Travel writer Charles Keeler wrote of downtown circa 1900, “...the charm of Los Angeles lies in its combination of hills and level reaches, of massive business blocks and, but a few squares removed, residences set in the midst of gardens where tropical plants and brilliant flowers thrive. The beautiful Sierra Madre mountains form an ever-present background for the city, blue and jagged in outline, with summits of snow during winter months.”
Those residences and gardens were on Bunker Hill, the property of a 19th century Victorian aristocracy enriched by oil revenues and banking services they provided to capitalize them.
In 1901, J.W. Eddy built the Angel's Flight funicular. By then, the neighborhood had lost its shimmer and apartment buildings rose up alongside the old Victorian mansions whose occupants headed into “suburbs” such as West Adams and Angeleno Heights.
The Hill was viewed as an obstacle to traffic in and out of downtown from those same suburbs. City Engineer Henry Babcock noted that, “architecturally [Bunker Hill] has not kept pace with the modernly growing parts of the city.”
By the 1930s, Bunker Hill was a renters district. An amalgam of apartment buildings, boarding houses and cheap hotels sheltering a working class that labored below in downtown proper.
In his novel “Ask the Dust,” author John Fante's alter ego, Arturo Bandini, returns home to Bunker Hill, “past the soot-covered frame buildings along that dark street, sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet. Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street.”
The neighborhood's steady decline finally resulted in a leveling of The Hill to make way for the corporate towers and cultural institutions we know today.
There are sepia-tinged pictures of life on Bunker Hill and adjacent neighborhoods. Fante's writings provide a perfect companion to them, fill in the black and whites of the imagery with color in conversations, character, drama.
Poet Charles Bukowski, deceased dean of Los Angeles versifiers, said Fante was his “God” and that as a young man he adopted the irascible Bandini as his own alter ego.
Fante enjoyed youthful success as an author and screenwriter, but it was offset by an attack of diabetes that left him blind. Said Bukowski in a forward to “Ask the Dust,” Fante's story “is the story of terrible luck and a terrible fate and of a rare and natural courage.”
In “Ask the Dusk,” Bandini is living in a weekly hotel on Bunker Hill during the Great Depression. He's trying to survive by writing and things are not going well, his low life peopled with odd balls and economic castaways drawn to The Hill's cheap housing.
“One night,” he writes, “I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles.”
A close reading highlights the fact our downtown isn't “down” from anything, the way downtown Manhattan is actually down-island from uptown. Our downtown is in the “middle” and is pretty much the only place people from the east and west sides actually mingle.
The night, Bandini remembers, is important because he was late on rent and was faced with paying out or packing up. He is five weeks overdue and owes the landlady $20.
He decides to go for a walk and it is through a downtown of which only traces remain.
The anti-hero goes to a restaurant, orders a coffee “that tasted pretty much like coffee,” takes in a newspaper and “noted with satisfaction that Joe DiMaggio was still a credit to the Italian people...”
He takes Angel's Flight down into what we call the Historic Core.
“I walked down Olive Street past a dirty yellow apartment house that was still wet like a blotter from last night's fog... Then I went down the Hill on Olive Street, past the horrible frame houses reeking with murder stories, and on down Olive to the Philharmonic Auditorium...”
The environment is neither friendly or pleasing. It is the height of the machine age and downtown is a configured mechanism itself.
“And so I was down on Fifth and Olive, where the big street cars chewed your ears with their noise, and the smell of gasoline made the sight of the palm trees seem sad, and the black pavement still wet from the fog of the night before.”
Passing the Biltmore Hotel, he has little time to indulge the instant disliking he takes for the doorman “with his yellow braids and six feet of height and all that dignity,” because his eye is drawn to a couple of swells exiting a fancy black car.
The woman “was beautiful, her fur was silver fox, and she was a song across the sidewalk and inside his swinging doors.”
Young, hungry, economically impotent, Fante yearns for his favorite lady, the city itself: “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”
His utterance has been echoed down the decades by newcomers in search of some golden ring only to meet with the brass knuckles of a reality soaked in sunshine patina.
“The uprooted ones,” writes Bandini, “the empty sad folks, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise. They belonged.”
Bandini sells his short story The Little Dog Laughed, soothes his landlady and gets a bit of separation between himself and resident neighbors such as Mr. Hellfrick, who “was an atheist, retired from the army, living on a meager pension, scarcely enough to pay his liquor bills, even though he purchased the cheapest gin on the market.”
Flush with newly inflated ambition and a thickened wallet, Bandini heads downtown again to see what life holds for a man of his surging stature.
“A night for my nose,” he says, “a feast for my nose, smelling the stars, smelling the flowers, smelling the desert, and the dust asleep across the top of Bunker Hill. The city spread out like a Christmas tree, red and green and blue. Hello, old houses, beautiful hamburgers singing in cheap cafes, Bing Crosby singing too.”
Bandini takes the steps down Angel's Flight (140 of them, he informs) “with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it, claustrophobia.”
You don't see many pedestrians opting for the Third Street Tunnel, but Fante is writing before L.A. becomes a freeway metropolis. Later, Bandini takes his ill-fated love Camilla to the beach by gunning Olympic Boulevard the whole way.
But on this celebratory night his first stop is a burlesque show on Main Street to see someone named Lola Linton.
Upon exiting he encounters, “Main Street after the show, midnight: neon tubes and a light fog, honky tonks and all night picture houses. Second hand stores and Filipino dance halls, cocktails 15 cents, continuous entertainment, but I had seen them all, so many times.”
He walks to the “Mexican Quarter,” which is not part of present day downtown argot, but sounds much like Olvera Street with its adobe church, “Plaza,” and proximity to the old Chinatown that was moved to make room for Union Station.
He makes a play for some gal who turns out to be a prostitute and she is picked up by a Mexican guy and Bandini watches them depart: “They walked under the banana trees in the Plaza, their feet echoing in the fog. I heard the Mexican laugh. Then the girl laughed. They crossed the street and walked down an alley that was the entrance to Chinatown. The oriental neon signs made the fog pinkish. At a rooming house next door to a chop suey restaurant they turned and climbed the stairs. Across the street upstairs a dance was in progress. Along the little street on both sides yellow cabs were parked.”
There is something pedestrian, village-like and intimate to Fante's downtown that urban planners have striven for decades to regenerate.
Somewhat deflated, Bandini returns to Spring Street and stops in a bar “across the street from the second-hand store. With my last nickel I went there for a cup of coffee. An old style place, sawdust on the floor, crudely drawn nudes smeared across the walls. It was a saloon where old men gathered, where the beer was cheap and smelled sour, where the past remained unaltered.”
In Fante's writing, we find downtown's past unaltered from all that has transpired until our times. It is a downtown at the center of things, served by trolleys and subway and strange tracks that climb hills.
It is the downtown of when Bunker Hill was still a Hill.