As you take the right turn onto Baxter Street, a lovely but beaten-up stretch of road between Allessandro and Alvarado Streets in Echo Park, adjacent to the urban hikers of the neighborhood stairs, you almost can’t believe it. Baxter Street is not the steepest street in Los Angeles — that distinction goes to the less active thoroughfare Eldred Street in Highland Park — but as you ascend its peak, it becomes clear why this street has such a reputation among Angelenos.
It’s not just steep going up, it’s the exact same steepness going down. The street slopes at a 32 percent grade. At the apex, there is no stop sign. There is no moment to collect yourself for the crest of the hill. Hill is too small a word here. It’s a mountain.
Angelenos know it and respect Baxter; it’s the site of constant vehicle breakdowns and accidents. Newcomers gawk at it. Baxter Street could even be our ramshackle answer to San Francisco's steep and winding Lombard Street.
Baxter Street is infamous in Los Angeles and has earned many stories since its first official designation by the city in 1872. In the early 1900s, it was used as a pedestrian path for much-loved, but doomed, Pacific Electric streetcar lines that once connected the city like a grid. Baxter Street is close to the line that ran through Echo Park, back when the area was called Edendale. In a less advanced age, maybe the street made sense. In 1887, you could buy a nice plot of land on a hill in Victor Heights region near Echo Park for $700.
These Echo Park hills also made an on-screen cameo in the derby race episode of Little Rascals in the 1930s. In the 1950s, automobile manufacturers even sent new models up the slopes of Baxter Street to show how powerful their new engines were. More recently, Baxter set the stage for legendary skateboarder Don “Nuge” Nguyen’s incredible run, which went viral last year. Nuge’s insane hill bomb shows the sorry state of Baxter itself, including its perilous drop and cracked asphalt.
Even as Echo Park’s gentrification has brought money and infrastructure improvements to the area, Baxter remains relatively underdeveloped. As Echo Park boomed around Baxter and the other steep streets in the area, these untraversable anomalies made for charming if slightly rough streetscapes. Baxter is lined with houses, perhaps inhabited by families who have lived on the block for generations or maybe the kind of eccentric who likes the idea of building a house on a street where people can’t, or won’t, visit you.
On a recent visit, a builder carrying wood beams out of a new construction on the steepest end of Baxter Street recited local legends of the drastic measures that sometimes are needed to rescue cars stranded at the top. “I’ve heard rumors of trucks needing helicopters to come pick them up off the top,” he said. He says that building a house on Baxter Street is a badge of honor. He points to a house perched on the hillside. “Look at those houses built on stilts. They’re just showing off.”
If you’re not from L.A., you might end up on Baxter Street while you’re visiting. If that happens, you’ll definitely tell your friends about it when you get home. But locals get ensnared in Baxter too.
Navigational apps like Waze and Google Maps don’t factor in Baxter Street’s treacherousness, and many use it as an everyday thoroughfare. If it happens in your car, you might go home with a good story about a crazy street, but if you’re driving a moving truck, a limo, or a school bus taking some kids on a field trip, it can be a lot worse.
It happened to me twice.
I’ve lived in L.A. for a little over a year. I own a 1992 Volvo in reasonable condition and I’m still in the “L.A. is so great that even the traffic doesn’t bother me” mode.
The first time Baxter happened, I was being extremely cavalier. My girlfriend, who has a few more L.A. years under her belt, said, “You don’t want to take Baxter. It’s nuts.”
“It’s fine,” I said as I moved my Volvo through Echo Park toward a friend’s barbecue.
She says she’s worried about my car. I say it again. “It’s fine.”
In my old Volvo, which rides low to the ground and has 25-year-old brakes, I very quickly realized I might die. The car creeped over the ridge, the undercarriage barely clearing the triangular peak of Baxter Street.
Now I’m on the descent. The same incline that my car could barely climb is now a reverse image. I’m going downhill fast and all I can hear in my head is my mechanic, Mark, saying, “You should replace the brake pads soon. They’re a little worn down.” I’m riding that brake pedal like a nervous driving instructor. There are cars behind me full of locals who climb this street every day. At the bottom of Baxter, there is a small group of people gathered, taking photos of the steep incline that my car just traversed. I make a dazed right turn onto Allesandro. I survived.
The second time I drove Baxter Street, my prayers switched from my brakes to my engine as I hit the apex. When the worst was over, I made an unconfident right onto Alvarado, hands sweating and shaking as the gravitational force of a trip up Baxter wore off. It’s good to know you can make it through something, whether you come upon it by choice or by Waze.
Soon I’m back on the highway. I am alive.
Then my “check engine” light turns on.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated Baxter Street was at a 32 degree incline. It is a 32 percent grade.