Men like to get into trouble. It's our natural disposition. A man without adventure is like an Orca at Sea World. Our dorsal fins atrophy.
So when at Saturday brunch I asked my friends, refried beans dripping from my breakfast taco, if they wanted to do some urban exploring, there was the sound of air, long held in, rushing out. “Yesss…God yes.”
Our target: A secret atrium under the 7th Street Bridge in the Arts District that's been closed off from the public for decades. Our goal: to get inside.
From the outside, the atrium is a deliciously creepy site. It runs over a desolate, sun-baked stretch of the L.A. River. Clotheslines hang from the ceiling, the sheets on them like billowing flags planted by the atrium's unseen inhabitants.
The original 7th Street Bridge was built in 1910 to allow trolleys to cross the L.A. River, which was then an open mining quarry. To help ease traffic, an upper deck was added in 1927, leaving an open space between the old line and the new one running 20 feet above. When trolley traffic ended, the lower bridge was sealed off, and the space became an unused atrium.
The concrete bridge runs from Santa Fe Avenue across the L.A. River into Boyle Heights. It's flat and square, the plainer twin of the arched 6th Street Bridge a short distance away. Their uglier siblings, the 4th and 1st Street Bridges, can be seen in the distance. It's a stone jungle – a manmade canopy over a concrete river.
25 miles down the river, in Long Beach, the area under the other 7th Street Bridge was the site of one of the worst massacres in L.A. History. In 2008, two gunmen entered a homeless encampment and slaughtered five of its residents, three men and two women. The murderers, gang members, were settling a drug debt with one victim, and killed the others because they were potential witnesses.
We weren't the first to seek out the mysterious atrium. In fact, it's well-known to the sort of people who know these things. Curbed ran an article about it two years ago, touting plans to turn it into a “public art space.” It's also popular target for established L.A. urban explorers partaking in the budding place hacking movement. The atrium even appears as a setting in L.A. Noir, a video game from makers of Grand Theft Auto.
The base of the bridge juts down into the L.A. River. We scrambled around the base and out onto the river, peeking our heads around like curious squirrels. The only points of entry appeared to be a precarious jump to a high ledge over a raised pipe, which seemed like suicide, or a set of barred windows cut into the concrete wall at one end of the bridge.
Turn the page to see how the guys get into the atrium.
Some railroad ties were stacked under one of the windows. The window had a chain tied around the bars running into the darkness inside. We gathered around the window, staring up at it, trying to determine if a climb up the railroad ties was possible.
Then we heard rustling from inside the atrium. My heart began pounding loudly. A man emerged from the darkness and appeared behind the bars.
Now, urban exploring, or place hacking, whichever you prefer, ideally happens in abandoned places. It's Manifest Destiny turned inward – in the explored world, the urge to conquest can be directed only towards old forgotten hulks of industrial development.
But what place hackers forget is that they're only hobbyists. There's another group of people for whom exploration and conquest are a daily necessity. For the homeless, closed doesn't mean abandoned.
“Hello,” we shout.
“Hello,” the man says.
“Hope we're not disturbing you; we just wanted to check it out.”
“OK. What do you all do?”
We named our professions – writer, attorney, bartender. He agreed to let us up for $20.
And after that, he became our guide. He helped us in, demonstrating how to maneuver onto a pipe near the railroad ties and pull ourselves up. As we clutched onto the metal bars, he swung them open, propelling us one by one into the interior like tumbling monkeys.
Inside isn't just an atrium. It's his home.
The interior is vast – long pipes and ledges run long under high ceilings. The floor is a mixture of dirt and trash. There are nooks where our guide, and others, have their surprisingly sophisticated set-ups. Two people, a couple, had erected a blue nylon tent. They waved cautious hellos.
I don't mean to give the impression that the atrium is a bustling community. No, our guide and the blue-tent couple appeared to be the only current residents. “Don't go on that side,” our guide warned, pointing to the side of the room with the tent, indicating that we should stay in his territory.
Turn the page to see a dwelling inside the atrium.
Have others have tried to take his territory by force, I asked.
“I use their aggression against them, so they can't take it.” he responded.
Graffiti and street art saturate the walls, making it a pocket of color with a spectacular view. From here, the urbanity dissolves into landscape. The blue of the sky meshes with the bikini string of water glinting in the stone river below. The lit candle in our host's nook, his pot caked with the remnants of a chili breakfast, his excited, jovial manner as he showed us around, illustrated not bleak desperation, but a cozy nest free from a the hassle of landlords or mortgages.
Our muscled host mentioned he was an ex-soldier. We sat on a pipe and talked. He told us his story and we listened. The decision to live off the grid was his and his alone. He liked it. He wanted it this way. We offered him some marijuana and he declined. This was not a man lost in drugs.
He said some strange stuff, but some profound stuff too.
“What's the important word in 'human being?'” he asked.
” I don't know… being?”
“Being. We're beings. We're gods. People go around and try and find God, looking for God in this corner and that. But it's us that are gods. I'm staring at three gods, right now.”
After about 30 minutes, we crawled out the window and down the railroad ties. A yellow freight train rolled by right in front of us, disconnecting us from our host and the atrium. We trudged back towards the Arts District. Towards Stumptown Roasters and the American Apparel Factory, Urth Caffé and the Toy Factory Lofts.
The plans are to turn the atrium into a “public space.” It will be a “public gathering spot” revitalized with “eateries and vendors.” The people who live there now, for free, will have to leave, so that hipsters like us can come in and buy ripped t-shirts and $4 cups of coffee.
I'm not going to say that meeting the man in the atrium “totally blew my mind, man,” but I will leave you with this. As our host helped us out of the atrium down the stack of rail ties, and we bid him farewell, the freight train chugged towards us. We began pulling away from the wall, taking a wide berth from the tracks.
And just before the locomotive drowned him out, our host shouted to us from the window above. “This was meant to happen! You were meant to be here today!”
I believe him.