Walking in L.A.: The Bridges of Boyle Heights

April brings better temperatures and longer days to Los Angeles. It felt like the right time to head to Boyle Heights and trek through the bridges that connect one side of the city to the other.

I was 13 when I watched the movie American Me. That movie explained the literal division in the city that kept brown people out of the areas of Los Angeles with money. That division was the Los Angeles River.

The film explained how Latinos had to drive or take a bus across the river in order to work in the big houses of Los Angeles. When the work day concluded, it was back across the river over the bridges. The line of division may be blurry these days but it still exists. And if you stick to the bridges, it’s as obvious as ever.

First Street

Our walk began at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. We walked on First Street under the 101 freeway toward the First Street Viaduct. As you pass under the freeway and approach the bridge, the street splits in the center, where the subway emerges.

Our walk would use the bridges to zig zag between Boyle Heights and the Los Angeles Arts District but I knew all the art we cared about would be on the Boyle Heights side. We hit an art studio before reaching the bridge. There were Chicano murals all around the property. One impressive piece is Oaxaca Ingobernable. It portrays a woman with a bandanna and floral head cover. She’s lowering her sunglasses to flash her sharp eyes. Draped in front of the mural is a netting adorned with artificial roses over the gray background.

Oaxaca Ingobernable mural

The bridge itself begins at Mission Road. The Art Deco structure was closed for several years in the early 2000’s to add metro tracks to it. At its center, you stand above the concrete-walled Los Angeles River and get your first glance of the next three bridges that cross it at Fourth Street, Sixth Street, and Seventh.

Toward the end of the bridge, there’s a staircase that takes you down to Santa Fe Avenue. In the past, this was a neighborhood for manufacturing but over the years as manufacturing dwindled, the warehouses became prime real estate opportunities for a select few. The area now consists of expensive lofts and retail centers catering to young, mostly white, transplants. While we walked Santa Fe to the Fourth Street Bridge, the only brown people we saw besides my wife and I were there in a working capacity.

Train heading south about to cross beneath Sixth Street Viaduct

Fourth Street

We walked up Fourth and crossed the river for a second time. An Amtrak train came out from beneath the bridge and continued south on the edge of the river toward the massive Sixth Street Viaduct. At the other end of the bridge, we dropped to Mission Road and continued south.

The arches of the Sixth Street Viaduct in construction

The colorful walls of graffiti on Mission Road’s forgotten buildings stand in direct opposition to the expensive west side of the river. Perhaps this has always been the case but it feels more obvious now than ever before. Seemingly every wall on Mission was covered with art. There were many great ones but the one that stood out for me was the COVID-inspired The Air U Breathe Kills.

The Air U Breathe Kills mural

We walked underneath the Sixth Street Viaduct, which is currently a massive structure of steel and wood. Eventually, it will come together to form a modern bridge unlike any other in Los Angeles. The original Sixth Street Viaduct, along with many other Los Angeles bridges, was designed by Merrill Butler. Like the old bridge, the new bridge will have arches at the eastern end as it extends beyond the river, over the 101 freeway, and drops you into Boyle Heights. And that is where the similarities with the old bridge end. The new bridge has more in common with the new luxury developments of Los Angeles than with the city’s Art Deco and Victorian past.

Seventh Street

We made our way to the last bridge of the walk, the Seventh Street Viaduct. Seventh lacks the grandeur of the Sixth Street Viaduct. First Street and Cesar Chavez are closest to the center of Los Angeles and get more attention. But to Angelenos, Seventh tells one of the best stories. See, this bridge is already living a second life. In a city that insists on demolishing its landmarks to make new things, the Seventh Street Bridge stands as one occasion where the city decided it was better to leave the old in place. The original bridge was built in 1910 for the city’s trolleys. In 1927, a new bridge was placed over the existing one and extended so car traffic would not have to worry about crossing train tracks, creating the Seventh Street Viaduct. When seen from the river or adjacent bridges, Seventh looks like a double decker bridge. There is a space of 20 feet between the surface of the original bridge and the bottom part of the new one. Accessing the space requires some effort but it is possible to get to it and do some urban exploration.

You can spot the original 1910 Seventh Street Bridge framed by the Sixth Street construction

We crossed the bridge and were back on Santa Fe for the final stretch of our Los Angeles walk. We walked north zig zagging through various small streets in search of more street art or other gems. The one thing that did catch my eye was a Kobe and Gianna piece. Once at First Street, we crossed the bridge and made our way back to Mariachi Plaza. We purchased a champurrado on a corner to celebrate the end of our journey.

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