20 December 2016

Remembering Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill in Books and Movies

by Paul D. Marks

When Raymond Chandler talked about a man neither tarnished nor afraid navigating the mean streets, I have no doubt he was talking about that man walking the streets of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood.

For my first SleuthSayers post on February 24, 2015, I wrote a column called Adventures in La La Land (http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/02/adventures-in-la-la-land.html), where I talked about Los Angeles, how it influences my writing and memories of growing up here. One area that I didn’t mention then was Bunker Hill. That is Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast.

And since my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill appears in the December, 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (though I think it’s only available on newsstands until today, the 20th) I thought I’d take this opportunity to rectify that, especially as Bunker Hill has influenced both that story and my writing in general.



If you’ve been to the Music Center in downtown L.A. you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. If you’re into film noir, you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. Many times. Numerous film noirs—as well as movies in other genres—were shot there: Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly, Joseph Losey’s M, The Brasher Doubloon, Backfire, the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, The Glenn Miller Story and Angel’s Flight, an interesting, gritty, ultra low-budget noir. And L.A.’s Bunker Hill has stood in for many other cities as well.

Bunker Hill in transition
Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with glorious Victorian mansions, as well as offices, storefronts, hotels, etc. After WWI the swells moved west and the neighborhood got run down and became housing for poor people. It wasn’t shiny enough for the Powers That Be, who wanted to build up and refurbish downtown. Out with the old, the poor, the lonely, in with the new, the young, the hip. The wealthy.

By the time Raymond Chandler, who had lived there a couple of different times in his life, was writing about it he was calling it “shabby town”. In The High Window (1942), he said:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.
―Raymond Chandler, The High Window

Bunker Hill is also where John Fante (and his character Arturo Bandini) lived when he first moved to Los Angeles from Colorado. The struggling writer wrote about that experience:

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight photo by Rarmin
And Bunker Hill is where the famous Angels Flight funicular railway is/was. As a kid, I got to ride the original Angels Flight, which was a thrill then and still is in memory. I guess Bandini preferred to walk alongside it instead of riding in the little cars:

I took the steps down Angel’s Flight to Hill Street: a hundred and forty steps, with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it—claustrophobia. Scared of high places too, and of blood, and of earthquakes; otherwise, quite fearless, excepting death, except the fear I’ll scream in a crowd, except the fear of appendicitis, except the fear of heart trouble, even that, sitting in his room holding the clock and pressing his jugular vein, counting out his heartbeats, listening to the weird purr and whirr of his stomach. Otherwise, quite fearless.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight was later moved up the street and a “new and improved” Angels Flight was put in, but it closed not too long after it opened. So it might have been new, definitely not improved. And it makes me think of the old saw about how they don’t make ’em like they used to. I talk more about it in the Adventures in La La Land post and in Ghosts of Bunker Hill:

I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at Angels Flight, the famous little funicular railway in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, that brought people from Hill Street up to Olive. I desperately wanted to ride those rails up to the top. But now the two twin orange and black cars were permanently moored in the middle, suspended in mid-air, ghosts from another time.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill


***

Fante also described Bunker Hill like this:

The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

It was a tough life in the tough part of a tough city for the young writer and his alter ego:

Down on Spring Street, in a bar across the street from the secondhand 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.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

In the late 1950s and 60’s, the Powers That Be decided they wanted to get rid of the “blight” and modernize downtown. To that end, they began a massive redevelopment of the area, including leveling or flattening some of the hills, changing street configurations, removing and demolishing houses and other buildings. So by the late 1960s/early ’70s it was all torn down and redeveloped and progress was achieved.

In Ask the Dust, Fante said, “I crossed Hill Street and breathed easier when I entered Pershing Square. No tall buildings in the square.”

Bunker Hill today, photo by Lan56
Today’s Bunker Hill would be unrecognizable to Bandini. But maybe not completely to Fante, who lived till 1983, though he was dealing with serious complications from diabetes so he may not have seen what it became. As the narrator in Ghosts of Bunker Hill says,

Bandini had said there were no tall buildings in the Square. He should see it today. Steel and glass spikes sprout from every available space. And when nothing’s available the wrecking ball makes a new empty lot. Much of the park greens have been cemented over, with little pinpricks of green here and there, like a garnish on the side of your plate.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill

***

I may have a somewhat romanticized view of Bunker Hill. We do tend to romanticize the past, don’t we? I’m sure it was a hardscrabble and even dangerous life for the people who lived there after the swells moved out and it became “shabby town”. But with its gingerbread elegance and the “secret passages” of Clay Street (which no longer exists), with the winding roads going up and down and the hills, I have to say that I love the old Bunker Hill. And I’m glad so much of it is preserved in movies and writing.

Newel Post "borrowed" from Bunker Hill
I also feel very lucky that I could explore it with a friend before it was totally razed. We did our own little archaeological expedition of several of the houses and I even "borrowed" the top of a newel post from the long and winding interior stairway in one of those houses (see pic). A true relic of L.A.’s past, it’s a prized possession.

Los Angeles isn’t known for venerating and preserving its past. Everything here is new or wants to be. People come here to start over and every few years the city tries for a rebirth. But parts of Bunker Hill were preserved. Some of the old Victorian houses were moved to Carroll Avenue near the Echo Park section of L.A.. The characters in Ghosts of Bunker Hill live in a restored Victorian on Carroll Avenue and appreciate what they have:

Every time I walked those creaky wooden floors, I felt the presence of the past. The people who’d lived there. Not ghosts, but history, something Los Angeles often doesn’t appreciate. Carroll Avenue was close to downtown, where I worked. But the whole short street looked like something out of early 1900s L.A. I loved everything about it. 
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill


Haskins house on Carroll Avenue, Photo by Laëtitia Zysberg

So I hope you’ll give Ghosts of Bunker Hill a shot and if you like it the sequel, Bunker Hill Blues, will be in a future issue of EQMM.

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12 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Love the history and the photos of those old houses– plus some damn, fine writing.

That one manse with the slab of a skyscraper behind it looks so surreal, Paul.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Leigh. And I think it was sort of surreal. Out with the old, in with the new. I'm just glad I was able to see it first hand in the "before" phase.

janice Trecker said...

Bunker Hill sounds like a rich source of inspiration!

Art Taylor said...

Great post, Paul! Loved reading about this--and your story is up soon on my TBR pile. Final grading today if I can stay on schedule (fingers crossed). Enjoyed this in the meantime--a preview of good things to come. :-)

John Floyd said...

Great column, Paul! And congrats again on the story. I've not read it yet, but I will!

GBPool said...

Keep writing those words so a little bit of that era remains and maybe somebody will build a small section in Los Angeles that brings back those great old structures. It could always double as a movie location.

Craig Faustus Buck said...

Terrific post, Paul. The Central Library had a fantastic photo exhibit not too long ago of the old Bunker Hill, but it's gone now.

B.K. Stevens said...

I've never been to Los Angeles, but your post gives me a powerful sense of this neighborhood. Thanks.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Excellent post. Enjoyed it.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Art. Good luck with your grading and hope you’ll enjoy the story.


Thanks, John. Hope you’ll enjoy it, too.


Thanks, Gayle. I like your idea of bringing back some of those buildings and they can double as a location. And I’m just finishing up a novel set in LA in the 1940s during the war. My favorite part of that was doing the research :-)


Thanks, Craig. Bummer, I wish I had seen that exhibit. Maybe it’ll come back some day.


Thanks, B.K. I appreciate your comment. You’ll have to come out some time and see what’s left of the ‘good old days’.


Thanks, O’Neil. Glad you did.

Ellen Byron said...

Great post, Paul. I loved all the quotes. We share a fascination with L.A.'s history. I would have loved to have seen Bunker Hill in its heyday. I wish they'd kept at least part of it and restored some old homes. Thank goodness for Angelino Heights!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Ellen. Some day we'll have to chat live about LA history. And luckily there is so much to see of Bunker Hill in movie. Maybe it's not as good as being there, but it's still great to be able to have it. And there are pockets of "old LA" here and there. Many, many years ago, a friend and I would just get into one of our cars and head in any direction and explore LA. I think she has some pictures but I couldn't afford a camera and film and developing back then. But the memories are great.