Standing on Mount Hollywood after two days of autumn rain, I can make out distant objects that I never see all at once, looming like pieces on a giant Monopoly board. There is something sinister in such an encompassing view. We are supposed to be in our frame of reference at all times yet now I get a telescoping feeling of both largeness and tinyness. Beyond the Capitol Records tower lie Century City, Baldwin Hills, the striped stacks of the Hyperion Plant in El Segundo and somehow, 30 miles away, the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
We love our bridges in Los Angeles, emerging, as they do, infrequently and each with its certain character, providing its brief whee! entertainment before we are just as suddenly back to driving L.A.’s prosaic grid. We love them even when they feel static, bleak and unforgiving; but they are also comfortingly stable, radiant and familiar. The Vincent Thomas launches itself above San Pedro Bay into space, a transition from street to span, earth to air and back — a perpetual state of becoming. It is a perfect expression of movement and a pleasing, emerald symbol of Los Angeles. This isn’t nowhere, says the bridge. You were there, now you are here, and I brought you across.
First Street, Fourth Street, Sixth Street and the rest: Thousands of children ran across them, and returned to Los Angeles as old men, scuffing along in the sun, or blurry women seen from far away, carrying sacks and babies. Sweet-tempered, generous, expansive: We are large, say these bridges. We transport multitudes. Look east over the Macy Street Bridge, with its Beaux Arts towers that bring to mind heroic stelae at the gates of a conquered city. Every concrete fillip and curve contains bits of the conversations of engineers, idealists, developers, designers, dialogue from the movies and cusswords in 20 tongues. Macy Street Bridge is almost our version of the Brooklyn Bridge, the way it connects the main borough with the older neighborhoods across the river and our old Brooklyn Avenue, now renamed for Cesar Chavez.
The noir look and atmosphere of ennui are inescapable. Watch the strings of streetlights come on at dusk. Dim, homely jewels casting spokes of shadow around skittering taxis and El Dorados rumbling off into the darkness of Boyle Heights.
We also know what is beneath any bridge without looking — the adobe, the sand, the nameless artifacts, seismic swellings, imperceptible slither and ooze, grit, grime and various household objects. Climb down to the L.A. River, near the Glendale Narrows. Perfumed with auto exhaust, spandrels appear looming, monstrous, with terrifying shadows. Oceans of concrete were poured and calcified here, looking vaguely anthropomorphic. The river bottom slick in its carpet of slime. The gray-green, scented plasma of the river.
Formerly the Buena Vista Viaduct, the North Broadway Viaduct was once the far end of Buena Vista Street, nee Calle de Eternidad, just north of a vanished cemetery in present-day Chinatown. A good place to stand is above the old irrigation ditch, the Zanja Madre, buried somewhere beneath the glistening green of the Cornfield. This is one of the truly hallucinatory spots of L.A. You can see the North Broadway Bridge a quarter mile off, where the river turns and heads downtown. Approaching the bridge you notice that its light standards are topped with a black fuzz of pigeon spikes like iron hair. The bridge is so glaring and arid, and longer than you thought, that halfway across you think you’re starting to disappear.
Off in the middle distance, Lincoln Heights is colored exactly like Dragnet reruns or old color snapshots — everything pale blue and raw umber, or a mixture of both. Seen from the train, the bridge displays its ornamental, empty balconies; complete the crossing and it is merely an abject slump anchored by a sort of cairn of trash. The sense of disappearance is complete.
The Franklin Avenue Bridge. The famously fairy-tale entrance to Silver Lake’s back yard, commonly called the Shakespeare Bridge, seems to lead right to Disney’s Snow White cottages and the canyons where the clever elves live. Gothic turrets punctuate the all-too-short ride above the gorge, an active fault that routinely lowers property values with its movements. One keeps one’s hands inside the vehicle at all times.
The Glendale-Hyperion Viaduct. A graceful curve that swoops out from the Silver Lake Hills and descends into Atwater Village, glimpses of Forest Lawn and the Verdugo Hills beyond. With its cunning tangle of connector viaducts underneath, it is uniquely beautiful, placid and airy. “1917 Victory Memorial 1918,” reads the commemorative facade, which, up close, looks like a queer old cemetery monument. Great architecture for the Great War.
Travel east to Pasadena, where the Colorado Street Bridge arches its back over the mysterious Arroyo Seco. Another elegant S-curve that begs you to cross it. Spectacular arches rise 150 feet from the canyon floor. Its sheer beauty is weighted with the dusty memories of suicide, giving it its sardonic nickname, Suicide Bridge. Hike down to the massive footings and you will find recently uncovered trails and steps made from river rock. Paths lead north and south to faraway historic canyons and landmarks. That feeling of tinyness again.
The last small secret bridge hides above the prettiest unpaved part of the Los Angeles River, in the Glendale Narrows. The Sunnynook Footbridge can be found by walking behind the Griffith Recreation Center’s tennis courts. Follow the dirt path, cross the cage-like bridge over the Golden State Freeway and there it is: A narrow open structure supported by huge wooden pilings where you can gaze down at thick river grasses, trees, boulders and swirling water. Hundreds of bird species and various other creatures throng this, the most vital stretch of our river.