The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Bridge Is Not Where You Think It Is: An Investigation
Photo by Timothy Norris
When L.A. Weekly recently compiled our list of the 20 best songs ever written about Los Angeles, we discovered that the songs our city has inspired are almost as misunderstood as the city itself. Take, for example, the fact that "I Love L.A.," which is blasted over the speakers after every win at Dodgers Stadium, is actually an ironic dig about how much L.A. sucks. (Blonde bimbos! Homeless people!)
But perhaps the most hotly debated song on our list is "Under the Bridge," which, ever since its release in 1991, has prompted countless investigations as to the location of the infamous bridge in question.
That mystery was purportedly solved in 2012, when Vulture writer Mark Haskell Smith (who, by the way, did not get the irony in Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.") claimed he'd found the bridge where RHCP singer Anthony Kiedis nearly gave his life away shooting heroin: in MacArthur Park.
But after doing our own research and consulting with countless drug and gang experts in Los Angeles, we found enough evidence not only to prove Smith wrong — but to definitively state where that bridge is.
Yes, we said it. We know where "the bridge downtown” is — and it's not where you think.
Perhaps we were a little inspired by Sarah Koenig's exhaustive reporting leading up to the finale of Serial, which has been called the most popular podcast of all time. We decided to take that Serial structure and approach this story from every possible angle, taking into consideration any and all evidence, research, anecdotes and sources that we could find.
Along the way, we learned a lot not just about gang and drug culture, but about how much the city we live in (our only friend) has changed over the last three decades.
Part One: MacArthur Park
We were immediately skeptical of Smith’s theory that the bridge from "Under the Bridge" was a pedestrian tunnel in MacArthur Park for several reasons, not least of which is geography: MacArthur Park isn't exactly downtown, as the song’s lyrics specify, but in neighboring Westlake.
But what truly makes us question Smith's claim that "the bridge downtown" is actually a pedestrian tunnel is the fact that Kiedis himself refutes it. In both his 2005 autobiography Scar Tissue and the 1991 documentary Funky Monks, Kiedis describes the scene as a "freeway bridge." MacArthur Park is not immediately near a freeway and there's no way a foot tunnel underneath Wilshire Boulevard can be misconstrued as a freeway bridge, no matter how high Kiedis was at the time.
So if that bridge isn't in MacArthur Park after all, then where the hell is it?
L.A. drug and gang experts doubt the bridge’s very existence. "Sounds a little mythical to me," says Alex Alonso, gang historian and creator of the website Streetgangs.com.
But how could we argue with Kiedis’ vivid description of the bridge in Scar Tissue, which detailed its narrow passageways and dirty mattresses?
"When we weren’t shooting up in his drug-infested apartment, Mario knew this safety zone beneath a freeway bridge, some weird hideaway that the LAPD never patrolled. He explained to me that no non-Mexican gang members were allowed there, so in order for me to get in, we had to lie and tell them that I was engaged to his sister. We walked up to the big guys guarding the gate, told them Mario was my future brother in law, and they let us in. Sheltered beneath that overpass right in the middle of the city, I spent countless days lying on a bunch of dirty mattresses and shooting up with a bunch of killers."
So there you have it: The bridge downtown is a freeway overpass, exactly the kind of structure you won't find in MacArthur Park. Also, an L.A. Times article from 1989 titled "MacArthur Park: Police Try to Retake it From Drug Dealers" suggests that the park wasn't some weird hideaway that the LAPD never patrolled — quite the contrary.
We know that Kiedis visited the bridge in 1986, because it was right after the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Freaky Styley tour, around the time Kiedis' drug addiction got so bad that he was briefly kicked out of the band. That same year, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were named Band of the Year at the L.A. Weekly Music Awards.
"For our circle, that was similar to getting nominated for an Oscar," Kiedis wrote in Scar Tissue. "But the awards show happened to be at the Variety Arts Theatre, a classic old venue right smack downtown. Coincidentally, I was in the same neighborhood that night, trying to hustle more drugs for my money than anyone wanted to give me."
This timeline presents several problems if the bridge were to be in MacArthur Park. For one, "The whole MacArthur Park scene wasn't that strong in '86 in terms of gangs and drugs," Alonso says, citing the fact that neighborhood gangs like the Mexican Mafia-affiliated MS-13 had only recently formed in the early '80s and were still gaining strength.
Secondly, heroin wasn't prevalent in the park at that time, according to Alonso. Instead, local dealers were peddling huge quantities of crack and meth. The 1989 Times article supports that claim, citing rampant "roca," or crack rock sales, with no mention of heroin.
So if there was no heroin in 1986 and no freeway bridge ever, then why did Vulture writer Smith think the downtown bridge was actually in MacArthur Park?
As evidence, he cited this passage from Scar Tissue, in which Kiedis and friend Kim Jones, a former L.A. Weekly writer, "owed too much money to the drug dealers around Hollywood, so [they] started walking from her house, which was not far from downtown L.A. [it was in Echo Park], to known drug neighborhoods, mainly Sixth and Union."
But the passage about 6th and Union never directly correlates to the scene where Kiedis kicks it with a bunch of killers under a bridge. And while Smith uses this logic to map routes between downtown and that intersection, it should be noted that MacArthur Park — about a half mile west of 6th and Union — is actually in the opposite direction.
Clearly, MacArthur Park was not the home of Kiedis’ bridge. But what other clues might point to its real location?
Part Two: The Mexican Mafia
The Variety Arts Theatre is at 9th and Figueroa, near Staples Center. If the bridge is nearby, it would have to be underneath either the 10 or 110 freeways, in the heart of Pico-Union.
Pico-Union is the turf of the 18th Street gang, named for a small residential street abutted by a 110 freeway offramp. Unlike the Westlake gangs that formed in the 1980s, 18th Street was formed in the 1960s, meaning the gang would've been strong enough by 1986 to potentially control the neighborhood and its overpasses.
Today, 18th Street is still considered one of the largest street gangs in Los Angeles. Its ties to the Mexican Mafia match another Kiedis account of the bridge, from the 1991 documentary, Funky Monks:
"I had no friends or places to live or automobiles or relationship with my family. All I had was this connection of mine named Mario who is a Mexican Mafia ex-convict and he and I would stroll the streets of downtown looking for our next score. And on one particular afternoon, it was very hot in the middle of the summer and I'd been up for days, and he and I found what we were looking for. And we went to this bridge that was downtown in the middle of Los Angeles in this ghetto, and it was a freeway bridge. There was a little passageway that you had to go to get under the bridge, and only certain members of this Mexican gang, which were all ex-convicts, were allowed to go in there."
If the bridge were on 18th Street turf, could it still have been manned by Mexican Mafia ex-cons? The answer is complicated, according to author Sam Quinones, a journalist who's written extensively about the Mexican Mafia for the L.A. Times, this publication and others.
"If there is such a bridge," says Quinones, "it’s not controlled by the Mexican Mafia, but by whatever the local gang is, and they pay taxes to the local Mexican Mafia," whose members are in maximum security prisons.
But again, the timeline is problematic. In Funky Monks, Kiedis says he hit rock bottom five years prior, which again puts his visit to the bridge at 1986.
"If it was back then, then I don’t think the Mexican Mafia would’ve had anything to do with it," says Quinones. "Here’s why: The Mafia itself was mainly focused on the prisons for the longest time." The Mexican Mafia didn't really begin taxing and attempting to control the street gangs until the early 1990s, according to Quinones.
Still, street gang expert Alonso doesn’t rule out the possibility that the people in Kiedis' story might have exaggerated their Mafia ties. "A lot of these guys would lie and say they were Mexican Mafia because it was a higher level and you can use that to intimidate people," he says.
On the other hand, Kiedis could have later embellished his own story for dramatic effect. According to Alonso, "No one even knew what the Mexican Mafia was in '86." The term didn't fully permeate the cultural lexicon until the 1990s.
For real though, a bridge controlled by the Mexican Mafia? Cal State L.A. Professor of Criminal Justice Bill Sanders says there’s no such thing. And he would know: The longtime Chili Peppers fan specializes in researching gang members and injection drug users.
"The idea of a Mexican Mafia-controlled bridge to me is preposterous,” Sanders says. “What are you talking about? They are a criminal organization focused on making money. That's crazy. Professionally, I'm going, 'Whoa. Never heard of that.'"
USC anthropology professor Thomas Ward, who studies street gangs in Los Angeles, is similarly skeptical of Kiedis' claim. Ward reached out to one of his contacts, a former "soldier" for the Mexican Mafia who spent almost a decade behind bars in three different California prisons.
He had this to say in an email: "Sorry no such bridge..lol..the only known bridge / drug use overpass [is] the White Fence bridge in Boyle Heights but nothing to do with La Eme.” (La Eme, Ward, notes, is the Spanish for the letter "M," an abbreviation of Mexican Mafia.)
Could the bridge have been in Boyle Heights, as Ward’s “La Eme” source suggests?
Part Three: Heroin in Pico-Union
During our conversations with drug and gang experts, neighborhoods like Hollywood, Echo Park, Elysian Park and East L.A. all came up as potential bridge locations. But we ruled them all out, based on evidence in Scar Tissue.
Kiedis wrote that he owed too much money to the drug dealers in his own Hollywood neighborhood and in his junkie friend Kim Jones' Echo Park neighborhood, so he went into a "downtown ghetto," where the prices were cheaper. Any freeway bridge along the 101 between Hollywood and downtown would've been too close to home, and anywhere north on the 110 doesn't fit the description, the further it gets from downtown.
But what about where the 5, 10 and 101 meet near Boyle Heights? There are plenty of freeway overpasses there, tons of drug and gang activity, and it’s relatively close to downtown. And just last week in Boyle Heights, two dozen gang members with ties to the Mexican Mafia were arrested on federal racketeering charges.
But Boyle Heights doesn’t add up, either. "If I'm a white guy in the '80s, the Mid-Wilshire, Westlake [area] is easier” to get to, Alonso pointed out. “You have better access to it and you don't stick out like a sore thumb like you would in [predominantly Latino] East L.A. or Boyle Heights. Because Westlake and Pico-Union was very diverse back then."
Map of the proposed safety zone, based on 18th Street gang's territory in Pico-Union
The Office of the City Attorney of Los Angeles
Which brings us back to Pico-Union and the heart of 18th Street gang territory. Even if Kiedis had exaggerated or misremembered the Mexican Mafia connection, we’re still convinced the bridge is in Pico-Union for yet another reason: its reputation for heroin trafficking.
In 1996, five years after the release of "Under the Bridge" and a full decade after the bridge incident itself, two USC seniors fatally overdosed on heroin that was traced back to an 18th Street drug ring in Pico-Union.
"There is no doubt in my mind that [18th Streeters] were supplying that dope," Los Angeles police detective Al Kotero, a narcotics investigator, told the L.A. Times. A federal racketeering indictment filed the year prior alleged that the Mexican Mafia and 18th Street had collaborated on collecting taxes from drug dealers, whom they promised to protect in return.
This confirms that the heroin was sold in Pico-Union in the mid-‘90s, and that those selling it had very close connections to the Mexican Mafia. Maybe the same was true ten years prior, in the mid-'80s.
But there’s one last detail from Smith’s Vulture story that we need to address: an ex-junkie friend of Smith’s said he used to score dope in the ‘80s on the corner of Seventh and Hoover.
Hoover, which begins near MacArthur Park and runs smack-dab through Pico-Union, is just a few blocks from 18th and Union, the intersection where the 18th Street gang was allegedly founded. It’s also a quick hop down Olympic from the Variety Arts Theatre, where the L.A. Weekly Music Awards were held that night in 1986, when Kiedis (then kicked out of the band) scored heroin and stumbled into the theater just in time to see his ex-bandmates take home the award.
When we asked Alonso about Hoover, he said that as a kid, he was terrified of nearby Arapahoe Street, which runs parallel to Hoover between Olympic and the 10 freeway. He remembers it as a street where "a lot of people scored their drugs."
Could the nearby 10 freeway overpass above Hoover Street be "the bridge downtown"?
The 10 freeway bridge over Hoover Street.
Google Street View
Part Four: The Bridge Downtown
Most freeway overpasses in L.A. are supported either by a wall of concrete running along the sidewalk, or by a series of circular beams that expose the area beneath the overpass. The former wouldn't leave nearly enough room on the sidewalk for mattresses, and the latter would be far too exposed to passing traffic for junkies to discreetly shoot up.
But the Hoover overpass is supported on one side by a free-standing set of concrete columns, which are shielded by a small concrete wall — low enough to climb over — that runs along the sidewalk. There's also a chain-link fence, and yes, a little passageway where Kiedis could've climbed up and spent several nights without anyone noticing.
This has to be the place. Kiedis must've spent those days in 1986 shooting heroin with a bunch of killers underneath the Hoover overpass on the 10 Freeway.
The bridge underneath the Hoover overpass.
Photo: J. Swann
We’ll probably never know for certain, because the one person who knows the bridge’s location isn’t talking. "It's downtown,” Kiedis vaguely told music journalist David Fricke in a 1992 interview for Rolling Stone, “but it's unimportant. I don't want people looking for it."
In a city starved for any kind of cultural history, we couldn’t accept “unimportant” for an answer. We had to know where this bridge is, if only to draw some sort of conclusion about the drastic ways L.A.’s been transformed and — like Kiedis — rehabbed over the decades.
Back in the ‘80s, Hollywood was still a “dangerous, unsavory neighborhood” where the Mexican Mafia dealt pot, according to the singer. And much of downtown itself, Alonso attests, was still a ghetto.
In 1986, the U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi, was still a year away from initial construction. Nearby Staples Center was more than a decade away from existence.
Reading Scar Tissue today is a reminder of how much Los Angeles has changed since the time when the Chili Peppers penned bittersweet love letters to the city — songs like "Police Helicopter," ("Police helicopter takes a nose-dive/Police helicopter, he ain't shy") and "Green Heaven" ("Trigger happy cops, they just like to brawl/They use guns, clubs, gas, but that's not all").
OK, so maybe not everything about L.A. has changed. And maybe the Chili Peppers' debut self-titled album, from which those songs originate, is more relevant now than ever, even as it offers a perfect time capsule of the City of Angels in the mid-‘80s.
While downtown rebrands itself as DTLA, with newly gentrified blocks popping up in the Arts District, Broadway and South Park, we may be moving closer than ever to cleaning up and developing the area near Kiedis' once-terrifying downtown bridge.
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