May 27, 2024
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What happened to Bunker Hill neighborhood

Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

Get ready for a Los Angeles history lesson with a side of controversy. We’re diving into Bunker Hill – a neighborhood that was once a bustling part of downtown, then wiped off the map in the name of progress… with consequences that ripple through LA even today.

Bunker Hill: The Early Days

Picture this: It’s the late 1800s, and Bunker Hill is one of LA’s most desirable addresses. Grand Victorian mansions dot the hillsides, the wealthy and influential call it home, and the iconic Angels Flight funicular railway ferries residents up and down the slope. Think old-school LA glam.

Fast forward a few decades, and things took a turn. The neighborhood aged, some mansions became run-down boarding houses, and the area gained a reputation for being a bit shabby, even seedy.

Enter the “Redevelopers”

By the mid-20th century, powerful city planners saw Bunker Hill not as a place with history, but as blight. They dreamed of sweeping it away and replacing it with gleaming skyscrapers, modern plazas, and cultural institutions, marking a bold new era for Downtown LA.

Here’s where things get messy:

  • Eminent Domain: The city used its power to forcibly buy out property owners, often at what residents felt were unfairly low prices.
  • Broken Promises: Bunker Hill’s largely low-income residents were promised affordable replacement housing that, for many, never materialized.
  • Erasing History: Those gorgeous Victorians? Bulldozed. Entire streets vanished, along with the neighborhood’s sense of community.
  • Sterile Skyline: Yes, Bunker Hill has skyscrapers now – home to banks, corporate offices. But critics argue it gained these at the cost of becoming soulless, lacking the lively mix of shops, residences, and character it once had.

The Fight to Save Bunker Hill

Not everyone went quietly. Some residents fought the redevelopment tooth and nail, taking the city to court, staging protests, and trying to rally public support. There were some small victories (Angels Flight was saved!), but ultimately the bulldozers won.

Lasting Impacts of Bunker Hill’s Destruction

The story of Bunker Hill raises questions LA still grapples with today:

  • Development vs. Community: How do you balance the desire to revitalize a city with the displacement of existing residents, especially those without wealth or power?
  • History or Progress?: Can a city truly move forward by erasing its past? Is all redevelopment inherently good?
  • Who Benefits?: The modern towers of Bunker Hill largely serve corporations and the wealthy. The working-class residents it displaced ended up scattered across the sprawling city.
  • Downtown’s Mixed Success: Yes, there are now museums and performance halls on Bunker Hill. But Downtown LA still struggles to feel like a vibrant, 24/7 neighborhood where people want to live, not just work.
  • Learning Lessons?: The battle over Bunker Hill spurred a stronger historic preservation movement in LA, but tensions between developers and communities fighting to preserve their neighborhoods persist.

Exploring What’s Left of Old Bunker Hill

You can still find traces of the old neighborhood if you know where to look:

  • Angels Flight: This beloved funicular (closed for a while, but scheduled for reopening) is a tangible reminder of the area’s vanished streets.
  • Photos and Archives: The LA Public Library and online resources hold photos capturing Bunker Hill’s former charm, a bittersweet reminder of what was lost.
  • Walking Tours: Organizations offer tours focused on Bunker Hill’s history and the redevelopment debate.
  • A Few Holdouts: Some Victorian homes were spared the wrecking ball, relocated to the nearby Heritage Square Museum.

The rise and fall of Bunker Hill is an LA story stained with both ambition and regret. It serves as a cautionary tale about the potential cost of grand urban renewal schemes, and the importance of weighing the promises of “progress” against the potential destruction of communities and the intangible spirit of a place.

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