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A blooming coral tree sits front and center in a graffiti-covered, round, concrete planter. There are vignettes in each corner, a light rail train, smog, jugs of water and a hectic traffic scene. Illustration.

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Requiem for a tree

For years, neighbors tried to revive a forgotten coral tree, left over from the days when planners starting building out—but never finished—a Jetsonian vision of street life

For years, my neighbors and I waged various campaigns to save the once-magnificent coral tree on the elevated pedway above South Figueroa Street, a bizarre remnant of the tortured history of Downtown Los Angeles.

When in full bloom, this specimen, perched at the top of a circular stairway leading down to the corner at Third Street, brightened the beige, concrete ugliness of its surroundings.

The pedway’s tile and concrete planters echoed the urban wonder of the Union Bank Plaza two blocks south. That plaza was designed by noted landscape architect Garrett Eckbo and accessible via a labyrinth of pedways through the World Trade Center and the Bonaventure Hotel.

A decade ago, two of my elderly neighbors on Bunker Hill noticed the pipe to the tree had stopped working. They took it upon themselves, several times a week, to haul two gallon jugs of water each from their apartment on a high floor. When one of the men died, the other had to move, ending the manual irrigation supply.

By the time four years ago that several younger neighbors, including a woman in a wheelchair, planted succulents in the base of the mammoth concrete planter to spruce it up, the tree’s decline had hastened.

My efforts on behalf of the decaying coral were less tactile.

Having walked the pedways at least twice a day since moving to the neighborhood in 2004, I noted other grim signs of neglect. Wild strands of graffiti blighted the concrete and the walkway lights—those that hadn’t been bashed in. Trash littered its entire span, though the tree’s planter, a perfect secluded-in-plain-sight gathering spot for late-night partiers, bore the brunt of it. Some of us picked it up, but at times, the volume became overwhelming.

Once, the silver marker on the northern end of the walkway, placed in honor of city planner and pedway father Calvin S. Hamilton, went missing. After I alerted my friends at Esotouric, who sounded a distress call on social media, it magically reappeared.

As I noticed the decay, I resolved to learn more about the provenance of these curious thoroughfares. It turned out to be even more bizarre than the odd history of the decimation of Bunker Hill that had long obsessed me.

These elevated paths, it seems, had been intended to link up with a Disney-esque “people mover” all meant to expedite traffic in Downtown LA.

Imagine a monorail wending its way above the Downtown streets and through a tangle of buildings. How different the city would be if it looked like (and was navigable by) this:

Black and white archival rendering shows elevated train-like tracks running parallel to skyscrapers and above streets filled with cars.
The people mover would have passed through what is now the Bank of America Tower across Flower Street onto a pavilion at the World Trade Center at the corner of Flower and Third.
Los Angeles Downtown People Mover Project: Final Environmental Impact Statement. Metro Archives

This Jetsonian solution to the mounting scourge of traffic was introduced in the ’70s. As part of the plan, two massive parking garages on either side of Downtown were to be erected. After commuters dumped their cars—for the car was still seen as an inevitability whose accommodation reigned supreme—they’d theoretically hop aboard automated trams that would then glide them through Downtown, at 10 cents a ride.

The system would wend from Union Station, bisecting yet-to-be-built buildings on Bunker Hill, then head south to the Convention Center, in less than 12 stress-free minutes.

Now the wide, empty plaza on the north side of the World Trade Center made sense: This was to have been a major stop on the rail system.

“Kooky city, kooky idea,” said one of many critics of the $175 million, federally subsidized system.

Additionally, more than four dozen “pedilators” or “pedways” would help aid and abet the flow, to keep the nuisance of pedestrians from further halting the movement of traffic below. Plans called for a unified design and character to ensure safety, and to shield walkers from the cars below.

An end to federal funding stopped the people mover from materializing, to the delight of vocal critics who feared the chaos and blight the system would cause. A warren of eight pedways already installed on the western edge of Downtown, including the one featuring the unfortunate tree, remained—a totem to this failed transit system.

Disturbed by the state of my neighborhood seven years ago, I did what a concerned citizen might: I waded into a civic maze, beginning with a call to 311, the city’s non-emergency phone line. The pedway location didn’t register on a city map, so I tried alternate pleas to others with vested interests in its condition.

My landlord was unresponsive, as was the then-new owner of the office building across the street, whose inhabitants used the pedway each day on their run to Starbucks. The charter school that had taken up residence in the World Trade Center, whose students used the pedway each day, didn’t respond to my offer to shepherd the kids in a historical civic lesson. No luck either with the building owner. The Community Redevelopment Agency, under whose watch this had all been planned, had ceased to exist in 2011.

An entreaty to my City Council member underscored just how this well-trafficked artery had fallen into such disrepair. After much goading, a young staffer was sent to meet this cranky constituent. He insisted that the location was privately owned and not their problem.

Eventually, I managed to convey his error, and, after a year of relentless nagging, the lights got repaired and the graffiti erased.

The once-beautiful tree, though, was by then beyond revival.

Life twisted and turned and took me away from town, and my daily pedway travels dwindled. A few weeks ago, I noticed the garden my neighbors planted had died—the tree branches perilously twisted with decay, with one cracked branch hanging over the staircase. Booze bottles, chip bags, and pot vials littered the planter again, and the graffiti had begun to creep back onto the scene.

With school about to start, I was certain that someone else might step up and say something. I held myself back for a day, shocked that no one cared enough to bother—but then again, not really surprised. I picked up the phone and called the business improvement district.

The very next day, a man arrived with a chainsaw.

Now, though the tree is gone, a new problem has emerged. I’m thinking of installing a sign: “History lives here. Please remove your litter.”

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