The opening of a pedestrian tunnel underneath Sunset Boulevard at Golden Gate Avenue in 1924 was welcomed by Silver Lake residents, providing safe passage to children attending Micheltorena Elementary School. After several students were hit by cars while crossing Sunset, the city spent $10,400 to build a 75-foot-long tunnel, one of the first of many such underground passages built near schools in the 1920s and 1930s. But the eight-foot wide tunnel was fenced off and locked up years ago amid concerns about public safety. Instead of providing safe passage for children, the Micheltorena tunnel became a haven for drug users and the homeless, its trash-filled stairs easily viewed from school playground above. While some consider the tunnel as a piece of Los Angeles history, LAPD Senior Lead Officer Al Polehonki contends that it is now time to seal the tube.
“My biggest concern is the kids’ safety … or if someone is yanked in down there,” said Polehonki. “We need more of a permanent type of solution.”
Polehonki has grown more concerned about the Micheltorena tunnel after a new group of homeless persons have taken residence in the passage.
Not all pedestrian tunnels have turned into trouble spots. In other neighborhoods, school employees have the keys to tunnel gates to allow students to pass through when needed, Polehonki said. It’s not clear when the Micheltorena tunnel was last used by school kids, but a former school principal told the L.A. Times in 1987 that vandals would frequently break through the locked tunnel fence.
Polehonki said the chain link fence and locks on both sides of the tunnel entrance have failed to keep vandals and the homeless away. He himself has repaired the fence and replaced the locks multiple times. “It’s always been a temporary fix,” said Polehonki.
On Tuesday, Polehonki took The Eastsider for a tour of the tunnel, filled with piles of soggy garbage, beer bottles and other debris. In the center of the tunnel, mattress sat on wood pallets near a chest of drawers. Sheets strung across the tunnel created small rooms. The tunnel walls were decorated with a pair of posters, and the words “Mouse House” were scrawled in black spray paint. But no one was home.
A similar underground passage had been sealed up with concrete a few blocks east near Sunset and Myra, Polehonki said. The 1987 Times story said it cost $13,000 to close a tunnel. It’s not clear what closing the tunnel would cost now.
Council District 13 has been aware of problems with the Micheltorena tunnel for several years, said district spokeswoman Julie Wong. Right now, the city will focus on getting the homeless who currently live in the tunnel to move to a safer shelter. Long term, “we are trying to see if there is another way we can secure the tunnel.”
But the most recent call to close the old tunnel has met with mixed reaction. Silver Lake resident Lisa Henschel, whose son attends Micheltorena, said it would be great to find a way to make what some consider a piece of history into an active and safe alternative to crossing busy Sunset Boulevard. Henschel suggested that maybe a heavy-duty barrier could be installed to close off the tunnel entrances until a solution could be found reopen the tunnels.
But, she concedes, there are many other parents who feel differently. “There is the other contingent that wants to fill it in with cement.”