We’re staying in West Hollywood with a good friend, and the back garden of his 1920s bungalow is bordered by an unexpected diagonal wall. It’s an odd angle that traces the boundary between this house and the next property.
On the other side of a large nearby street at the end of this quiet block, the diagonal transect continues, seemingly cutting a small property there like a wedge of cheese.
It’s not just the result of a whimsical land surveyor or careless property division.
It’s a bit of urban archeology, visible to all.
Back when Los Angeles was first being expanded over a century ago, smart real estate developers built streetcar lines from the established part of town out into the stretches of land they’d bought but which had no roads or reason to live there.
They’d sponsor ‘lunch and lecture’ events out in the middle of nowhere (relatively speaking), offering a free streetcar ticket, a lunch, and a real estate pitch for one of the new, modern ‘streetcar suburbs’.
As for the homes being sold on land carved out of the desert and farmland, many of them were pre-fabricated catalogue homes, shipped in kits by railroad and assembled on the spot. They were modern in the sense that they had indoor plumbing, central heating and electrical wiring.
And in neighbourhoods like Spaulding Square in West Hollywood, these charming little homes survived a century of ups and downs and assorted earthquakes. There are a number of neighbourhoods around LA that feature these catalogue homes, and many of them have been or are being renovated and restored to a charm that doesn’t seem dated at all.
The streetcar lines weren’t so long-lived. The rise of the personal automobile and car economy had begun. Once the LA real estate had been parcelled and sold, the costly and profit-depleting streetcar lines were shut down, one by one. Los Angeles became the epitome of automotive triumph (or disaster, depending on how you choose to view it) that it is today. There’s a nice piece on the rise of roads versus rail here.
The diagonal alleys and odd property lines around the area are the remnants of old rights-of-passage maintained for a time, just in case the streetcar lines were revived. But by the time public transportation became a burning topic again, these old lines were mostly blocked off, too narrow to use again, or completely paved over.
The old alleyway that’s in my line of vision as I write this is a fossil, a small layer in the sedimentation of urban and commercial interest and investment.