Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Tunnel Vision

We wrote last month about a developer's plan to erect apartments on the site of downtown's Belmont Tunnel, the last remnant of the Pacific Electric red car subway.

Now, according to the Los Angeles Times, a group is looking to preserve the site's more recent role as the center of Los Angeles' tagging culture:

The plan has sparked a growing movement to preserve the tunnel, not as a relic of the past, but as a monument to Los Angeles' underground graffiti culture. Today the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to grant cultural landmark status to the tunnel — a key step in efforts to save it.

The tunnel's fate reflects the tricky embrace of graffiti by the art world and popular culture. The issue comes up even as some — including Police Chief William J. Bratton — argue that tagging is nothing more than vandalism and often a precursor to more serious crimes. In the end, the preservation effort may end up giving the Belmont lot a mainstream legitimacy that could turn away taggers who feel that their work in its purest form must be unsanctioned and illegal.

Since the early 1980s, the tunnel has been the internationally recognized epicenter of West Coast graffiti.

A leftover remnant from the days when Pacific Electric red cars headed toward Hollywood sped under portions of downtown, half of the tunnel was filled in when the Bonaventure Hotel was built in the 1970s. But you could still enter it from the other side-- and still see rail spikes, electrical wiring and other things that were reminders of what was once the largest public transit system in the nation.

You might recognize the tunnel from the Red Hot Chili Peppers' video to "Under the Bridge," as well as countless features and TV shows. The tunnel and the Toluca Substation, which provided and managed electrical power to the rail line, are totally covered by graffiti; the tunnel itself (and the LA Times story doesn't mention this) was boarded up last year, preventing urban explorers from entering.

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