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Bunker Hill in the Rear-View Mirror: The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of an Urban Neighborhood

Monday, April 20, 2015 to Thursday, May 5, 2016
Central Library, First Floor Galleries

During its history, the area of Downtown Los Angeles known as Bunker Hill has been viewed in many different ways; inaccessible, upscale, run-down, blighted, erased, renewed. These perceptions over the decades have always been open to interpretation and either agreed with or challenged. An area that has been subject to more change than any other place in the city, it has arguably invoked more passion and reverence than any other Los Angeles neighborhood, while inspiring equal amounts of disdain.

The name Bunker Hill may have been bestowed in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Revolutionary War battle fought in Boston, or possibly because soldiers of the California Bear Flag Republic dug a series a bunkers into the crest of the hill during the Mexican War. As Los Angeles grew beyond the original Pueblo, Bunker Hill was seen as a risky development prospect because its elevation made the delivery of building materials and water seemingly impossible. None of this discouraged developer Prudent Beaudry, who in 1867 saw nothing but potential and eventually brought roads and water to the Hill.

By the 1880s, Bunker Hill was decorated with Queen Anne and Eastlake style residences where Downtown's doctors, lawyers, and merchants, among others resided. It was a picturesque and comfortable neighborhood which became considerably more accessible with the opening of the Angels Flight incline railway in 1901. As the city continued its expansion, grand homes sprung up elsewhere, while Bunker Hill's mansions and hotels were converted into boarding houses, providing the working class, along with pensioners and artists, with long-term housing. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Bunker Hill may no longer have been upscale, but it was still a living and breathing neighborhood.

As the high-maintenance Victorian structures decayed, Bunker Hill gradually assumed a weather-worn appearance and later experienced an increase in crime, causing it to be labeled a slum in some circles. However, it also remained a vibrant neighborhood, inspiring novelists and filmmakers, many of whom used the neighborhood as a backdrop in their storytelling.  A 1945 state redevelopment act paved the way for tax money to be used for the overhauling of run-down urban areas, and despite the strong community that still existed, “blighted” came to be the term most associated with Bunker Hill by city officials.

With the formation of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) in 1949, Bunker Hill became the first target for mass redevelopment. As feasibility reports were compiled and master plans drawn, landowners and residents of the neighborhood scaled their own Battle of Bunker Hill in order to stop the evictions and demolitions. In the end redevelopment won. In an unprecedented move, most of the buildings on the Hill were razed, starting in the early 1960s. The natural landscape was also altered as man-made mechanics moved the earth and lowered the elevation, taking with it layers of local history. However, despite master plans and good intentions, much of the area remained undeveloped in subsequent decades, with many of the leveled and vacant acreage serving as parking lots.

Gradually, Bunker Hill did rise again, at least literally, with the construction of numerous high rise office buildings, though it has arguably fallen short of the original vision of a vibrant live/work neighborhood. With vacant lots finally being developed and the gradual emergence of cultural institutions like the Museum of Contemporary of Art (MOCA), Disney Hall and the Broad Museum joining the Music Center, the promise of Bunker Hill laid out over half a century ago creeps closer.

When the old Bunker Hill neighborhood became endangered, photographers, artists, and reporters flocked to the area to capture its details and spirit before it vanished. Many of these photographs, paintings, news articles, recollections, and the printed reports from those responsible for its redevelopment have fortunately found their way to institutions like the Los Angeles Public Library. While they may not be able to tell the whole complex story of Bunker Hill, these artifacts at least give us a view of this part of the city in the rear view mirror.

Curated by Christina Rice and Emma Roberts.

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