Shortest! Smallest! Least!

Originally published in LA CityBeat in 2007

LA County spreads over four thousand square miles, the most populous in America and probably the most productive. It sets the world’s standard for excess, for a bigger-is-better aesthetic. So it is worth focusing on the smaller joys of Los Angeles for perspective, the things on a scale we can comprehend, even delight in.

I began to consider this when I heard about Powers Place, the shortest street in Los Angeles. At thirteen feet long, it’s not much of a thoroughfare, just a cut-through between Bonnie Brae and Alvarado Terrace, and it seemed a valid question as to why it existed at all.

Powers Place. All of it. Photo by Richard Foss

A call to the LA Department of Public Works elicited no help; the woman I spoke to at first wasn’t aware of the existence of the street, then seemed confused about why it had ever been named since it has no addresses. I was told that until recently there were two people at the bureau that might have known, but one just retired and the other had died. Who Mr. Powers was and why this brief street was named after him is unknown, but the neat red brickwork of this little patch between two ribbons of asphalt means that the thirteen foot stretch stands out nicely.

When I called the Department of Parks and Recreation to ask about LA’s smallest park, a pleasant fellow named Harvey Drut engaged me in a dialog regarding just what a park is. The Department of Parks has responsibility for some very small spaces indeed, including maintaining grassy triangles in street medians that may not top 500 square feet. Even some of these are interesting, such as Laurel and Hardy Park, also known as the Del Monte Triangle. This sliver of land is across the street from the house where the famed comedy duo moved a piano up a nearly endless flight of stairs, and silent film fans sometimes visit the place for picnics. At a third of an acre, it’s on the small size, but it is by no means LA’s smallest park. That honor belongs to Rosewood Gardens, an expanse of ground about the size of most people’s first apartment.

The vast expanse of Rosewood Gardens. Photo by Richard Foss

This terraced space on Fairfax just south of Melrose does have some regular users, mostly elderly folk who sit and read or feed the birds. At just three-hundredths of an acre, approximately 1,406,000 of Rosewood Gardens would fit in Griffith Park. Rosewood Gardens doesn’t offer quite the diversity of scenery, attractions, or wildlife available at Griffith, but unlike Griffith it’s quite possible to walk the entire perimeter on a lunch break.

The attraction in Los Angeles best known for being small is Angel’s Flight, a railway that only goes a few hundred feet and has been called the shortest in the world. Since there are trains much longer than that at the freight yards only a mile away, that record seems safe. Alas, Angel’s Flight wasn’t as safe, and has been closed for some years since a botched renovation caused a fatal accident. (Update – it was reopened after this article was written.)

Los Angeles does have another rail-related attraction that has a claim to fame, namely that the city seems to have lost it. When I checked with the National Register of Historic Places for the smallest historic building or landmark in Southern California, I was told that it was the old steam locomotive at 2435 East Washington Boulevard. Unfortunately, not only is it no longer there, but nobody at the Register or the City of Los Angeles seems know where it went. I noticed that many of the nearby businesses are metal recycling plants, and it occurred to me to wonder if some enterprising criminal now knows exactly how much that locomotive is worth as scrap.

When it comes to municipalities themselves, the smallest is Hawaiian Gardens at almost exactly one square mile. Though small, the city has a few claims to fame, the original location of the Green Burrito chain and a lively casino among them. The county’s least populous city has no such amenities. The city of Vernon has 96 residents at last count, occupying over five square miles – a population density comparable to Iowa. It doesn’t resemble any parts of that state that I’ve seen, since Vernon is entirely industrial. When I called the Chamber of Commerce to ask about restaurants and nightlife in Vernon, there was a confused silence from the person who took the call.

“Well, some of our factories are open 24/7, so there is some life around here at night,” she volunteered.

How about restaurants and entertainment? I asked.

“There are a few restaurants, but except for the Mc Donald’s, they’re all open from late morning until about 4 PM. This isn’t exactly the place to hang around when you’re off work.”

Since I needed to go elsewhere to investigate nightlife, I decided to find the smallest bar in LA. The people at the local and state offices of the ABC don’t keep records of establishments by square footage, but one inspector mentioned a bar in East LA that has only five stools and one table, and is crowded when ten people are inside. The possibility that there may be even smaller places boggles the mind, as well as raising questions about the economics of micro-businesses. Even assuming a complete turnover of customers every night, how do you pay rent and a bartender by selling drinks to twenty people? The inspector didn’t know either. I tried to find the smallest stage in LA, and musicians gave me an earful about various venues. (Setting up a trio at Hallenbeck’s is like playing Tetris with amps and instruments, said one. Another compared the performing experience at a West Side restaurant and bar to playing guitar while balancing on a cinder block.) There are no official statistics on such things, so I wasn’t able to determine a conclusive answer.

If live entertainment pales, you can always get a good book from the library, preferably the Angeles Mesa branch on West 52nd Street, which at 5,243 square feet is the smallest in the 71 branch system. It’s a full-service library with reference desk, and thanks to the interlibrary loan system you have access to all the tomes at the Central Branch, which is slightly larger at 540,000 square feet. Still, the Angeles Mesa branch has an advantage – you might develop a personal relationship with a librarian, someone who knows your taste and can make good recommendations. You can be part of a community rather than a user of something vast and impersonal, which is the attraction of smallness everywhere, even in the sprawling place that is Los Angeles.