 10 overpass. The overpass offered a clue to the history of this oddly placed stub. Visiting historical maps using HyperCities (a historical/cultural mapping tool), I noticed that Cherry Street once extended north to downtown through what is now LA Live. Like many streets in the Los Angeles grid, the road was cut in half during 1950s freeway construction leaving two road segments with the same name. Despite its northern counterpart being renamed in 2010, Cherry Street was indeed alive and well albeit only a few meters of its former self.
At Florence Ave & Normandie Ave (site of my previous essay and about five miles South of Cherry Street) I had noticed that the bus stations were lively areas. There the intersecting avenues are a major transfer point for riders. On the other hand, the stop I was waiting at today at Cherry Street has no connections. Yet there were still a few people waiting for the bus that were likely, like me, residents of the Norwood neighborhood to the south. However I also hold a suspicion that people from outside the area park on Cherry Street–one of the few streets near downtown without parking restrictions–then take the bus on to their destination. Whether or not this is really what is going on, Cherry Street is parked to capacity every time I’ve passed by. Even with no business in the immediate vicinity (the California Highway Patrol [CHP] station has its own vast lot), it appears Cherry Street has been converted to a parking lot. This fate has already been sealed for Cherry Street’s sibling to the north, L.A. Live Way, which is home to the primary parking garages for the Staples Center.
There are other updates, for example the addition of an air raid siren at some point since 1954 (the year of the photo below, which doesn’t include the tower). Now, the siren stands tall and reveals itself as a Federal Signal SD-10 model. These models were erected during the 1950s as part of the defense network to warn against Russian attack. Incidentally, we had these in my Sunnyvale, CA neighborhood growing up. I remember air raid drills at school where we’d close the window drapes and crawl under our desks. The siren on Cherry Street is an important addition that I’m sure gave memories to many who lived here during the Cold War. Also important are the items that have been taken away. Buildings often span generations but all are at the mercy of changing priorities in modernism. The 1954 photo below shows Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church situated on the right side of the street, where the I-10 stands now. Billed as a church “built to last forever” sometime in the 1890s, the Romanesque Revival structure was one of many removed to clear way for the freeway in 1959 [LA Public Library records].
That day I noticed another aspect of Cherry Street. With cars vying for parking, the CHP station at the end of the culdesac, and a stop sign before busy Washington Blvd, there is noticeable traffic. State patrol cars create a sense of tension, clearly in a hurry as they enter or depart their station. Foot traffic is bustling as people walk to the bus station or nearby post office. This adds up to a street that is about thirty meters long and often has three or more cars maneuvering the stretch. Evidently, chopping Cherry Street during 1950s didn’t damage this particular aspect of the street–indeed, the LA Public Library caption for the 1954 photo above is, “Every afternoon Cherry Street is jammed with traffic.”
Cherry Street is just one of many chopped off streets in South Los Angeles. In my neighborhood alone there are a number of stubs created by the freeways, and along Washington Blvd there are overpasses everywhere. The overpasses allow street roads to pass underneath. But despite their elevated stature the land underneath is understandably unusable for most purposes. But in urban Los Angeles, purposes come up: public storage facilities, wearhouses without windows, or equipment rental lots. The spaces inside freeway onramps and cloverleafs offer exposure to sunlight; a recycling center resides inside a cloverleaf right next to LA Live. And not far from where I live, near Cherry Street, houses built before 1950 stand next to the freeway blocked only by chain link fences. People live there; Zillow lists one such property at $324,454.
These spots next to freeways are pressure points in a community. Here in Los Angeles, the freeways tear through neighborhoods. When their path goes diagonal, triangles are formed that are too small for housing yet too big to go unnoticed. But even in these pockets communities find ways to reclaim what was lost. Not far from Cherry Street is Estrella Ave, where at the north end a triangle exists created by the diagonal path of Interstate 110. For a long time it was fenced off, home of stray cats and garbage. But now, through the efforts of neighbors and community organizations, the space is home to Estrella Park. Walking amonst the barbecue area and jungle gyms it’s not easy to tune out the drone of the freeway. But it is surprisingly easy to relax sitting on one of the many benches. Estrella Park is a strong example of how people can repurpose land made dead by modern infrastructure projects. Nature also finds its way. Also on Estrella Ave, a young palm tree is soaking up the sun along the same stretch of I-110.
Near the freeway: Estrella Park, Estrella Ave & W 20th St near Downtown LA
Near the freeway: a fledgling palm, W 21st St east of Estrella Ave near Downtown LA
In this neighborhood there are few signs of a past beyond the Victorian houses of the 1890s. Despite the visible history, Spanish colonies were here since at least the mid 1600s. Native American history extends well beyond that; their legacy was, of course, mostly erased by various western conquests. This is part of LA, and the rhetoric of Los Angeles is steeped with willful attempts to erase the past: non-native plants line postcards printed throughout the last century, and mid-century brochures promised exotic plots to create a new life. Ironically, it was the property covenants (restrictions on who could own deeds) that LA homeowners set up to, in their opinion, protect the integrity of their paradise that lead to its unravelling; the freeways that were built after World War II follow neighborhood lines defined by these covenants, establishing segregation boundaries that have defined–and haunted–the region ever since. Yet the palm along I-110 is a signifier of change: it is a Desert Fan Palm, native to Southern California. Despite the obstacles, native plants still find a way to grow in freeway-side niches. Through community efforts and natural means, the boundaries that have divided LA for decades may be slowly reclaimed.