Exploring Figueroa Street, where the past and future look brighter than the present
Originally published in LA CityBeat July 2006
It stretches for 22 unbroken miles from downtown L.A. to the ocean in San Pedro, nearly straight, nearly flat, and nearly unknown to most Angelenos. It is the longest city street in the world within a single city, if you count the section in Eagle Rock that used to connect to downtown before the Pasadena Freeway was built.
Figueroa Street was named after Jose Figueroa, a politician of the 1830s who tried to give Mission land to local Indians during his brief term as Mexican Governor of California. In 1849, the street only went a few miles from the center of town, and for a while it was a hotel row for downtown, flanked by a quiet district of homes with lush gardens of roses and hydrangeas.
As I stood at its northern terminus, a peaceful residential district just west of Chinatown, I saw a few buildings that looked like they might date from this era, all now remodeled into duplexes or apartments. Many more have been knocked down and replaced by cute 1920s chalets, anonymous ’50s ranch houses, and blocky modern apartment buildings. Figueroa doesn’t stay quiet for long. As soon as I drove around a curve, I passed Sunset Boulevard – but a section of that famous street that doesn’t dazzle tourists. Although there’s a Chinese theater here, it’s not Grauman’s but the Kim Sing, which shows martial-arts movies when it isn’t shuttered.
At Cesar Chavez, the breeze from Barbecue King tempted me to stop at the colorful outdoor restaurant that’s one of the area’s newest and brightest buildings. Past Chavez, the neighborhood suddenly becomes more upscale, thanks to a gigantic luxury condo complex towering over the street. The city view from the upper floors must be pretty spectacular, and I slowed down briefly to admire the vista of bridges and office buildings that compose the skyline. The Bonaventure Hotel at Fourth Street stands out, courtesy of a design by John Portman that was revolutionary in its day but caused unforeseen problems: The four cylindrical towers looked exactly alike inside and out, so guests quickly became lost. Bellmen and room-service waiters were equally confused, and joked about unwinding strings or leaving trails of bread crumbs so they could find their way back to the lobby.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t drive south to the Bonaventure, the historic Jonathan Club a block further down the street, or any of the other buildings in the vicinity, because Figueroa turns into a one-way northbound for most of downtown. So I jogged east and cut back at Olympic to an area that was once genteel. The Universal Brotherhood Building and L.A.’s German language school stood where the Staples Center parking lot is now, and, while there’s plenty of commerce, the area is an eyesore. Incomplete buildings promise that the future will be more populated, but now it offers only sterile expanses of parking lots and vacant developments. An exception is the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall at Venice, an odd-looking building I’ve always been curious about. I stopped in to gaze at the solemn displays in the lobby and the ornately painted ceiling with its grand chandeliers. The building manager informed me that Figueroa was once part of the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, which stretched from San Pedro to Massachusetts before it was eclipsed by the Interstate Highway System. He seemed pleased by my interest and spent some time at his computer looking up answers to my questions.
South of the Hope Hall are car dealerships, which may generate a lot of sales tax for the city but don’t make for a neighborhood. Everything changes again at 23rd Street – suddenly I was in university territory, elegant old institutional architecture flanked by strip malls selling everything a student might want to wear, eat, or buy. Figueroa wasn’t fully paved when USC opened in 1880, but the college quickly became an economic engine. Stately Victorian homes are visible down side streets, and a few still remain in the midst of business blocks. Garish fast-food signs make this area visually cluttered and ugly, but at least it has an undeniable energy – the last I would see for a long time.
Past Exposition Park, there’s a return to classic architecture, the old buildings turned to apartments now but fairly well kept. The ornate trim that was painted in contrasting colors during Victorian times is now covered by stucco in salmon, beige, and green, and the occasional restored home stands out like a formal dowager in a mall crowd. Driving south, I saw more old houses with dilapidated roofs, the clearest sign that their owners have lost interest or are too poor to invest in improvements. The noisy 110 freeway is close here, depressing property values and rents, and shabby apartment buildings and vacant lots are common. I noticed an almost complete lack of advertising, even flyers stuck on telephone poles, and realized that nobody cares what people in this neighborhood buy. The area was never stylish and never will be – when Figueroa came through here in the mid-1800s, this was mostly agricultural land, too far from city jobs to be desirable. The extension of a horse-drawn trolley line to Washington Boulevard in 1883 made it a viable middle-class neighborhood, and the later change to electric light rail even made it convenient. It may be coincidental that the region hit the skids after the rail lines closed and the freeway came, but I think there’s a connection.
Patches of beauty still exist, like the cluster of nicely kept Craftsman homes near 46th Street, but most blocks are a mix of unglamorous businesses: used tire stores, auto shops, and small groceries with dim lighting and unattractive displays. There’s no shortage of storefront churches from denominations with long names. I smiled at the sign for the Mount Olive Church of Christ – there are no mountains here, none visible even in the far distance. Mountains have been a symbol of excellence, challenge, and spiritual striving for thousands of years, and even seeing them far away would give people something to hope for … .
For 50 blocks the scenery doesn’t change: shabby little stores, industrial businesses, and chain fast food. The residents here must need more things than that – where do they get them? The first supermarket I saw was 100 blocks from where I started. The Numero Uno Market has a fresh coat of paint and looks tidy, and it’s near a stylish modern library – an astonishing concentration of services compared to everything else.
I stopped for lunch at Tacos El Guapo at Century Boulevard and very quickly discovered my mistake – the meat was cheap and half gristle or fat. I was especially annoyed because, a few blocks later, I spotted the Three Bears Barbecue and smelled the scent of woodsmoke that told me I’d probably like the place. I stopped to shoot a picture of their mural of bears at the backyard grill and fell into conversation with owner LaShaun Adams, who told me the area has been coming up since his place opened two decades ago.
“It looks a whole lot better than when we came here,” he said. “Everybody told us this was a bad area, a bad place to open a business, and we still did it anyway. It has been good to us – we’ve had a few problems now and then, but mostly everybody treats us right and respects us for what we’re doing. It used to be chaotic here, a lot of gang violence, but now it’s mellowed out and people know each other. You can walk around, and it’s OK.”
Adams has big plans to expand his current location and franchise it elsewhere in California – but he’s the only business owner he knows who has such an ambition. I was glad I stopped to talk with him, since it gave me hope; when people see success in their neighborhood, they’re more likely to believe they can do it too. Still, there are limits even to positive influences. Adams mentioned that there’s a high rate of turnover, so people don’t get involved in the community because they don’t really plan to stay. He is too busy running his own business to go to community meetings, though he sends his concerns to the city council through a politically active local grandmother. It’s a tenuous link to officialdom, but better than none at all.
At 120th Street, a sign informed me I’d just entered Athens on the Hill. This ranks with the most fanciful and optimistic neighborhood names I’ve seen: There’s no acropolis, no hill, and no bouzouki music spilling out of taverna doorways. On the other hand, it has the remains of a few nice houses from when the area was developed in 1906, including a striking place with a turreted front that’s being remodeled. It’s not Greek, but it’s a classic, and I was glad to see it treasured.
At El Segundo Boulevard, the street changes from mixed to purely industrial, and stays that way for almost 50 blocks. I know this area well, since I occasionally have to scavenge through local junkyards for odd car parts. I saw few places other than auto dismantlers open to the public – shoe and mattress warehouse stores, a Korean church incongruously located in an old factory, and the Rio “Gentleman’s Club.” I considered going to the latter in the spirit of journalistic inquiry, but it has a cover charge and doesn’t serve beer.
At Redondo Beach Boulevard I saw houses again – mostly the backs of homes facing onto other streets, with a high wall toward Figueroa. A giant condo complex near 160th stretches across four whole blocks, reminding me of a beehive or ant farm. This was once the McDonald Ranch, which was bought by General William Rosecrans in 1869. Rosecrans had been a failure as a Civil War general but was a genius at city planning, and his name was given to the avenue that ran past his land. The foundation for the ranch’s bunkhouse is somewhere beneath that apartment complex, which I guess is a continuity of use, for this is the bunkhouse for the surrounding factories.
This area has one anomaly: J Bruno’s, an old-fashioned American restaurant at Gardena Boulevard that was the first upscale business I’d seen since leaving downtown. Manager Frank Bruno bought the place in 1970 and hasn’t changed a thing – it’s a time capsule of a ’70s cocktail lounge. Bruno reminisced about busy times during the heyday of the local aircraft industry, when successful businessmen and machinists alike came here after work. “When those businesses disappeared, so did my ˝28 competition,” he said sadly. “There used to be a nice place called the Picador, but it couldn’t make it and sold the land for a McDonald’s. I still do well at lunch, but I don’t even bother to stay open on Saturdays and Sundays – people just work here, they don’t come back to this neighborhood for dinner. Changing that, making this area come to life, would take something extraordinary, and I don’t see it happening.”
The area stayed commercial but got nicer as I went south, with the California headquarters of Habitat for Humanity and a few new business parks hinting at a neighborhood on the rise. I saw the Goodyear blimp coming in for a landing on that steep trajectory that makes it look like it’s crashing – the headquarters is right by the San Diego Freeway at Figueroa – but trees obscured the parked airship.
At 190th Street, I came to an odd trio of neighbors – the Nissan headquarters, the corporate offices of the welders’ union, and a pet cemetery and crematorium. Unfortunately for the region’s economy, the Nissan offices are leaving for Tennessee. Locals would probably rather one of the other two were to go instead.
As I drove, a bright expanse of green opened up on my left. After so much concrete and so little beauty, I was happy for any sign of life – even a commercial nursery. A few blocks later I came to life of a different kind, the Carson Mall. When I saw the Starbucks sign, I realized I hadn’t seen another one since the corner of Seventh Street. Is there another major street in L.A. where you can go 200 blocks without seeing a Starbucks? I think not.
After 210th, Figueroa is a comfortable suburban neighborhood for a while, and at 220th there’s even a middle school, with several parks offering green expanses and playfields. Past Sepulveda it becomes suddenly bleak; on both sides stretches the Wilmington oil refinery, an ugly facility that is famously accident-prone and has the worst pollution record in California. Since a 2001 explosion that sent 100,000 people scurrying for cover, the plant has been fined more than $80 million for safety violations. I had been thinking that I wouldn’t mind living in that nice stretch of Figueroa, but I quickly had reason to reconsider.
The area perks up a bit near Pacific Coast Highway, a brief and colorful interlude of businesses and bustle, then turns to a quiet lower-class neighborhood. The four lanes were nearly empty, and as I stopped to shoot a picture of a prettily landscaped mobile home park, I saw signs proclaiming this a “Bike Route.” Between what and what else? I saw no bicyclists then or afterward.
The scenery didn’t change again as I came to the end of my route, the truck terminal where Figueroa dead-ends into Harry Bridges Boulevard. Bridges was a Communist-sympathizing union organizer of the 1930s who led a strike against West Coast ports, and I was more than a little surprised to see a street named after him. As I hopped out of my car to take a picture of the two street signs on the same pole, a semi driver looked at me quizzically. What could possibly be of interest on this highway through an industrial landscape? I might have wondered the same. There was no beauty in the shot, but it is a document of a street that many travel and few think about, a road that has entered our history books but not our consciousness. If Los Angeles is ever to become a pleasant place to live for all its citizens, then even Figueroa must be considered, its drawbacks mitigated and its neighborhoods nurtured, so that an address there is as desirable as any other.