The Soto Street Bridge appears to have a date with a wrecking crew after a city staff report said that the nearly 80-year-old El Sereno span was not worthy of historic monument status, which could keep the bulldozers at bay.
The nearly 500-foot-long bridge, which once carried Red Car trolleys over the junction of Soto, Mission Road and Huntington Drive, had been nominated by the El Sereno Historical Society as a historic landmark as the city prepares to demolish the structure for a traffic and safety improvement project. A historic monument application prepared by historian Charlie Fisher claimed that the bridge was historically significant because of its Art Deco-style and as an example of the Pacific Electric Railway network.
But a staff report by the Department of City Planning challenged those claims, saying the bridge was not a “particularly outstanding or distinctive” example of Art Deco style. In addition, the report said there were many other remaining pieces of the Pacific Electric Railway “that may better convey the essence of this significant railway system.” The report recommended that the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission, which oversees landmark nominations, reject the monument application for the “Pacific Electric’s Soto Street Bridge.”
It’s not clear how the Cultural Heritage Commission will respond to the staff recommendation.
Part of the nomination process included a field trip to the bridge organized by the Office of Historic Resources. On a rainy afternoon in February, the commissioners, who traveled via a city van, along with residents, members of the historical society and a police escort huddled under the Soto Street bridge, where beer bottles, dead pigeons, rubbish and loose gravel littered the ground.
Fisher spoke to the crowd on its historical significance. Though his voice was drowned out by the sound of traffic, the small crowd paid close attention. The bridge carried the Pacific Electric Railway Red Car over Mission Road until the 1950s when the tracks were removed. Now the bridge feeds into El Sereno from Soto Street, diverges, with roads going over, under and branching off from Huntington Drive into Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights.
During the field trip, architect and commissioner Richard Barron stood under the bridge and detailed the process of reviewing sites that could be declared Historic Cultural Monuments. When asked if he was familiar with the bridge before the nomination Barron hesitated. “I was somewhat knowledgeable of the historical significance. I never stood underneath the bridge before,” said Barron.
In 2001 the Bureau of Engineering reported that the bridge did retain many of the Art Deco ornamental elements and might qualify for the Bridge Improvement Program that would restore bridges throughout Los Angeles. But a 2002 report from the California Department of Parks and Recreation stated that the Soto Street Bridge “has lost its historic function and lacks integrity of materials, design, feeling and association.”
A 2004 study from the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Engineering found the Soto Street Bridge a “seismic hazard” and proposed that the bridge be demolished as part of a restructuring for traffic flow.
The bridge is an eyesore to nearby resident Perry Petschar who has lived across the street from the bridge all his life. “During rush hour it takes forever to cross, because there are no traffic signals. It was built for something that doesn’t exist anymore,” says Petschar referring to the railway car.
When the commissioners and police escort left the site, a handful of people wearing T-shirts in support of saving the bridge lingered. Jorge Garcia, of El Sereno’s Historical Society, his wife Yolanda and their son stood under the bridge as traffic went by, and cars honked their horns.
Yolanda Garcia mentioned that as a child her family traveled over the bridge when she would visit her grandmother in Boyle Heights. It has always signified coming home for her.
“It’s been neglected. I would hope that the bridge does receive monument status, because we might have memories of landmarks after they’re gone, but why not save them instead?”
Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis stories, reviews and photos at Smashed Chair.