I See London, I See France. I See L.A.’s Dirty Underpass(es).

The burned-out mess along Venice Blvd. under the 110 Freeway. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The burned-out mess along Venice Blvd. under the 110 Freeway. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

A few weeks ago, a significant hullabaloo was raised when developer Geoffrey Palmer proposed a walkway over the 110 Freeway that would allow residents of his apartment complex to walk between the buildings without having to traverse the underpass and the homeless encampment there.

Some were angered by the overt vilification of the homeless — the developer wrote of fears that building residents would be targeted for crime — and the very real squeezing out of the poor as the downtown area becomes more “livable” for those who can afford it.

Others argued that a walkway would harm the vibrancy of urban pedestrian life by preventing the activation of the underpass.

Whatever your take on the need for the walkway, it is hard to argue with the notion that underpasses generally suck for pedestrians.

Dark and neglected, they often feel like filthy, trash-filled no-man’s lands.

And, their isolation from the “eyes on the street” that businesses, residences, and other active structures/spaces offer can give them a creepy aura. The greater the accumulation of trash (and, in particular, human waste and other mysterious fluid trails on the pavement), the greater the sense of invisibility, and, for some, the greater the fear that something could happen to you there and that nobody would ever know.

Even as a cyclist who moves rather quickly through underpasses, I can’t say I love them.

I often fear I am less visible as a driver’s eyes adjust to the darkness from bright sunlight. And, the enclosed nature of an underpass makes me feel (irrationally, I am aware) like I have fewer places to escape to, should a car come at me.

But, few things have made an underpass feel quite so inhospitable as the torched homeless encampments along Venice Blvd., underneath the 110 Freeway (pictured above).

Over the winter, it served as shelter for a number of homeless people.

At some point between then and spring, their encampments appear to have been set on fire.

The encampments on the north side of the underpass. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The encampments on the north side of the underpass. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

The fact that someone might have deliberately torched them at all, knowing that they served as homes for several people, is already disturbing enough.

But, as big a set of fires as this appears to have been, it also somehow seems to have escaped bureaucratic notice. Which means that pedestrians, many of whom are kids, have had to clamber over the charred debris for several months.

A call to the Fire Department’s Arson/Counter-Terrorism Section yielded no clues about what happened, as they needed either a specific address or date range to look up an event. And, I couldn’t find any reference to the event on their twitter feed or the blog they directed me to.

Street Services (BSS) — who normally would be notified if burned debris was left in a public space — seemed similarly puzzled when I sent them the photos a few days ago, requesting the burned-out mess be cleaned up.

Given that the debris has sat there for two months or more, it seems safe to say somebody dropped the ball somewhere along the way. And, in all that time, it either occurred to nobody to take the initiative to contact BSS or other city agencies or requests were duly ignored. All of which is rather strange, given the proximity of the underpass to the Convention Center and how heavily trafficked Venice Blvd. is by city and civilian vehicles alike.

Even I held off on contacting BSS; I was curious to see just how long the debris might sit there.

After two months, however, I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided knowing the answer wasn’t worth some kid getting his eye poked out on a couch spring.

BSS has tried to make it easy for residents to request the removal of dumped items and other debris via a smart phone app and online request system.

Unfortunately, many of the people I’ve spoken with in lower-income communities are completely unaware that the service exists. So, they continue to pick their way past garbage-filled vacant lots or through debris-filled underpasses, unsure of who to complain to about the problem.

That said, it seems crazy that residents should have had to be the ones to call at all — everyone knows underpasses are a problem and everyone knows they are routinely trashed. If we want people to feel more comfortable walking through them, they need to be better taken care of as a general rule. And, they need to be activated.

Activating them isn’t easy, however.

The sheer number of freeways crisscrossing through residential areas like Boyle Heights keep zones around underpasses isolated and detached from the normal bustle of street life.

And, many are already “active” as shelters for homeless folks seeking respite from the hot sun or a quiet space where they are less likely to be told to move along. Meaning, that any effort to make spaces more pedestrian-friendly would need to address their issues, as well.

The 60, 101, 5, and 10 freeways all pass over Soto Ave. in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA
The 60, 101, 5, and 10 freeways all pass over Soto Ave. in Boyle Heights. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

With regard to making a space feel more active, public art could help.

I, for one, enjoy seeing murals in underpasses. Although not enough to make a space wholly welcoming, they do help them feel brighter and less forgotten, and they offer artists impressive canvases on which to do amazing work.

More active ongoing projects could help, too.

Massive wasted spaces underneath the underpasses at Soto (above) or the Rosa Parks station in Watts (below), would seem to offer the potential for the creation of a garden, park space, or creative spot (like an art wall program like that at Venice Beach or an open-air theater).

A performer cultivates flowers in her "home" prior to the start of the performance. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
A performer cultivates flowers in her “home” prior to the start of a performance underneath the 105 Freeway in Watts. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Each underpass is different, and solutions would likely depend on the structures themselves and the needs of the surrounding community. But, if L.A. is truly going to become a more connected and “major” walkable city, then we have to find a way to make traversing the physical barriers that the freeways have managed to impose more inviting.

What are your ideas for how underpasses can be activated? Share them in the comments below.

  • Aron

    Well a proper start would be to install bright LED-lighting and get some street artist to brighten up those dull walls right?

  • Carlos

    I really dislike the way underpass maintenance aw well as bulky items collections are set up. Because, it leaves the city an out, sort of speak..For instance when some obe leaves a discarded couch in the street corner, I assume the person leaving the couch has set up a bulkyitem pick up. When the couch becomes part of the street it becomes anothet annoying chore for me to do. I feel yhe same about all the infracstructure that should be maintained by the city/county on a regular basis.

  • wilberfan

    This suburban white kid discovered the trash-under-the-underpass thing when walking back to the Metro station at the end of Day 1 of the @bigparadela a couple of weeks ago. It was while walking under the 2-Fwy on Silverlake Blvd. I found it all quite discouraging…

  • Alex Brideau III

    Thank you, Sahra, for lending your voice to this issue. Up until now, I thought I was the only person who really cared about the sorry state of LA underpasses. To be honest, I’m sure others (especially non-drivers) share this concern as well, but I suspect the issue seems so overwhelming and widespread that it almost seems like a lost cause.

    You brought up some very good points in your article and one I might want to add is that these underpass dead zones have, more than almost any other infrastructure element, succeeding in creating barriers between neighborhoods. (Perhaps freeway overpasses are a close second?) I’m sure there are myriad examples across SoCal, but one that stands out to me is how the 110 creates a chasm between the neighboring communities of Pico Union and South Park.

    As someone who works in the City West neighborhood just west of the 110, I find myself walking through the 8th street underpass around once or twice a day. Aside from the barrier these underpasses create, as you noted they also have become magnets for crime. While I haven’t seen any fires in “my” underpass, more than a few times I encounter the telltale signs of car window smash-and-grabs littered across the soot-covered sidewalks.

    It’s high time we Angelenos began discussing how to activate these spaces. While I agree that murals tend to brighten up an otherwise dreary space, what might be a good first step is to literally brighten up the underpasses. Low-power, high-output LED lighting or perhaps a unique take on tubular skylighting would provide a benefit to all road users. Allowing underpass wall space to be used for frequently rotating local art could help these underpasses to become destinations in themselves, and could create more of a sense of custodianship by nearby residents and businesses.

    Also worth considering, is that we live in the land of almost perpetual sunny days. Surely there is some use for a public space that remains in the shade most of the time. (Farmers markets? Mobile food vendors? Staging areas for neighborhood cleanups?)

    Sorry for the uber-long post, but this has been on my mind for a while. Surely we can make some progress on this! :-)

  • DMalcolmCarson

    Excellent work Sahra. We have our hands full just trying to deal with our neighborhood streets and commercial corridors which are much easier situations to deal with, but ultimately, we really need to tackle the much more difficult issue of the interfaces between the city and its extensive web of freeways. I don’t despair though; as you mention, the freeway overpasses provide shade, desperately needed and appreciated in many areas, and the freeway interchanges provide huge opportunities for bringing more greenery into the city. At some point maybe we can hold Caltrans responsible for some of this . . .

  • sahra

    Yes, they are an issue for many people–but those tend to be lower-income folks that don’t participate much in the planning process. I’m working on a story for later this week where we heard underpasses were a major issue for students in Boyle Heights who fear them because of the people with substance abuse issues that tend to gather there (along Whittier, there is a recycling center near the underpass, so it attracts a lot of activity, for ex.) and some of the gang-bangers do a lot of business in and around underpasses. So, it keeps kids from feeling safe walking to school. They should be seen as opportunities, but clearly, the city prefers to pretend they don’t see what goes on there. The idea that all these fires could be set under a structure of such significance says a hell of a lot…especially considering the number of city employees that pass through there on a daily basis.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Metro is going to do a first and last mile pilot program at several rail stations. This will probably include pedestrian walkways through overpasses.

    Look at the 94-page Scribd document in this Metro The Source article to see some interesting details of what the problems are and some ideas of how to improve them. Page 11 of the document mentions the problems of overpasses and sidewalks:

    http://thesource.metro.net/2014/04/24/other-actions-taken-today-by-metro-board-of-directors-firstlast-mile-strategic-plan-adopted/

    Starting on page 59, there are three rail station where some problem areas are mentioned and suggestions on how to improve the situation. This includes 103rd st/Watts, North Hollywood and Wilshire/Normandie.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Since these underpasses usually occur where highways and local roadways cross, do you know whether Caltrans or the LADOT (or BSS) are responsible for their maintenance? Might it be possible for a community group to “Adopt an Underpass”, and where would one start?

  • sahra

    I know that Caltrans is responsible for ramps… that was something that came up during the LA/2B mtgs. People in South LA complained at how abysmal some of those areas are, but Claire mentioned that Caltrans prioritized the free flow of traffic off of ramps and so slowing them down with lights or other treatments would be a tough battle. As for underpasses, I don’t know. Bridges/overpasses are Caltrans (i.e. the 6th St. Viaduct… the last section before Boyle Heights won’t be improved because that is owned by Caltrans or the 4th St. ped bridge that they take poor care of), but I would think underpasses might fall to LADOT? If part of the responsibility falls to one (i.e. the supports) and part falls to the other, it might explain why they fall through the cracks, so to speak.

  • sahra

    Agreed… especially because so many dumping spots are regular, well-known spots. I understand the city can’t be everywhere and need help identifying sites, but I also agree that it is a bit of a way to farm out responsibility…

  • sahra

    I love that “maintain[ing]” them is one of their key plans.

    Anything they mention is a long way off and of little use, as those stations are not really near over/underpasses. I actually think that funding from the toll lanes for neighborhoods around freeways might be potentially directed at some of these issues. Especially in South LA, where it isn’t just underpasses, but the dead side streets along freeways which pose all kinds of problems… there’s a lot of dead space out there.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I guess I’ll need to put out some feelers.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Less than half a block from the Universal subway station: Campo De Cahuenga goes over the Hollywood Freeway and Lankershim Blvd goes under the 134 freeway. These are the only two streets that connect to this subway station. It may be the most difficult subway station to access by walking or riding a bicycle for those that live in the surrounding area. Its boxed in by Universal Studios, the LA river, hills, a golf course and the steep slopes and fast freeway on-ramps going over the Hollywood Freeway on Campo De Cahuenga.

    The Hollywood Freeway is less than a half a mile of the North Hollywood subway station.

    There needs to be examples of what occurs when positive changes are made. This can get lost with the large transit corridor projects. Metro has the ability to make an impact in improving the situation for bicycles and pedestrians immediately surrounding the train stations. The Gold Line in east LA is going to get multi-million dollar pedestrian upgrades. Why Metro didn’t think of that before this rail extension was completed is an example of how pedestrian access has been overlooked on many of these transit corridor projects.

    There was no bicycle parking when the North Hollywood subway station opened. Next year there will be approximately 400 parking spaces for bicycles at the North Hollywood Orange Line/subway station hub when a new secure indoor parking facility is built that will have spaces for at least 250 bicycles.

    Metro also did a survey of bicycle riders and found that most boarding the Blue Line would not use a bicycling parking facility. All of the lockers at the North Hollywood subway station are rented and there is more bicycle parking there than at any other Metro rail station.

    Using funds from the HOT toll lanes to improve pedestrian access around the freeway over/under passes and streets immediately surrounding them is a good idea. Currently the thinking seems to be to use the funds for transit to encourage people to switch from driving. Better quality of infrastructure and maintenance for bicycles and pedestrians would also reduce the need for driving.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Perhaps new LED lighting could be directed at the walls and sidewalk areas (instead of directly downward on the roadway) so as to increase pedestrian safety and to provide some proper lighting for any future artwork that debuts on the walls.

  • Kenny Easwaran
  • Cleaning the streets of LA should be a mandatory task for inmates and troubled youth. Why not put them to use and clean our city?

    In other words, consider going solar and saving tons of money. http://www.casolarsolutions.com

  • Carlos

    Thank you! I think the dumping spots are so well supplied that it should be really easy to catch repeat offenders. For instance in rental buildings there is always stray beat up furniture right about the last week of the month, could it be that the owner/s of the cash cow rental apparments are disposing of old furiture in oder to milk a new set of tenants? I bet the under passes have regular trash dropp offs. It irks me to no end that my street always looks like crap and it smells the same..

  • BClarke

    ” a public space that remains in the shade most of the time. (Farmers markets? Mobile food vendors? Staging areas for neighborhood cleanups?) ”

    That is a great point. I think *shade* is LA’s most overlooked resource. Often EIR’s, plans, zoning codes, etc in SoCal reference shade as something to be avoided. This shows that the people writing the plans are either out of touch with the daily reality here and are still in an East Coast/Midwest/somewhere else frame of mind; or they never get out the car; or they are just copying and pasting from other plans.

    Maybe in the relatively narrow fog belt (SaMo, etc) shade could sometimes be a negative, but not in most of the city, and especially the valleys and inland areas. Often it is the most important factor in whether a public space is any use at all.

    The Portland Saturday Market is one of that city’s gems, and for 33 years was located entirely under the west end of the 5 to 6 lane Burnside bridge. A lot nicer then most underpasses, but it shows what could be done.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portland_Saturday_Market#mediaviewer/File:SaturdayMarketPortland.jpg

  • sahra

    Thanks, I hadn’t seen their post!

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