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LA's Green History


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L.A.'s Green History



Los Angeles Street Car 1909


It wasn't the freeways that built Los Angeles; it was the electric streetcar system. Thirty years before the first shovel dug into the dry chaparral of the Arroyo Seco to begin construction of the Pasadena Freeway, LA had the largest inter-urban electric railway system in the world. A thousand miles of streetcar tracks and 2700 daily trains united the young, dreamland of a city, spreading tentacles of rambunctious commerce to the southern beaches and the eastern flatlands.


vintage orange grovesWherever rails were laid, pioneers followed. New families, citrus barons, East Coasters fleeing harsh winters, movie moguls and aviation visionaries bought cheap land and put up houses, creating suburbs like Covina, Whittier, Compton and Hollywood.


Like much of Southern California's infrastructure, the street car system was not built for the civic good, but to enrich a handful of real estate developers. Spearheaded by Henry Huntington, (who was motivated in part by the need to outshine his millionaire uncle Collis Huntington, founder of the Southern Pacific Railroad) a cartel of investors bought up thousands of empty acres and bean fields, from Brentwood to Riverside to Redondo Beach.


Privately owned water and power companies (think "Chinatown") gottract offfice in on the game too, gobbling up real estate which they subdivided into cities like Santa Monica, Hermosa Beach and Beverly Hills. In a perfect paradigm of "Build it and they will Come", people flocked to the streetcar-accessible communities, hammering together so many bungalows and cottages that by 1910, Los Angeles had the highest rate of home ownership in the country.

In addition to serving thousands of commuters a day, the streetcars took budget-conscious travelers to recreational destinations across Southern California. Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric Red Cars once trundled along what is now the Manhattan Beach bike path, rails poking out from the sand, sea spray drifting through the open windows, wafting passengers with a cooling mist.


white city street carA spur line climbed seven miles to the crest of the San Gabriel mountains, where Angelinos could dip their toes in fresh snowfall, stargaze through a 16 inch telescope without the glare of city lights, or stay the night in a 70 room Victorian hotel.


It was an all-electric, non-polluting transportation network whose affectionately named "Big Red Cars" traveled beneath smog-free skies. For many, the southern California ideal of paradise had been achieved.

But every "paradise" is imperfect and temporary. As early as the 1920's, there were "streetcar jams" in downtown Los Angeles because the bottom line-driven real estate men who built the system hated to spend money on big ticket projects like terminals, subways and elevated lines.


The transit companies were dogged anti-union strikebreakers, who strikebreakers often alienated the working classes they served. Aside from real estate profits, mass transit itself never paid off big for the developers, who consequently let maintenance slide. The citizens of Los Angeles were unwilling to tax themselves to further enrich men like Henry Huntington, and efforts to municipalize the streetcar lines bogged down in City Hall politics.


As automobile ownership grew, traffic conflicts with streetcars were a daily annoyance and public dissatisfaction with mass transit increased in car-mad Southern California.


In 1944, a consortium of fossil fuel-dependant businesses including General Motors, Phillips, Chevron, Goodyear Tire and Mack Truck bought up a small Los Angeles street car company, and converted it to diesel-burning buses. This led to the popular conspiracy theory that big oil and Detroit destroyed mass transit in LA, but in reality, this buyout was a small but symbolic blip of economic inevitability; the privately-owned streetcar systems were not making money.


Throughout the 1950's ridership dwindled and a succession of lines were abandoned. On April 9th, 1961, the Red Cars made their final trip to Long Beach.

freewaysThe communal arteries linking Southern California were replaced by hundreds of miles of freeway, a sprawling concrete network that indulged our craving for automotive freedom, but ended up segregating our neighborhoods and miring us in gridlock.


Los Angeles has always been an impatient, let's-get-it-done city with a short civic memory. We destroy historic monuments to put up hideous donut shop-anchored mini-malls; why wouldn't we pave over the world's largest mass transit system in our impatience to get to the future?


But as we say in L.A., CUT TO:
July 14, 1990. Opening day for the Blue Line.

The lead car burst through a blue and white banner, and catching a flock of balloons in its slipstream, headed south out of downtown for Long Beach, running over the same rights of way the city had abandoned thirty years earlier. How many of those passengers knew about the vast public transportation system that time and history had buried, then resurrected beneath their seats?


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