By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
When it was called Harbor Truck Boulevard, Alameda Street was a two-lane road connecting downtown Los Angeles to its port -- a dusty, eucalyptus-lined route with a railroad berm running down the middle. Today it’s barely possible to imagine the farmland that once surrounded that road, because when people say ”industrial Los Angeles,“ they mean Alameda Street and its 20 miles of foundries, salvage yards, silos, bakeries, warehouses and tank farms -- a street of steel that was once the most densely concentrated manufacturing zone in America, second in the world only to Germany‘s Ruhr Valley.
Last month the street underwent a kind of rebirth as the Alameda Corridor, thanks to a Pharaonic construction project whose centerpiece is a 33-foot-deep railroad trench that submerges tracks between Compton and Vernon, and is designed to handle the 100 trains per day that will replace the endless truck convoys that shuttle back and forth between downtown and the harbor.
This 10-mile gash forms an exquisite scar that marks both a city’s $2.4 billion gamble for its economic future and a quest to clean up some of the rail pollution created during the past 90 years. To accomplish this, 51 bridges have been created to divert surface traffic from the old varicose network of rail track, 1,700 relocations of underground and overhead utilities have been made, and 900 million pounds of contaminated soil have been removed and disposed of.
Other statistics are just as impressive: 1 million cubic yards of concrete were poured, 150 million pounds of rebar were used and 800 million pounds of rock were laid for railroad ballast. Yet as massive as this five-year undertaking has been, for most Angelenos it may as well have been a U.N. irrigation project somewhere in the Sudan -- what can you expect from a town more concerned with celebrity court appearances than the gears and bolts of the local economy? There was a time, however, when Alameda Street itself formed a deep psychic trench in Los Angeles, when it was known as the Cotton Curtain because it separated black ghettos from both the high-paying jobs along the street‘s flanks and the hillbilly suburbs that lay immediately to its east.
Those snow-white suburbs (Lynwood called itself ”The Friendly Caucasian City“) have now long been Latino neighborhoods, but the area remains everything Hollywood, Santa Monica and Encino are not -- the corridor is not just another part of town, it is the other L.A., a parallel blue-collar world that exists as Los Angeles’ non-identical twin city. The corridor is 120 square miles of hard labor and noise, double negatives, squat VFW halls, rotting bungalows, and flat, treeless streets where the families of forklift drivers and union leaders live behind Mexican-style iron grillwork. The corridor is also home to what might be Los Angeles‘ largest concentration of Art Deco architecture and the last place where business owners can display their personal eccentricities with abandon. It is both what L.A. used to be and what it is becoming.
The Iron Men
From a plane the trench looks like a gigantic zipper running up the city’s torso. Vernon, South Gate and Compton are some of the hard-ass towns Alameda Street cuts through, and the terrain noticeably changes about every five miles. The corridor‘s L.A. terminus begins below Washington Boulevard, just as the city’s commercial topography ends with Alameda Books Inc. -- a porn store that the corridor‘s construction workers reportedly have been warned against visiting during work hours. South from there come the recycling yards, Alameda Strip (”Cocktails . . . Girls . . . Halibut Dinner Special“) and then the old Streamline Moderne buildings of Vernon; farther down come the Pueblo del Rio community gardens, grain elevators, and warm-bagel smells from the ovens of Sara Lee and the International Baking Co.
Alameda Street’s endlessly grinding, pounding, churning soundtrack never lets you forget that it‘s all business and sweat here, but there’s also an insurgent nutty charm, from the ancient red fire truck that an artist had planted years ago on the roof of the building that now houses the Red Chamber seafood company (there‘s also an old Deco New York Central car in its parking lot), to the sprawling Leonardo’s mariachi club with its new signs covering up those of a failed casino -- and let‘s not forget the charity ladies in white who collect money from gridlocked motorists on Gage Avenue on Sunday afternoons.
If Vernon means bakeries and boxed meat, South Gate means cars, car parts and rusted scrap, and it’s here that you run up against the vast automobile graveyards presided over by families that have ruled this stretch of Alameda for decades. Nate Adlen, owner of Samson Auto Salvage, can tell you that his father was raised in a junkyard on Ford Boulevard in East L.A. The Adlen family has owned the business, which is open seven days a week, since the beginning of the 1950s, though it has been called its present name only since 1960.
You can‘t miss Samson from the road -- from its yard a 70-foot fire ladder sticks up into the blue sky and at its tip stands a bikini-clad mannequin with her arms stretched in carnal welcome, American flags waving on either side of her. If that doesn’t catch your attention, there‘s always the 1931 red Willys Jeep on the roof -- a a vehicle that’s been there since 1932. Although this strip of Alameda doesn‘t feature the packs of auto-yard hawkers who stand on Mission Road in Boyle Heights urging you in to buy a used windshield or bumper, it nevertheless gets pretty crowded here on weekends. A Samson customer pays $1.50 to come in with his own tools to pick through cars for wanted parts; once inside Samson’s walls, you find something like an old fort or city-state, four acres that include a catering truck, a locksmith, and a clothing market specializing in jeans. Adlen, with his black leather coat, sunglasses, pinky ring and laconic smile, at first glance brings to mind a musician -- think of a young Roy Orbison -- until he proudly mentions the car crusher he has on his lot, an apparent rarity in these parts.