Trip the Angels Flight, Funiculì, Funiculà!

by Tony Chavira

The author would like it known that he knows that the possessive
apostrophe is missing from Angels, and that that is how it is written
on everything the city of Los Angeles publishes. He doesn’t want
anyone who reads this to think he has no idea how to punctuate.

The Angels Flight Funicular Railway is a roughly 300-foot long diagonal rail system that rolls up the east side of Bunker Hill from Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles. It is disconnected from the rail systems around it. Further south in Pershing Square there is access to the Red Line; but the world of trolleys and street-walking in which Angels Flight was originally conceived has unfortunately departed. Broadway, Spring and Main Streets, running north-south, are bustling at lunch, solemn by dinner. Small bars and lounges spot the area around Angels Flight, but no community yet exists in downtown that demands its revitalization ... only a lingering nostalgia and the incessant hope to resolve our grave past mistakes.

Angels Flight

First opened in 1901, the Angels Flight Funicular Railway, touted as the “shortest railway in the world,” is a counterbalanced system that lifts one car while the other drops. As the years went by, the personality of downtown Los Angeles shifted with the direction in planning, and the city of Los Angeles sought to begin the complete revitalization of the Bunker Hill area. In an attempt to both clear Bunker Hill for redevelopment and adopt updated safety standards, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) under Bunker Hill head planner Yukio Karawatani decided in 1969 to “update” the railway.

Naturally, those with a strong sense of what Downtown was in the first half of the century demanded that Angels Flight be reconstructed and, naturally, Karawatani needed to find a way to appease them, as well as developers who were eager to fit into the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Plan. Of course, if he promised a definite date for reopening, the community would hold him to it; of course, if he didn’t provide a definite date, the community would go up in arms. With City Hall breathing down his neck to revitalize Bunker Hill, developers breathing down his neck to provide more leeway for their planned developments, and the community breathing down his neck to bring back their symbol of golden-era Los Angeles, Karawatani was trapped. He wasn’t a politician, he was a planner (and a really good one, at that).

Angels Flight

So he did what anyone who needed to buy time would do: he didn’t make any promises. With the consistent reply that reopening Angels Flight was only “a few years away,” Karawatani was able to delay it until the goals of the Bunker Hill redevelopment plan had been met almost 30 years later. Once the large influx of skyscraper development ceased in the late 1980s, the real estate drop during the early 1990s halted the further, eastern-side development of Bunker Hill and plans to incorporate the Angels Flight Railway into the California Plaza. With this news, local citizens and the CRA were able to collectively push City Hall into approving a budget to begin construction on the updated Angels Flight Funicular System. By 1996, 4.1 million dollars of the CRA and MTA’s money was put into Angels Flight, which cost 25 cents a ride (or 5 rides for $1.00) when it opened. A foundation was established to preserve the railway, and it was pronounced a historical landmark in October of 2000.

A few months later, in February of 2001, a faulty cable gear mechanism snapped and sent one of the cars free-falling down the railway into the other, injuring seven riders and resulting in the death of one. Upon investigation, it was determined that the problem was much worse than originally perceived; there had been an overarching failure by each of the regulatory bodies to ensure that the design of Angels Flight met international safety standards for funicular railways, as well as local light rail safety standards.

Since then, the Angels Flight Railway Foundation has diligently been trying to raise money for the full repair and reopening of Angels Flight, but no one yet knows how well it will be received once it reopens. The memory of the passenger death is still fresh in the minds of many locals, and this has contributed to a very minimal interest in a hasty reopening of Angels Flight. In 2006, Councilmember Jan Perry attempted to pass on control of Angels Flight from the Foundation to the MTA, but to no avail. Since this time, various announcements have been made regarding the reopening Flight: most notably by the Downtown News in 2006 and by the Los Angeles Times and KTLA in January of 2007.

Angels Flight

But these announcements seem to just follow Yukio Karawatani’s lead. Serious money and serious engineering are going to be required to reopen Angels Flight, and the city of Los Angeles just doesn’t have those resources; maybe we need to be willing to delay the re-opening. Maybe we need to be willing to do more research and built a strong budget for Angels Flight’s revitalization process. Maybe we need to just take it easy and wait.

Or maybe we don’t need to wait. Maybe we can donate money, hold fundraisers, and work to attain grants from for-profit companies, non-profit companies, or the federal government. Maybe, as in the case of Yukio Karawatani, the CRA and MTA’s Metro planners have their hands tied by the politics of the situation, and someone outside the political system just needs to take some time and follow through.

Maybe. We’ll see.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.


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