If a 1950s air raid siren falls in South Los Angeles, will anybody come and get it?
Greetings from your friendly historic Los Angeles sightseeing tour company, now offering digital programming until we can again organize groups to gather and explore the city we love.
Trying to preserve and tell the stories of Los Angeles landmarks is an interesting vocation. We never know when we wake up if we’ll be mourning an unexpected loss like Beverlywood Bakery (established 1946, closed forever on Saturday, April 30) or jumping into action to save something cool from the scrapyard. Obviously, our preference is to save rather than mourn. It feels good to make an effort / difference and tell a story with a positive spin.
Last Monday, we got a call from Kelvin Garvanne, a volunteer at the Project 43 Team Post Centers community non-profit in the Hyde Park neighborhood of South Los Angeles.
He was standing in Project 43’s parking lot, looking at a decommissioned air raid siren that had toppled over three days earlier, crushing the fence and scaring the hell out of everybody in the old Crenshaw Dog & Cat Hospital building.
Calls to the city were going nowhere, and he’d found our names in a recent L.A. Taco story about the preservation of these decommissioned scraps of cold war infrastructure. (We also shot a short siren video with Spectrum News.)
Kelvin thought we might like to come down and give the fallen siren a proper send off, and he wondered if we knew what agency (if any) would take responsibility to haul the enormous thing away.
Of course we felt called to pay our respects to Air Raid Siren No. 184*, a designated Los Angeles historic resource (there are 150 such artifacts on the Survey LA list, and even more on this crowdsourced map tied to Dennis Hanley’s essential Wirechief siren site). And we wanted to help Project 43 regain access to the lot they use for food distribution and community events.
[* Update May 23, 2022: The page for Air Raid Siren No. 184 on the city’s Survey L.A. website now returns an error message. This working link was captured on Archive.org on April 29, 2022. A different page (Archive.org link) now exists for No. 184 that says “No image available,” although there is a photo on the dead link that worked last month. The link to all 150 surveyed air raid sirens also returns this error message, but you can still search for "Air Raid Sirens and Civil Defense, 1939-1960" on the site—a result which now returns 148 results, down from 150.]
So Tuesday morning found us at 71st and Crenshaw, with a detour through Downtown to photograph the development threatened Morrison Hotel (Morgan, Walls and Morgan, 1914). The skies cooperated to frame a portrait of a handsome and useful rent controlled residency hotel that has been held vacant for fifteen years, and ought to be again a home for Angelenos—or at least not partially demolished for a boutique hotel conversion.
We understood intellectually that the air raid siren that had fallen was very big and had caused some damage, but when we arrived at Project 43, we gasped. Like the Eagle Tree* which toppled in April, it was an awesome historic object that could very easily have killed someone when it fell. And how ironic that an alert system installed to make 20th century Angelenos safer has been left unmaintained to become a danger to their grandchildren.
When we arrived at Project 43, we didn’t know what was going to happen with the air raid siren, but we figured that calling city offices from the site might be effective.
But then something kind of magical happened: Richard phoned the Bureau of Street Lighting, the division that was so helpful with the reinstallation of Sheila Klein’s sculpture Vermonica at the end of 2020. He was prepared to explain about the fallen air raid siren, and ask if they had any suggestions getting it picked up. But BSL already knew all about it, through the city grapevine—and a work crew and crane were on their way!
And with a shovel, wrenches, a sling and a wrecking bar, the skilled and gracious BSL crew made quick work of disassembling Air Raid Siren No. 184 and loading it up for transport to the street lighting boneyard in East Hollywood! And Project 43’s parking lot was once again available for community events—though somebody needs to pay for the ruined gate.
No. 184 is safe now, a little battered but ready to be fixed up and returned to community view in some fashion. But in toppling over, it sounds a serious alarm: with 150 decaying, designated cultural resource sirens spread across the city, City Hall needs to step up and ensure that they’re structurally sound.
These sirens tell a story about our city’s role in the geopolitical past, and they can be a part of our future. But not if they’re ignored and allowed to rust out.
Until the city comes out with a policy of checking their health, we’ll encourage you to keep an eye on your local air raid siren, but from a healthy distance. And we hope you enjoy the spectacle of the Bureau of Street Lighting making quick work of No. 184 as much as we did.
* And speaking of Compton’s landmark, fallen Eagle Tree…
We are delighted to tell you that it has landed in a temporary safe location—in one piece thanks to all the good work of our preservation pals at Mr. Crane, seen lifting the majestic trunk below. This ancient sentinel will not be cut up into little pieces, but will live again as an historic object. Stay tuned for more Eagle Tree news as we have it.
yours for Los Angeles,
Kim & Richard
Psst… If you’d like to support our efforts to be the voice of places worth preserving, we have a tip jar and a subscriber edition of this newsletter. Or just share this link with other people who care.
In the latest subscriber's edition of this newsletter—$10/month, cheap!—The Ghost of Harry Bergman's Roadside Museum on Highway 371: of provenance, weed murders, big lizards and the transformative effect of green glass shards lit by the sun.
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