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Remembering the reopening of Angels Flight in the ’90s

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“I recall listening to the wooden car creak as we descended to Hill Street”

Workmen attach cables that will lift and lower 'Sinai,' the second of the twin cars of the historic Angels Flight placed on the inclined railway tracks linking Hill Street with Bunker Hill on Olive Street.
Workmen attach cables to lower lift and lower ‘Sinai,’ the second of the twin cars of the historic Angels Flight, before it reopened in 1996.
Ken Lubas / Getty Images

Now that Angels Flight is finally set to reopen this week after closing four years ago, I can’t help but reminisce about riding the historic landmark when it reopened to fanfare nearly two decades ago. I still remember the excitement in the air when the Los Angeles funicular returned to Bunker Hill—half a block south from its original location—on February 24, 1996.

My father, Gene Directo, worked at the architectural design firm that restored the 282-foot railway’s wooden structures and two trolley cars, Sinai and Olivet. As a result, my family and I were among the 4,000 enthusiastic riders who hopped aboard the 1901-built train that Saturday afternoon when the tracks officially began running again.

Most of my memories of that day are hazy, but I remember my younger brothers playing at California Plaza’s Water Court fountains just before boarding the incline railway. Like many kids in the ’90s, my siblings and I were fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, so we loved the train’s Halloween-like pumpkin orange and black color scheme.

Angels Flight souvenir ticket
My souvenir ticket to board Angels Flight when it reopened in 1996.
Via the Directo Family

I recall walking up to the ticket booth, handing the train operator my ticket, walking through the swinging doors, and listening to the wooden car creak as we descended to Hill Street. The one-way train ride spanned just over a minute, and the fare was just 25 cents each way, which, the Los Angeles Times notes, was five times what it cost in 1969.

The rickety ride was punctuated by views of Downtown LA, which I wish I could remember in better detail as the skyline has drastically changed since then. Afterwards, we grabbed Mexican food for lunch at Grand Central Market, where the floor was still covered in sawdust. (Who would’ve guessed that the many taco vendors would eventually be outnumbered by third-wave coffee peddlers and celebrity chef-driven fare?)

My dad has much clearer memories of that day. “One part I remembered was Martha Diaz Aszkenazy’s speech,” he says. The development company that she co-founded with her husband, Sev Askenazy, also helped restore the landmark.

“She [talked about being] the descendant of a bracero and her ‘LA story,’” my dad says. He found significance in the diverse team of native Angelenos and immigrants who worked together in reviving one of LA’s most beloved cultural landmarks.

His own boss had survived the Japanese internment camps and the construction manager was of European descent, he says. “You had this conglomeration of different people who are part of the LA community and who basically put Angels Flight back together,” he says. “That spoke to me as a first-generation Pinoy immigrant [who had a chance to be] a part of LA history.”

He also recalls what it was like to work on the Angels Flight restoration project.

During the restoration, getting through “the various layers of paint to get to the bare wood was a slow process,” he says. It was also an incredible sight to see the heavy station arch posts—which were brought in from a Gardena storage yard and each weighed just under a ton—being lifted into their places by truck.

“Underneath the Halloween colors, the cars were originally cream and white,” he tells me, as Beth Gates Warren also noted in her book, Artful Lives: Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles. Sinai and Olivet were painted their iconic orange and black colors after Angels Flight switched to a single slope track, he says. One online source notes that the repaint happened in the 1930s, but there’s no explanation why.

Angels Flight would halt and restart service following several derailments and accidents over the years, including one that turned fatal in 2001. (The company that designed the drive system, Lift Engineering, was later found to be at fault by the National Transportation Safety Board for the 2001 accident.)

Me and my husband in front of Angels Flight.
Marcella Treybig Photography

Throughout its life, Angels Flight would serve as a film backdrop for romanticized scenes of Los Angeles (the 1965 noir Angel’s Flight, 500 Days of Summer, and La La Land, to name just a few) and countless engagement shoots, including my own.

The orange souvenir ticket from Angels Flight’s 1996 reopening is still tacked up to a cork bulletin board at my parents’ house. Now that the “world’s shortest railway” is finally returning to its tracks this Thursday, my husband and I look forward to making new memories with our growing family—and maybe even proudly displaying our own commemorative ticket in our new home.

Angels Flight Railway

356 South Olive Street, , CA 90013 (213) 626-1901 Visit Website