The Sixth Street Viaduct and a battle for the soul of Downtown Los Angeles

The viaduct is part of the city’s furniture. It pops up in umpteen films and music videos. Now it needs rebuilding. Tim Walker on the task of keeping modernists and traditionalists onside

The Sixth Street Viaduct in Los Angeles is probably the most famous bridge you’ve never heard of. Built in 1932, the distinctive steel-and-concrete span has linked the east end of Downtown LA to the historic Boyle Heights neighbourhood for more than 80 years, traversing a river, two rail lines and a pair of major freeways.

During that time, it has also provided a location for countless classic movies, among them two Terminators, Grease, Drive and The Dark Knight Returns. Musicians including Madonna and Kanye West have shot videos there. The bridge has appeared on the small screen in shows such as Lost and Fear the Walking Dead, not to mention a million TV car advertisements.

In a city of global importance, but with few globally recognisable landmarks, the Sixth Street Viaduct is an anonymous icon. In past decades, most holidaying visitors to LA would head for Hollywood or the beach, unless they took a wrong turn off the freeway. Now, just as Downtown is becoming a destination, one of its star attractions is leaving the skyline.

The Viaduct is suffering from a degenerative condition known colloquially as “concrete cancer”, which makes it prone to collapse should a major earthquake strike. After several delays, it was closed for demolition this week, with a replacement set to go up in its place by the end of 2019. 

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With a budget of almost $450m (£312m), managed by the city’s Bureau of Engineering in coordination with at least a dozen other agencies, it is the biggest bridge project in the history of the city.

The new design will echo the arches of the old, with curving supports that resemble the trajectory of a rubber ball bouncing the length of its 3,500ft span. “As you drive across it, the space should unfold in a cinematic way,” said architect Michael Maltzan, “so the experience of the new bridge is a kind of equivalent to the films and TV shows that were made on the existing one.”

Conceived by Mr Maltzan and the engineering firm HNTB, the so-called “Ribbon of Light” design includes expanded pedestrian and bike pathways, to reflect the rise of cycling and walking in what was once the quintessential car city. Beneath it, instead of the current concrete, brownfield and warehouses, there will be eight new acres of green public space.

The road to the new bridge has been a long one. The seismic vulnerability survey that deemed the old viaduct deficient was concluded in 2004. The first public consultation on its replacement came in 2007. After choosing a design that pleased more stakeholders than it displeased, the city also had to convince the surrounding communities that an icon of LA’s past should make way for a bridge that represents its future.

Boyle Heights is a low-income Latino neighbourhood centred on Mariachi Plaza, where the bands for which it is named still gather daily to ply their trade. 

The Sixth Street Bridge is a long-time magnet for local low-riders, who congregate to admire each other’s customised cars. Community groups have fought long and hard to prevent the area falling prey to property developers and an influx of yuppies, a fate that has already befallen nearby Silver Lake and Echo Park.

Isela Gracian, president of the East LA Community Corporation (Elacc), said she welcomed the bridge and the opportunities it would afford, just as long as existing residents are the first to benefit. “It’s exciting to have public infrastructure investment in the neighbourhood,” she said. “But Elacc and the residents we work with are cautious about the future developments that might come with that investment, particularly around gentrification and displacement. We want Los Angeles to continue to be a city of diverse cultures and diverse incomes.”

Across the bridge in the Arts District, the picture is very different. The area is at the far eastern reaches of a revitalised Downtown, which after decades of neglect is now one of the city’s hippest locales. 

Late last year the prestigious Broad art museum opened on Grand Avenue, next to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Every week sees the launch of another destination restaurant, while plans to update the LA Convention Centre and Pershing Square – the biggest public space in Downtown’s skyscraper district – are both in the works.

Nowhere in the vicinity has been gentrified as quickly or dramatically as the Arts District. A decade or so ago, the area was made up of half-abandoned warehouses and makeshift art spaces, mere blocks from the homeless encampments of Skid Row. Today, the homeless encampments remain, but the warehouses have been transformed into des reses and designer boutiques.

The vast $165m One Santa Fe apartment complex – also designed by Mr Maltzan – welcomed its first residents in 2014. By the end of 2016, one nearby industrial building will contain a new outpost of Soho House, while five more will form a chic new outdoor shopping mall.

Magnus Walker, a British-born collector and restorer of vintage Porsches, owns a cluster of Arts District warehouses yards from the Sixth Street Bridge. When he first moved in more than 20 years ago, he said, “People thought we were crazy... back then the neighbourhood was desolate, transient, hookers giving blowjobs to truckers. Now it’s Priuses and hipster coffee shops.”

Mr Walker, whose driving films attract hundreds of thousands of YouTube views, said the bridge provides the “perfect backdrop” for his videos. “It’s fun to drive on and it looks cool. I’ve been dreading the day it comes down – but you can’t stop progress. The new bridge looks pretty interesting, and I’m sure it will be even more popular than the old one as a cultural landmark.”

As construction of the new bridge gets under way, there are also major plans afoot to enhance the waterway below it. Last year, the city and the federal government agreed on a $1.35bn restoration scheme for the 11-mile stretch of the LA River that runs from the north into Downtown.

To some, the very fact that LA has a river comes as a surprise – and, to be fair, the section that runs beneath the Sixth Street Bridge looks less like a river than a giant storm drain. The US Government clad long segments of the waterway in concrete during the 1930s after a glut of floods, thus depriving LA of a feature that defines so many other world cities. 

Almost every building on the river faces away from it, and public access points are few and far between.

That is set to change, with the non-profit Los Angeles River Revitalisation Corporation touting a plan for parks, trails and a bike path, which by 2020 will run along the river’s bank from its source in the San Fernando Valley all the way to the Pacific. The organisation tapped Frank Gehry – the celebrated LA architect whose buildings include the Disney Hall – to work on its master plan.

Eli Kaufman, a spokesman for the LA River Corp, said he hoped to see the banks of the unloved waterway transformed into “a 51-mile Central Park”. 

In the past, he said, “the river has been primarily a barrier, which rarely connected the communities along its shores. But the Sixth Street Viaduct project and the public space it promises will serve to turn it from a barrier into a connector. It will be a sign that redirects public attention to the river.”

The bridge and the restored LA River will both act as big draws for the city’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics, a coveted event that would surely bring Angelenos closer together. 

One weekend last October, the old Sixth Street Viaduct offered a glimpse of that  communal spirit, when Boyle Heights residents and their affluent Arts District neighbours gathered on the span to mark its imminent demise with music, tacos and  fireworks.

Mr Maltzan envisions the new bridge as “creating  cohesion,” he said, “as opposed to doing what infrastructure has often done here, which is to separate neighbourhoods into silos.”

He added: “People talk about Los Angeles as a multicultural city, because a lot of cultures live here, but there’s a difference between a city of many cultures and a truly  multicultural city. The challenge for LA is moving from a city of monocultures to one that is much more of a multi-culture. That’s the ambition of the bridge.”

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