The Hollywood Subway: Against the Horizontal City
January 28, 2013 | by Aaron Gilbreath
The entrance to Los Angeles’s original subway system lies hidden on a brushy slope next to an apartment building that resembles a Holiday Inn. Known as the “Hollywood Subway,” the line opened in 1925; ran 4,325 feet underground, between downtown and the Westlake District; and closed in 1955. After Pacific Electric Railway decommissioned the tracks, homeless people started sleeping in the old Belmont Tunnel. Crews filmed movies such as While the City Sleeps and MacArthur in it. City officials briefly used it to store impounded vehicles, as well as first aid and 329,700 pounds of crackers during part of the Cold War. By the time the entrance was sealed around 2006, graffiti artists had been using it as a canvas for decades, endowing it with legendary status in street mural culture, and earning it numerous appearances in skateboard and other magazine shoots. Now the tunnel sits at the end of a dead-end street, incorporated into the apartment’s small garden area, resembling nothing more than another spigot in Los Angeles’s vast flood control system.
Those who know New York think of it partly as an underground city. Despite the skyline’s height, New Yorkers duck into passageways to catch trains. Steam pours from manhole covers. Water enters Manhattan through tunnels buried under rivers, and rats poke their heads through vents. So much life occurs down there. Walking past New York construction sites, you often catch glimpses of pits whose steep sides contain old pipes, brick walls and decades’ worth of pavement, and you think, “I didn’t know that was down there.” Less so with L.A.
No matter how tall its skyline, no matter how high its mountains, L.A. is generally thought of as a horizontal city. It sprawls outward, not upward. Neither do many people think of it in subterranean terms. Of course they don’t. In the popular consciousness, L.A. is a superficial city. It’s supposedly obsessed with appearances, concerned only with bodies, fads, status and wealth. It’s shallow, meaning, it lacks depth. This conception of superficial L.A. implies a lack of rootedness, the idea that the city sprang up yesterday and that everything that there is to know about it, resides on its surface. Besides landfill, what hidden layers could such a city possible contain?
To get to the Belmont Tunnel, I took the 101 Freeway to Glendale Boulevard, then turned south off Second onto Toluca. A sign at the intersection warned “Not a Through Street.” The listing was comic considering that this street once held a direct route to downtown, an irony which was magnified by all the time I’d just spent stuck in traffic. Congestion and distance have long been the L.A. issues.
Between trains, trollies, pedestrians, cars, and horse-drawn carriages, Los Angeles had grown congested by the 1920s. Edward Henry Harriman, president of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, first suggested an L.A. subway in the early 1900s. He envisioned a four-track system that ran west from downtown to Vermont Avenue and then split into separate lines, servicing Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the mid-city. His vision never materialized. When steam shovels first broke ground in 1924, Pacific Electric Railway presented the Hollywood Subway as a way to solve the city’s mounting traffic problems. But Pacific Electric already had a system for that.
Although few would guess it now, Los Angeles once contained one of the world’s largest above-ground, interurban passenger rail networks. Known collectively as the Red Cars, Pacific Electric’s fleet of trains and streetcars connected four counties with over one thousand miles of track. During its peak era in the early 1900s, Red Cars could carry passengers from downtown to the beaches, up into the San Gabriel Mountains, and as far as San Bernardino sixty miles away.
When the Belmont Tunnel first opened, only the Red Car’s Glendale-Burbank line used it. Eventually, multiple lines passed through, moving passengers along the Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard-Gardner Junction and San Fernando Valley lines. By avoiding surface streets, the Hollywood Subway saved commuters between twelve and twenty minutes, depending on the time of day. Granted, the name is misleading. Although many trollies left the Belmont Tunnel en route to Hollywood, the tunnel itself wasn’t in Hollywood. It started in the old oil-producing district of Westlake.
Upon entering a hill near the intersection of First Street and Glendale Boulevard, the tunnel made a slight curve on its way downtown, where it loosely paralleled Fourth before terminating in the basement of the grand Subway Terminal Building. When it was built on Hill Street in 1925, the Subway Terminal Building was downtown’s largest office building. Designed in a classic Renaissance Revival style, it had five wings, 250,000 square feet of office space and abundant natural light. (It has since been reborn as aMetro 417 luxury apartment building.)
Unlike its stylish eastern end, the tunnel’s west end was industrial. Laced with train tracks and an electricity generating substation, Pacific Electric used the lot known as Toluca Yard to store cars and perform minor repairs. Before that, the land was used to store pipes and materials for the oil industry—a coincidental twist, since it was the popularity of the automobile and low price of gasoline that helped seal the subway’s fate.
Even as engineers drafted the subway plans, the automobile’s increasing popularity was cutting into rail patronage. Red Car service to various communities was discontinued during the 1920s, the tracks paved over. Ridership continued to fall through the nineties, and, despite a brief resurgence of riders during World War II, the number of passengers plummeted during the late forties and fifties. Cars ruled Southern California’s roads, bringing the Pacific Electric era to a visible end as streetcars and trains were forced to lower their speeds and yield right of way at traffic crossings. The company ceded its passenger service to Metropolitan Coach Lines in 1953, which handed it over to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1958. By then, the city’s freeways were expanding in every direction, and the Hollywood Subway was just a hole in the ground.
“I used to hop the fence,” said one person on Flickr, recounting his experiences in the tunnel between 1997 and 2001. “We would always find half-burnt candles, chalk drawings of odd stick figures, and alter type things like flowers and corn meal spread around. One night we found two headless chickens. One was black and the other was white.” Another commenter described his 2005 trip: “Unfortunately we could only go a hundred yards or so before the mud got too deep for our footwear. The tunnel’s on a slight downgrade, so any rainwater that seeps in just pools up at the deep end.” One blogger slipped through the sealed entrance in 2008. “One of the stranger things we found,” he said, “was a nurse’s note to leave Belmont High School, and it’s kind of hard to imagine this as the choice hangout for someone ditching school.” These were just three of hundreds, probably thousands, of people who entered the old tunnel to paint, sleep, get high or explore.
I parked on Toluca beside the clean, brown face of the Belmont Station Apartments. The building went up in 2008, taking the place of Toluca Yard. “It’s a fashion-forward statement of environmentally concious [sic] living,” the apartment’s website says. “But also a celebration of the neighborhood’s roots. That’s why you’ll see a portion of the historic Belmont Tunnel/Toluca Substation integrated into the property. It’s unmistakably L.A. Yet also one of the reasons Belmont Station is a community unlike any other.”
Viewed from the street, from the other side of a fence, nothing about the site suggests that it played a central role in L.A.’s public transportation story. Thin decorative street lamps stand beside the tunnel. Cleaned of all graffiti, the portal features a red, glow-in-the-dark streetcar painted by a local artist.Although the mural and ten wooden ties offer a vague clue about the structure’s original function, the site’s lush, manicured grass drains the tunnel of any sense of authenticity, the sense that it is even historic at all. And the substation: painted solid grey in 2008, what was once a chipped, graffiti-covered hunk of iconic cement now stands beside two state of the art grills. Pressed close against the apartments, flanked by shrubs and park benches, the substation looks out of place, resembling the sort of building where a maintenance man would store pool cleaning equipment.
I draped my arms over the fence. Summer sunlight warmed my neck, and a breeze carried the unmistakable scent of urine on an updraft. Soon after, a resident walked up with two Schnauzers on leashes. When I asked if he’d let me in to see the grounds, he led me through the locked gate and down a flight of stairs. The lawn, it turns out, is Astroturf. “Wow,” I said, “I can’t believe the grass in the garden is fake.”
He said, “Oh, mostly we call it the dog-walk.” A container full of clean dog litter bags stood nearby on a pole, a single green bag rattling in the breeze. “This is a big part of why we moved here, having this for the dogs.” His Schnauzers trotted the grounds, sniffing the prickly, plastic surface for the scent of other animals. You could smell their business when the breeze subsided. “It’s close to work,” he said, “but it’s nice to have so much room.” How about the old subway, I said, what did he think of it? “I didn’t know about it until I moved in. I’d not heard of it.”
When the last commuter train passed through Belmont Tunnel in 1955, it featured a banner that said, “To Oblivion.” That particular train might have been scrapped, but the legacy of the Red Cars endures. The City officially designated the Hollywood Subway site a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, and starting in the early nineties, L.A.’s new Metro rail and subway system began service. Unlike its mile-long predecessor, the modern subway stretches for many miles in many directions, serving multiple neighborhoods in a way that Edward Henry Harriman would likely have appreciated.
As failed technology, the Hollywood Subway provides transportation engineers a lesson in what to do and not to do. As an artifact, it stands as proof that, even in what outsiders like to think of as one-dimensional, present tense L.A., there is more to this city than what we see on the surface. L.A. does, in fact, go deep. Many locals know this. When things die here, they often lay around for years, decomposing in the sun, where over time they are pressed like leaves into layers of cultural topsoil. Rusting cars, abandoned buildings, crumbling overpasses, even dog crap on fake grass—all history, all fertilizer for next year’s growth, which, when metabolized, themselves become a partially subsumed, titillating curiosity for future generations to live beside and puzzle over, another oddity beside a palm tree that people who expect so little from Los Angeles, tend to overlook.
Aaron Gilbreath has written for The New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Oxford American, Kenyon Review and Brick. Future Tense Publishing put out his chapbook A Secondary Landscape.