Abandoned pedestrian tunnels, spread throughout Los Angeles’ neighborhoods, are an unsightly testament to the city’s perennially dismal legacy in providing its pedestrians with safe streets. By the early 1920s, it had become apparent that Los Angeles’ increasingly automobile-centric form came with a great human cost. In 1924, the city had the nation’s third highest number of car-related fatalities, notably disproportionate to its population. That same year, 38 children were killed by motor vehicles, with over 1000 more injured in collisions. In response to such terrible figures, the Traffic Commission and the Automobile Club of Southern California proposed the citywide construction of underground tunnels to separate crossing pedestrians from traffic.
In 1925, a $350,000 bond issue initiated the construction of 30 tunnels, primarily on major roads adjacent to schools. The first tunnel of the bond issue was completed the following year on Western Avenue at Browning Boulevard. The top photograph shows the new passage being used by students at the Santa Barbara Avenue School, whose original building (completed 1922) is visible across the street.
Considered by city leaders as a progressive planning achievement, Los Angeles eventually built over 100 such tunnels in the decades that followed. However, in spite of any success at reducing the number of traffic accidents, the underground passageways had significant dangers of their own. Completely hidden from the streets above, they provided easy havens for criminal activity, and ultimately became notorious for instances of robbery, child molestation, and rape. As problems intensified, most of them were taken out of service in the 1970s and 1980s. Due to the prohibitive cost of sealing the defunct tunnels with concrete, the majority of them have merely been locked behind chain-link gates. Like the Browning Boulevard crossing, most of their intersections have simply been left without crosswalks.
For modern-day Angelenos, the complexion of the schoolchildren in the original photograph is a not-so-subtle reminder of the major demographic shifts that have since taken place in the central city. Though nearly entirely white during its early development, the Exposition Park neighborhood was dramatically transformed by the inward migration of blacks and Latinos, coupled with severe white flight. As of the 2000 Census, whites made up only 2.2% of the neighborhood’s population.
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Original photo: “ACSC-M814 – Pedestrian tunnel at Santa Barbara and Western, 1928.” Automobile Club of Southern California Negatives. USC Digital Library. Automobile Club of Southern California. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/assetserver/controller/view/AAA-NG-1304.