D. J. Waldie

You are looking west from the white bluff of Boyle Heights, to opposite bluffs, backlit by an autumn sunset, mid-October 1877.[1] A panorama of green shadow—grape vines and fruit trees in apple-pie order—fills the valley below, tessellated by farm roads and a rail line that binds the right bank of the river to its left and Los Angeles only recently to the rest of America.[2] Northwest of the bluffs, between the mesa of East Los Angeles and the lip of Reservoir Ravine, thick with white sage and thyme, a ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains that rises behind the city is split by a gap. The Los Angeles River runs through it. Sycamores and laurels step down to the stream. Willows and tule reeds touch the water. Herons wade for fingerling trout and toads that will one day give Frogtown its nickname.

South of here, the Los Angeles River is slower, wider, braiding, making and unmaking gravel islands, and wandering into and out of orchards and vineyards and finally out of anyone’s caring. There is no Fourth Street descending from the heights to the east bank of the river with its own orchards and rows of vines. There is no Fourth Street Bridge across the river.

The falling afternoon light strikes the cupola opposite of the new high school on Fort Moore Hill.[3] It strikes the cross on the new Cathedral of Saint Vibiana and the tower of the county courthouse. The valley is filling with night. The city’s 136 gas streetlights are being lit.[4] Still in sight are the three bridges that finger across the river: a railroad trestle northward, and southward the Aliso Street Bridge. Between them, a slab sided, pitch roofed, wooden bridge, lit with kerosene lamps, stolidly crosses at the river’s narrowest point. No one calls it the Macy Street Bridge. It is just the “covered bridge.”[5]

From the crest of Boyle Heights all of this is visible—bridges, ridge, river, roads—even the loom of Catalina Island, like a band of fog on the southern horizon. It is near the end of that time when all of Los Angeles can be taken in one long glance.

February 16, 1887, looking south
from the trestle of the Southern Pacific Railroad, every river crossing, except for the covered bridge at Macy Street, has been damaged by yesterday’s storm. Part of the trestle fell during the night. A stone bulwark, put up last year, collapsed. The trestle of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad stands, but a hundred feet of its western approach washed away. The eastern end of the Downey Avenue bridge went into “a howling chasm” when the riverbank was undermined. A thousand feet of levee further south is gone. The foot of the Aliso Street Bridge disappeared, a hundred feet of streetcar track, “still attached to the western stump of the…  bridge, trails disconsolately down the river.” Gaps, with the river running through, separate the western and eastern ends of the First Street Bridge from solid ground. Without all of its bridges, western Los Angeles is nearly cut off. Although the storm passed this morning, at 4:30 a.m. the “hoarse roar of the river, audible all over the city,” continued to frighten residents.[6]

They had good reason to be frightened. The river had flooded in winters of 1782, 1811, 1814, 1825, 1851, and 1861. After the flood of 1867-1868, water lay over the Cahuenga Valley for weeks, with the hills of west Los Angeles like islands in a sea. Flooding in 1876, 1884, and 1886 (with several deaths) began the river’s channelization that will try to confine it to an “official bed” (which is only some lines drawn on a map).[7]

The river will flood again in 1891, 1898, 1914, 1917, 1921, 1924, 1927, and 1934 (killing 40 in La Cañada). It will flood catastrophically in 1938 (killing forty-five in Los Angeles alone). Even after 1938, when concreting the channel begins, portions of the Los Angeles River will flood in 1943, 1956, 1969, 1978, 1980, 1983, and 1995 (eventually killing a total of twelve in all).

2 Railroad Bridge

Ruined railroad bridge shows the result of flooding along the Los Angeles River in 1914. Phot courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library, 1914.

December 4, 1891, looking north
from the First Street Bridge, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times pauses in his streetcar tour of Los Angeles.[8] Above him is Boyle Heights, “on a high mesa which terminates in a bluff, at the foot of which the river formerly ran.” This, he tells his readers, is the city’s most “airy and healthy residence section.” Elevation, he says, is important from “a hygienic point of view.”

An elevated point of view is important because of the persistent flooding of the Los Angeles River, something the reporter leaves out of his description. The heights are doubly “hygienic” because their uneasy residents are safely across the river from the tenements of Sonoratown and Chinatown, and the immigrant Italian and Russian neighborhoods around the old plaza.

The reporter has one regret as his tour of the city ends (and he will not be the last to feel it). “Much of Los Angeles is almost a terra incognita to many of our residents, in spite of the fact that rapid and frequent transit has to a great extent annihilated distance.” The reporter takes a last look at Boyle Heights. “The large brick building on the crest of the bluff, which is almost as prominent a landmark as the high school and the courthouse, is the Catholic orphan asylum. The rays of the setting sun cause the gilt cross on its summit to shine out like the evening star.”

January 12, 1905, looking east
from the newly built Fourth Street Viaduct, the members of the city council’s bridge committee (here to approve the work) can see the trees of Prospect Place and the houses along the crest of Boyle Heights. At their feet is acreage to be developed, now that the carriageway of the new viaduct connects the heights to the downtown business district.

It had taken ten years of political pressure by Isaac Van Nuys, Moses Sherman, James Lankershim, William Workman, and other men with a stake in real estate to engineer the transformation of this acreage into house lots and storefronts. Workman, former mayor and now city treasurer, had reminded the members of the bridge committee that the river lacked a vehicle and pedestrian crossing between First and Seventh Streets, a distance of a mile, and those who live in Boyle Heights and beyond “were of necessity greatly inconvenienced.” The lack of a bridge greatly inconvenienced Workman. The profitable development of his fifty-five acres of floodplain below Boyle Heights depended on building the Fourth Street Viaduct. Workman depended on the sale of lots to wipe out years of debt.

It had taken some weeks of city council politics to get construction of the viaduct started. The sale of municipal bonds in 1903 had raised $100,000, which was not enough to repair old bridges and build a new one. The city engineer advised city councilmen to spend the bond revenue on repairs. He was skeptical of the proposed Fourth Street Viaduct. “It winds around like a snake, and I doubt if it would be satisfactory if finished,” he complained. The councilmen traded votes, cut appropriations for the promised bridge repairs, and the city engineer was overruled.

5 Sinuous Geometry

The sinuous geometry of the Fourth Street Viaduct, required to connect the offset ends of Fourth Street in the Arts District and Boyle Heights, was labeled “basically intolerable” by the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory in 2014. The Fourth Street Viaduct over the Los Angeles River was built in 1930-1931 with seismic retrofitting in 1998 that gave the structure improved lateral stability. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record Fourth Street Viaduct, HAER No. CA-28.

It had taken the J. D. Mercereau Company seven months to build the viaduct. The footings of the western end lay at Santa Fe Street, followed by 200 feet of wood trestle connecting to five wood and steel spans over the railroad tracks on the west bank and 300 feet of steel truss to cross the river, plus another 500 feet of wood trestle over more tracks to reach the edge of Boyle Heights where Workman’s acreage waited to be developed.

The new Fourth Street Viaduct is 2,000 feet long. It has a six-foot-wide footpath for pedestrians who now have slightly more than a mile walk from Boyle Heights to reach the freight depots, warehouses, and factories that crowd the western bank of the river. The viaduct has a twenty-foot-wide carriageway for farm wagons and shays, and increasingly also for motorcars.[9] The Tourist, the first automobile to be manufactured in Los Angeles,[10] is the most popular; 2,692 will be built between 1902 and 1910. The new bridge across the river is paralleled a few feet away by its twin—the Los Angeles Traction Company’s steel trusses erected in 1898. The spindly supports and thin girders of the two bridges—emblems of an unpretentious, readymade aesthetic—will soon be described as ugly.

Beneath the tracery of wood and steel beams, the river sprawls. Dry most of the year, the riverbed is a tumult of sand ridges and gravel flats, some of them mined to make concrete for the tall buildings that have begun to crowd Broadway. At the foot of Boyle Heights, the bed of the river is a dump where the city’s garbage and its trash are hauled, some of it to be set afire, the rest to be raked through by the hogs that belong to a Mr. Clemmons. He sells the hogs to the city’s abattoirs. The city’s butchers sell the pork as “the finest corn-fed.”[11]

A traveler comes to a bridge.
As the traveler starts to cross, one foot is still earth bound. Empty space is beneath the other. The next step requires trust. The traveler is uplifted less by concrete or masonry and more by forces kept in balance with the void waiting below. The bridge seems static, but every footfall must be absorbed, its effects distributed by tension or resisted by compression. The bridge responds. Its span springs to the traveler’s step in order to seem unmoved.

The traveler is unimpressed by the daring that manages hidden forces to make it possible to walk above the earth. The traveler prefers to see a sculptural gesture, a vault from known to unknown, and a hope. But a bridge also marks faithfulness and a constraint. Mid-stride, the traveler cannot veer off the bridge to wander along the green bank of the river passing under. The traveler cannot choose a new path of desire. No meanderings on a bridge. The traveler can only depart from one commonplace and return to another—mid-span, exposed at the space in between. There is no refuge on a bridge. A fleeing traveler can only run back to what was left or run toward whatever is ahead.


The traveler pauses, leans against the parapet, and takes in the elevated view. A bridge affords perspective but also detachment. What happens under the bridge happens without the traveler’s intervention. Water flows or trains pass or cars make their way below. Above, the traveler is more than suspended. Daydreams of flight await on a bridge. So do nightmares of vertigo, of falling, and of suicide. The bridge itself is vulnerable if the balanced forces that keep it standing shift. Every bridge is uneasy. If a bridge falls, what seemed a trivial gap becomes a barrier again, and the landscape the bridge assembled disconnects. Overcome a bridge, and communities at either end are estranged. A bridge is a promise that a broken world can be whole.

(Although every bridge inevitably goes somewhere, not every bridge is necessary. Mere connection is not sufficient reason to build a bridge. Sometimes separation is better.)

The traveler knows only the upper half of a bridge. Unlike most structures, bridges have an above and a below that are intimately joined, but separate, places. Rising from its piers is a different bridge, secretly and elegantly utilitarian. The footloose traveler could abandon the bridge’s flow and settle underneath with others who have given up progress toward the destination imposed on those overhead. Instead of support, the poetic interconnection of uprights, struts, and parabolas arching overhead—beauty more legible to the homeless and the urban forager—could be shelter. The traveler could exchange a vista on top of the bridge for an encampment under it.

Instead, the attractive force of the opposite end of the bridge—its constant offer of novelty—leads the traveler on a contradictory path, perpendicular to the events and possibilities under the traveler’s feet. The bridge has taken the traveler to a phenomenological encounter only to take the traveler from it.

The public demands a harmonious and graceful design,
Louis Huot tells readers of Architect and Engineer magazine.[12] Huot is a member of the city’s Department of Public Works under Chief Engineer of Bridges Merrill Butler. (Butler will oversee the engineering of six river crossings between 1924 and 1932. Huot will design the ornamental features for most of them.)[13] The only public that Huot finds demanding are the five appointed members of the city’s Municipal Art Commission. The commissioners’ goal is “to work for the gradual elimination of ugliness,”[14] and the humble wood trestles and girder trusses over the Los Angeles River are “about as ugly as they can be.”[15]

The commissioners feel that a better Los Angeles can be evoked through civic architecture in the classical style. City Engineer John A. Griffin agrees. The character of these bridges “will be such as to excite comment from visitors who enter and leave Los Angeles,” Griffin tells the city council in 1923. They will “raise the status of Los Angeles as an enterprising, properly developed city.”[16]

It is an extraordinary epoch, defined by bridges. The Los Angeles Times, the Automobile Club of Southern California, and the railroads persuaded voters (many of them new motorists) that replacing narrow trestles and truss bridges would relieve traffic congestion and give the city monuments to its ambitions. With new bonds approved, eleven improved river crossings are built: Ninth Street in 1925, Macy Street and Franklin Avenue in 1926, Fletcher Drive in 1927, Fourth Street over Lorena Street and North Spring Street in 1928, Glendale-Hyperion in 1929, and now the Fourth Street river crossing, begun in 1930 and finished two months ahead of schedule. (Still to come are bridges at Washington Boulevard in 1931, Sixth Street in 1932, Figueroa Street in 1937, and Riverside Drive in 1938.)


These improvements are made for an accelerating regime of speed. “These bridges, especially over a stream of this character, should seem as little like bridges… and as much as possible like improved bits of street,” landscape architect Charles Mulford Robinson had told the city council.[17] A bridge should be “conformable to the automobile which it carries across the chasm,” according to Huot.[18] They are horizontal monuments for a horizontal city.

The material of ambition—of monumentality and liberated movement—is the steel-reinforced concrete of the arches that supports the bridge decks and in the pylons, parapets, light standards, brackets, and balusters that decorate their roadways. Mixed on site, the concrete is poured into temporary wooden forms over supporting wood framing called falsework. Smoothed, the concrete will look like well-finished limestone. In less visible parts, after the concrete has set, the impression of the forms will be left as they are. Parallel ridges the length of individual boards and the knots and grain in the wood will still be visible, a permanent shadow.

Huot’s design vocabulary comes from imperial Rome, Renaissance Italy and Spain, and the Paris of Louis Napoleon. Nearly all the new bridges are variations on the classical tradition, except for the Fourth Street Viaduct, where the design is Gothic Revival.[19]

Wooden forms (in any shape a carpenter can fit together), poured concrete, and the conservative aesthetics of the Municipal Art Commission have made monuments of desire out of utilitarian bridges over the city’s problematic river.

What nature divided has been brought together,
David Faries of the Los Angeles Traffic Association tells the women of the Hollenbeck Ebell Club, who are waiting on the new Fourth Street Viaduct for speeches about progress to end. A locomotive whistle interrupts. The Playgrounds Department band waits to play “Sidewalks of New York” with its refrain about “east side, west side, all around the town.” Officials from the three railroads that pass under the approaches to the bridge are next to speak, happy now that the last wood and girder viaduct over their tracks is gone. Celebratory banners hang from the catenary wires that carry the electrical grid powering the streetcars that share the viaduct with pedestrians and motorists. Dedication day—Thursday, July 30, 1931—is overcast and hot.[20]

Nature’s divide, for Faries, refers to the Los Angeles River, bracketed with earthen levees but not yet bound in concrete, hummocked with sand mounds, dusty most of every year but prone to sudden flooding, and no longer a city dump.

The river is the least of the bridge’s concerns. Most of the 2,700-foot length of elevated viaduct from Molino Street to Anderson Street at the foot of Boyle Heights crosses two industrial roadways and a braid of rail lines connected to repair shops, freight yards, and passenger terminals. The bridge itself, supported on graceful, open spandrel arches that leave the west bank of the river to touch down at what had been William Workman’s fifty-five acres, is only 254 feet long. Just as the city engineer in 1903 had warned, the new viaduct snakes through a tangled section of riverside street grid, splits in two at its western end (anticipating street alignments that will not happen), and bends as it reaches the foot of Boyle Heights to connect with Fourth Street.

Although every bridge inevitably goes somewhere, not every bridge is necessary. Mere connection is not sufficient reason to build a bridge. Sometimes separation is better.

Seen from the air, the viaduct appears uncertain about its start and uneasy about where it must end. Fourth Street on the west side of the river angles southeast, generally conforming to the 36 degrees of disorientation in the city’s colonial street grid. Fourth Street on the Boyle Heights side angles northeast. The two ends of Fourth Street, offset where they should face each other across the river, cannot be made to line up, as if the western and eastern parts of Los Angeles were never meant to be in one city.

The division was not natural, and the viaduct’s sinuous geometry could not overcome the forces keeping the halves of Los Angeles separate. A report sent to the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in 1939 will explain why. Boyle Heights “is a ‘melting pot’ area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is hazardous residential territory….”[21] The Fourth Street Viaduct seems to have something to say, but none of the Los Angeles papers will ever ask residents of Boyle Heights what message to them the imposing new viaduct is intended to carry.

There is a long flight of steps that takes pedestrians up from Santa Fe Avenue to a streetcar stop where the western end of the viaduct splits to drop one leg down to Mateo Street while the other leg bends further west and north. After the dedication, streetcar passengers will stand there, in the middle of the roadway in a rectangle of white lines painted on the new asphalt. Motorcars will pass on either side while streetcar passengers wait within the white lines of the “safety zone.” The speed limit for motorcars is twenty-five miles an hour.[22]

The streetcar fare is seven cents.[23] 1931 is the second year of the Depression, and not many workmen have seven cents to spare. Some of them will continue to walk from homes in Boyle Heights to jobs in the rail yards, factories, and warehouses between First and Sixth streets along the river. When those men, lucky to still have a job, return in the evening over the Fourth Street Viaduct, one or two might pause to rest on one of the small benches that Louis Huot placed on either side of several of the light standards that spire from the parapet railing. The resting men probably no longer notice, in the fading golden light, the decorative elements that Huot had cast in concrete and made to be appreciated at twenty-five miles an hour.

12 Somberly Gothic

The Fourth Street Viaduct, somberly Gothic, crosses the not-yet-concrete Los Angeles River in 1931, from the Ralph Morris Collection, Los Angeles Public Library, 1931.

Evergreen Cemetery is at the end
of the streetcar line that the Fourth Street Viaduct in 1931 carries over the river—Main Street to Third Street, east to Traction Avenue, a south on Merrick Street, another turn at Fourth Street, across the river to Fresno Street in Boyle Heights, north to First Street, and then a stop at the cemetery gates.[24] The dead could take this way by streetcar; two had been available for charter, specially designed to carry a coffin in a separate vestibule, screened by a stained glass panel, while mourners sat beyond in silence.[25] More recently, automobile corteges cross the river with their burdens and turn off Fourth Street to Evergreen Avenue and the cemetery. A solitary driver arrives by the same route to walk among the headstones to find one and leave flowers.

The new bridges and viaducts Merrill Butler and his engineers have built north of Fourth Street allude to an antique imperial grandeur, confirming with reinforced concrete that the westward course of empire had arrived triumphantly at its destination. The style of the Fourth Street Viaduct is different and solemn in its Gothic Revival details. The pylons at each end of the bridge evoke a memorial cenotaph. Their lancet openings suggest the entrance to a nave. The columns of the light standards, which support the catenary lines of the streetcar power grid, rise above an acanthus leaf capital to taper like the finals atop a medieval cathedral. They intend to lead the eye heavenward. The frames of the streetlight lanterns are banded by a row of primroses, topped by flourishes in the form of leaves, and crowned with a final that could be mistaken for a cross. The parapets lining the viaduct are decorated with alternating equilateral triangles. A trefoil opening pierces each; its three-part shape represents stylized leaves of clover. Both triangles and trefoils are reminders of the 3-in-1 of the Christian Trinity.[26] The Fourth Street Viaduct crosses the Los Angeles River with a pastiche of ecclesiastical architecture and Christian iconography.

The mourner crossing to Evergreen Cemetery by streetcar and the businessman bound for Montebello or Whittier by automobile see one bridge. The train passenger below sees another. The mourner and the driver see a road that rises only slightly at the river crossing, framed by the four pylons. The passenger sees, as the train slows on arrival or picks up speed on departure, a regular pattern of arching ribs overhead, uprights connecting the bridge’s deck to the arches, and cross members connecting the arches to each other. Above is somber decoration, the simplified memories of somewhere else made tangible. Below is structure with no past, beautiful in its economical management of invisible forces.

There is something else to see, perhaps best understood by the occasional pedestrian who pauses to lean against the parapet or sit on one of the small benches. Nearly every outward facing surface, above and below, in the penetrating light of Los Angeles, is patterned with areas of sun-struck brightness and bands and panels of knife-edged shadow. In the moving light, while the pedestrian watches, the surface of the concrete moves too, projections dripping shadows, moldings shedding darkness over plane surfaces, incised grooves stacking alternating white and black bars, changes in profile edged by shadow declaring the three dimensions of pillar, pilaster, corbel, and column.

The Fourth Street Viaduct, gleaming in the sunlight in 1931, is a bright thing for a city that wishes to be only white. As the shadows pass over it, it finds its life in the absence of whiteness.

Empty in 2018 except for a stream
of processed wastewater[27] in the low-flow slot that perfectly centers its concrete floor, the Los Angeles River passes beneath the bridge that barely interrupts the almost level deck of the Fourth Street Viaduct. Belvederes, set into the arches of the sentinel pylons that mark the bridge’s place, overlook an engineered void. In the months with no rain, under a sky the color of dried urine, the river is a mirror that reflects the city’s disregard of it. Given two or three days of winter rain, however, the river will carry four times the flow of the Colorado, and dark water, passing with the speed of a freight train, will reach up the slopes of the channel.[28] The river is an artifact of desire as much as the bridges that span it.

What Los Angeles sought, after its river was crossed at Fourth Street by rail and highway viaducts, is hard to discern. For William Workman, the ambition might have been marketable real estate; for city planners, to untangle a transportation grid; for the railroads, to secure uninterrupted approaches to the city; and for downtown business associations, to ensure the daily flow of workers and shoppers. Each of them, in different ways, wanted a city of greatness to satisfy the demands of their desire. They constrained a river because of them and built bridges to make the fulfillment of their dreams seem inevitable. (In the name of other desires, this image has begun to change, as the river channel northward is restored and as parts of its floodplain are reclaimed by parks.)[29]

Evergreen Cemetery is the furthest Los Angeles extended across the Boyle Heights mesa. The future was not in the modest houses and two-story shops along Fourth Street as it rose to the crest of the bluff. The future was south of downtown and then west, away from the threat of the river and beyond the historical claims the old plaza made. East of the river is where the city housed its lepers and syphilitics, where its orphans were asylumed; where the city sent its aged and infirmed, and where its paupers are still cremated and buried in a mass grave as each year ends.[30] East is where the city has sent its dead, not just to Evergreen Cemetery, but to the Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries (where lodge brothers lay together companionably), and to the cemeteries (segregated by prejudice and theology), for Catholics, Serbians, Chinese, and Jews.

The viaduct’s Gothic Revival details were intended to inspire melancholy recollection in 1931, although they were not generally the memories of the multi-ethnic communities of Boyle Heights, dispersing even then into a second generation of diasporas. (Did sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants, returning at the yahrzeit, notice that the way to Mount Zion cemetery and Home of Peace was now marked by remembrances of English cathedrals?) In 1939, federal housing surveyors, as a warning to lenders, redlined all of racially mixed Boyle Heights. In the 1950s, the California Department of Transportation, taking advantage of redlining, began cutting rights-of-way along the bluff that the Mexican residents of Los Angeles in the 1830s had called, because of its whiteness, the Paradón Planco.[31] Freeways replaced rows of wood-frame houses where Russians, Italians, Japanese, Latinos, and Jews had lived together and left together for work across the Fourth Street Viaduct. In 2017, and mostly Latino now, the community of Boyle Heights remembers the freeways’ dislocation and the indifference behind it.[32] East has been what the city, in its haste toward the future, chooses not to remember.


The Fourth Street Viaduct bears desires
across railroad tracks, across access roads, across the blank surface of the Los Angeles River channel, and across time. Some are desires you may not recognize today or want anymore. But the viaduct cannot do otherwise, or be other than what it is, so well made was it, with skill and an eye toward the effect of its repeating elements of arch and trefoil, pylon and spire, light and shadow. These elements, which framed the city’s aspirations in 1931, are still available today as a borrowed elegy for a city full of anxieties about its place.

The contained river below and the stylish viaduct above were intended to be monuments of Anglo triumph over nature and space, achievements that need thoughtful translation if we are to bridge the abyss made by the city’s subsequent erasures of memory. Recovery of the commonplace is sensuous: the sight, smell, sound, and touch of things that might be the prelude to an embrace or a blow, that might make us cringe at their maker’s motivations, that might require humility—even love—instead of fury or contempt when considering the history of these things. Crossing over a bridge is risky.

A traveler comes to this bridge, an articulate framework suspended between its past and our future, to cross over its consort river that divides Boyle Heights from the Arts District. The number of pedestrians is fewer now, and the passengers waiting for streetcars are gone. A Metrolink train rumbles under one of the viaduct’s arches. A tree, rooted within or under the roadway deck, tops the parapet where it crosses Santa Fe Avenue.

A homeless man is living on the belvedere that projects from the arch of the first pylon as the bridge prepares to leap east. A shopping cart and plastic sheeting make a barrier in front. The sidewalk here is only five feet wide, and the footing is uneasy because the metal grates that provide access to conduits under the sidewalk are uneven. Pearly grit, enough to support a few shoots of grass, has gathered along the parapet edge as if a slow-moving river had passed over the bridge, dropping silt. The belvedere beneath the arch of the opposite pylon stinks of urine. The streetlight lanterns here are missing glass panels, so only the skeletal arch remains in the metal frame. Time and the vandalism of indifference both work on the Fourth Street Viaduct every day, which is part of the pathos of things in our lives. Yet insulators for the streetcar wires on the light standard next to the pylon and a catenary holdfast over the arch remain as the viaduct’s memories of itself, not yet erased. The banister under the traveler’s hand has the feel of stucco. The thread of water in the low-flow slot below glints and murmurs. The advent of something terrible or beautiful seems to be near. Some birds wheel overhead.

In 1998, the Fourth Street Bridge was retrofitted
to improve the lateral stability of its arches in an earthquake.[33] In 2014, the National Bridge Inventory of the Federal Highway Administration determined that the entire Fourth Street Viaduct met the “minimum tolerable limits to be left in place as is,” although the geometry of its roadway deck is “basically intolerable.” The report added that the viaduct is “functionally obsolete.”[34]




  • The drawings and paintings accompanying this essay are by Roderick Smith and Richard Willson, and are part of the exhibition, “Positively 4th Street: An Encounter with Los Angeles Viaduct,” on display at the Don B. Huntley Gallery, Cal Poly Pomona, through April 12, 2018.

[1] This description is based on Brooklyn Land and Building Company, “View of Los Angeles from the East,” 1877.

[2] Connection to the transcontinental rail network (through San Francisco) began in September 1876.

[3] The high school was completed in 1873, the cathedral in 1876.

[4] City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting, “History,”, http://bsl.lacity.org/history.html, accessed December 8, 2017.

[5] Water and Power Associates, “Historical Notes,” http://waterandpower.org/museum/Early_City_Views%20(1900%20-%201925)_5_of_8.html, accessed December 8, 2017.

[6] “The Storm: The Situation of Yesterday Fully Set Forth,” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1887, 1.

[7] Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). Gumprecht details episodes of flooding along the Los Angeles River through the 1990s.

[8] “Ten Years: The Story of a Decade,” Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1891, 1.

[9] City council’s bridge committee; 2000 foot length; “Big Bridge Accepted,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1905, 14. Bridge advocates; of necessity greatly inconvenienced; “More Interest in Los Angeles Real Estate,” Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1901, 7. Not enough to repair; it winds around like a snake; “Calls It a Steal: Kern Fights for Fourth Street Bridge,” Los Angeles Herald, July 19, 1903, 8. Sale of land benefits Workman, “Bridge Street Tract Sold, Los Angeles Herald, September 20, 1903, 1. Construction details, “Plans for Fourth Street Bridge,” Los Angeles Herald, October 8, 1903, 14. City council politics; “To Submit Plans for New Bridges,” Los Angeles Herald, January 3, 1904, 6.

[10] Some references claim 5,000 automobiles were produced between 1902 and 1910. The lower total is cited by the Los Angeles Almanac, “First Production Motor Vehicles in California,” http://www.laalmanac.com/transport/tr10a.php, accessed December 8, 2017.

[11] “City’s Garbage Turned into the Pork We Eat,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1906, 13.

[12] Louis L. Huot, “Modern Lines Are Reflected in New Los Angeles Viaduct,” Architect and Engineer (October 1933): 27.

[13] Stephen D. Mikesell, “The Los Angeles River Bridges: A Study in the Bridge as a Civic Monument,” Southern California Quarterly 68 (1986): 365-86. Mikesell describes both the engineering and the aesthetics of Merrill Butler’s bridge program.

[14] “Art Commission to Beautify City,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1903, 2.

[15] Charles Mulford Robinson, “The City Beautiful: Suggestions,” in Los Angeles, California (Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission, 1909), 3.

[16] Engineering Department, Annual Report (City of Los Angeles, 1923), 30.

[17] Robinson, “Suggestions,” 3.

[18] Huot, “Modern Lines,” 26.

[19] Merrill Butler, “Architecture and Engineering Are Harmonized in Fourth St. Viaduct.” Southwest Builder and Contractor (August 7, 1931): 50.

[20] “Fourth Street Span Dedicated,” Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1931, 1.

[21] Home Owners Loan Corporation City Survey Files, “Area D-53, Los Angeles” (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1939), 7, quoted in George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 137.

[22] Al Parmenter, “Change in Motor Law Goes in Effect Friday,” Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1931, 1.

[23] Laurence M. Benedict, “No Review on Fares,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1930, 1.

[24] “Route Map of the Los Angeles Railway,” 1934.

[25] The Descanso (Spanish for “rest”) was built by the Los Angeles Railway in 1911, followed by the Paraiso. Descanso and Paraiso would often make as many as seven trips a day. The service ended in 1921. See City Lab, “A Funeral Car Named ‘Descanso’ or When Death Rode the Rails in America,” https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2013/05/funeral-car-named-descanso-or-when-death-rode-rails-america/5478/, accessed December 9, 2017.

[26] William Durandus, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments, ed. John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb (Leeds: T. W. Green, 1843): lxli.

[27] About 20 million gallons of treated wastewater are discharged into the Los Angeles River each day from the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys.

[28] Joe Mozingo, “Watery Giant Roars to Life,” Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2016, 1.

[29] For the status of river restoration and associated riverside improvements, see “Los Angeles River Revitalization,” http://lariver.org/.

[30] Doug Smith and Ryan Menezes, “Evergreen Cemetery is Awash in History and Drowning in Blight, Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2014, 12.

[31] George J. Sánchez. “What’s Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews: Creating Multiracialism on the Eastside during the 1950s,” American Quarterly 56 (2004): 634.

[32] Eric Jaffe, “The Forgotten History of L.A.’s Failed Freeway Revolt,” CityLab https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2014/07/the-forgotten-history-of-las-failed-freeway-revolt/374843/, accessed December 9, 2017. The residents of Boyle Heights today are concerned about further loss of their community identity as the process of gentrification in the downtown core reaches crosses the river.

[33] National Park Service, Historic American Engineering Record, Fourth Street Viaduct, HAER No. CA-280 (National Archives, Washington D.C., n.d.), 7.

[34] Extracted from the National Bridge Inventory, July 2014 inspection data at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/nbi.cfm.


D. J. Waldie is the author of six books of non-fiction dealing with aspects of everyday life, including Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. His commentaries on California history and politics have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

Copyright: © 2018 D. J. Waldie. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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