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Bunker Hill doesn't live here anymore

The Cecil Hotel lobby belies its shabby past.
The Cecil Hotel lobby belies its shabby past. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Saul Austerlitz
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2008

LOS ANGELES - Angels' Flight is grounded. The short funicular railway that once linked the city's bustling downtown with the neighborhood that peered down at it from Bunker Hill has been stilled since a 2001 accident. The small district, once home to stately houses built in the late 19th century that over time became shabby rooming houses and residential hotels, was wiped from the map in the name of civic progress.

Bunker Hill is now office towers and arts complexes where dignified Victorian homes once stood. Razed in the 1950s by urban renewers who were convinced it was beyond salvage, the area is now home to Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, numerous faceless skyscrapers, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tiny elevator pods whiz up and down the side of an office tower, but the streets are mostly devoid of people.

Meanwhile, just down the hill, a short stroll from Angels' Flight's terminus, downtown bustles with life. Its mixture of beauty and working-class vigor are a 21st-century update of what once existed just up the hill. At street level, Broadway is a riot of signs for Pin Ball Games and Julio's Burgers and storefronts crammed with impromptu stands, discount-clothing, and jewelry. Look up, and the shabby, energetic present gives way to a far statelier past, with signs advertising the Cameo, the Palace, the French Renaissance-styled Los Angeles, the Arcade, and other movie palaces of yesteryear.

Some of the marquees hang above bland storefronts that give no indication of the past; others, like the opulent Tower Theater, have been shuttered for years. The Arcade's sign still looms imposingly over the street, but the arcade is now an open market, offering seven T-shirts for $10 and the like. Some of the old theaters are still open: the Orpheum, at Broadway and 9th, functions as a concert venue, and the Mayan, at Hill and 11th, is a nightclub. The Mayan's lobby is now clad in an ugly blue carpet, and its seats have been replaced by a dance floor, but the elaborate stonework and faux-temple decor is beautifully preserved.

For a further immersion in the city's earlier days, pop into Clifton's Brookdale cafeteria, between 6th and 7th streets. Operating since 1935, the no-frills cafeteria is halfway between a rundown ski lodge and a rustic log cabin. Serving standard fare on trays reminiscent of a school cafeteria, Clifton's is not to be recommended for its food. It provides sustenance of another kind. Patterned after the Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Clifton's Brookdale is perfectly preserved 1930s kitsch-glamour: A plastic deer pauses in the grass perched just above the checkout counter, and a small stone chapel with a neon cross is a popular postprandial destination for Clifton's customers. Loggers' saws on the walls, and the immense water fall that rushes across the restaurant's center, gesture toward California's rugged past. Clifton's Brookdale itself, still bustling after more than 70 years, is a reminder of downtown's human-scaled past.

To truly see what once was in Bunker Hill, you must get back on Highway 101 and proceed northwest from downtown, getting off in Angelino Heights, a well-preserved enclave of Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts homes. There, at 824 East Kensington Road, is one of the last physical remnants of Bunker Hill: the Weller house. Once located at the corner of Angelina and Boylston (streets that no longer intersect), the house was moved here from Bunker Hill in the early 20th century, around the time the neighborhood was beginning its decline.

In "City Observed: Los Angeles" (Hennessey & Ingalls, 1998), Charles Moore describes the Weller house as "a Valentine's Day card of gable roofs and little porches laced with frilly balustrades and screens and delicate Moorish arches." Its fragile beauty is perhaps the best indicator of the former Bunker Hill.

Angelino Heights in general is something of a doppelganger for the lost neighborhood; climb the steep steps that lead up from Sunset Boulevard, near the entrance to Chavez Ravine (home to Dodger Stadium), and the houses splayed up and down the hillside, the elegant porches that look down on the boulevard, even the rattling of chain-link fences by agitated guard dogs, stir memories of Bunker Hill's heyday.

The movies came around just a little too late to capture much of that peak, but they made the most of the neighborhood's long decline and degradation. As Thom Andersen points out in his film "Los Angeles Plays Itself," a magnificent meditation on the history of LA onscreen, Bunker Hill was the most photographed section of the city in its day, so the movies, while ostensibly recording other matters, captured much of its decrepit final years. In films like Robert Aldrich's 1955 noir classic, "Kiss Me Deadly," Douglas Sirk's 1949 "Shockproof" (where the hero shares a Bunker Hill Victorian with his mother), and Kent Mackenzie's independent 1961 gem, "The Exiles," Bunker Hill is a protagonist - scarred, battered, but vibrant. It is there, on the silver screen, that Bunker Hill lives on.

Saul Austerlitz can be reached at swa204@gmail.com.

If You Go

What to do

Clifton's Brookdale

648 South Broadway at 7th St.

213-627-1673

cliftonscafeteria.com

Slightly newer than the branch nearby at 7th and Olive, but without the pesky remodeling that changed its interior.

The Mayan

1038 South Hill St.

213-746-4674

clubmayan.com

Built in 1927 by architect Stiles Clements and Mexican designer Francisco Cornejo, and reopened in 1990, the theater is now a nightclub playing mostly Spanish-language music that jumps on the weekends.

Where to stay

Cecil Hotel

640 South Main St.

800-896-5294, 213-624-4545

thececilhotel.com

A formerly shabby 600-room hotel slowly shedding its reputation. Rooms cost $50-$60 for a no-frills place to stay, and suites run about $100.

Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles

506 South Grand Ave.

213-624-1011

millenniumhotels.com/millen niumlosangeles

Overlooking Pershing Square. Rooms begin at $139.

What to eat

Corner Bakery Cafe

801 South Figueroa St., Ste. 150

213-239-0424

cornerbakery.com

Around the corner from the 7th Street/Metro Center subway station, gourmet soups and sandwiches, $6-$7.

City Kitchen

950 South Flower St.

213-614-1442

citykitchen.com

Casual cafe near Staples Center. Most sandwiches $7.50, entrees $12.95-$13.95.

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