by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The phenomenal rise in the use of the automobile in car-centric Los Angeles was such that, by the late 1920s, ridership on the city’s streetcar system was significantly impacted, as was the ability of the Los Angeles Railway’s vehicles to maneuver through downtown streets increasingly choked with traffic. A ban on street parking only moderately helped as parking lots and structures became much more common.
Moreover, to deal with the financial ramifications, the LARY, as it was commonly known, received approval from the state railroad commission, the precursor to the California Public Utilities Commission, to raise rates 40% from five to seven cents per fare, though there was a discount for buying tokens. Still, the future was forbidding for the streetcar and the system very well could have been shut down and dismantled far earlier than 1961 if it weren’t for the successive crises of the Great Depression and World War II that kept this form of public transit viable.
Several previous posts have featured editions of Azuride, the pocket newsletter issued by LARY and which had the subtitle of “Thoughts by the Trolley Philosopher.” Issued semi-monthly, the publication offered brief and often pithy ruminations of the money and time saving benefits of street railroad transport, the problems of using the automobile on downtown jaunts, bits of humor and other material. This post highlights the 1 February 1929 edition, the front page of which reprints from the Electric Railway Journal concerning “A Simple Solution” for congested traffic.
This included such ideas as an architect who thought that cities could imitate Venice “with automobiles taking the place of gondolas, and graceful bridges spanning rapidly moving streams of traffic.” New York City’s mayor advocated creating tunnels up to three miles long “below existing subways,” which would certainly have been quite a feat, if even feasible. Then, there were ideas to “emulate Napoleon and cut wide swaths through valuable buildings to create new streets.”
These being fantastical and prohibitively expensive, it was felt that more practical concepts, while with “little romance,” were “likely to be far more effective. One of the former instances was from Chicago where the double-decked Wacker Drive, which replaced two thoroughfares and spanned a little over two miles, was completed in 1926 at a cost, the newsletter reported, of $22 million (though other sources state it was $8 million) but wound up “affording only limited relief.” More successful was “the elimination of parking in the loop district, at no cost at all, [and which] immediately increased both the volume and speed of traffic.”
The back page featured the reprinting of “An Interesting Letter” to the LARY from Thomas M. Braxton, a 20-year old who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad as a passenger agent. Braxton informed the streetcar company that “I traveled over the entire LARY system” and rode on the line all but 12 days in 1928 comprising nearly 1,700 car and a few dozen bus rides. All of these “cost me just $59.33 1/2,” but beyond the low cost, the devoted rider declared that
At no time during the year did any of these cars meet with any accident other than occasional taking off of a step . . . there were no serious delays and but a few minor ones . . . none of the 1683 conductors and 37 motor coach operations were anything but the most courteous. There were no arguments about fares or transfers . . . I have no reason to kick [complain] about the service or the “high” fares. They both suit me fine.
By contrast, the LARY took the opportunity to address commentary by the noted Los Angeles Times columnist and critic Alma Whitaker (1880-1956), who was said to have been so popular during her more than three decades writing for the paper that she purportedly received more fan mail than many film stars.
Whitaker, who was born in Handsworth, near Birmingham, England, but spent most of her early life in London, migrated to Los Angeles in early 1907 with her ill husband, who died with several years leaving her with a young son to raise. Whitaker apparently convinced the paper’s well-known columnist, editor and part-owner Harry Carr to give her a chance to demonstrate her skills and, by 1911, was working full-time for the Times.
By 1929, Whitaker had several regular columns and also was a theater reviewer, while her book, Trousers and Skirts was published by the paper’s printing division. The Azuride piece was titled “The Lamentations of Alma” and it was stated that “even though she may take a whole column in which to express her lamentations,” Whitaker’s work was always read “because she makes even her laments interesting” with her takes on everyday life stated “more vehemently than we can ourselves.”
The particular example concerned her frustration at trying to drive in a car to shop downtown and she was quoted as stating
One can hear the street car company chortling with glee at these mournful revelations. Voila! Use the street car. Don’t take you car down town. Keep it for strictly stylish occasions and the wide-open spaces.
Yet, she also pointedly noted that, while the LARY “always claimed that a car is a liability, never an asset,” they also raised the fare to 7 cents “and tickle our hopes with those fancy little refund checks” for two cents, which was part of a federal appeals court ruling as the City of Los Angeles challenged the increase, and which she concluded “my economical soul also bids me cherish against an improbable day.”
Azuride, however, chided Whitaker for professing that she was mindful of her finances in paying the cash fare by asking, “Is it possible that so economical a soul as she overlooks the fact that 12% can be saved in buying tokens?” Meanwhile, the LARY noted that “the solution of our big problem” was, in fact, “getting the masses of the people in ad out of the congested districts within a reasonable time” by encouraging commuters to take the streetcar rather than drive.
It added that a streetcar could not turn or move around a stalled auto because it was tied to the track “and when these tracks are blocked the incident delay inconveniences many people.” It professed to “have no quarrel with the average motorist” who generally was “a considerate and fair-minded citizen” and added that automobiles were “a necessity to family life.” Instead, the piece ended, “our plea is, that it does not interfere unnecessarily with the movement of the street car.”
As part of its attempts to remain viable and regain ridership, the LARY noted that it “has gotten out a very attractive booklet called ‘Seeing Los Angeles by Yellow Car and Bus,” with the publication providing routes plied by the card as well as how to use them to get to places of interest. Readers were encouraged to phone the company “and we will mail you one of these route books.”
The last little article concerned the McKinley Evening High School, which was located at the southeast corner of Vernon and McKinley avenues in South Los Angeles. It was noted that the school “offers courses in over twenty-five different lines of work” five nights a week from 7 to 9 p.m. with “a splendid corps of teachers” providing instruction for the free classes. Conveniently, the “V” car stopped right at the door to the campus and all of the yellow LARY cars operating in that area of town transferred to it.
McKinley began as the East Vernon School, opened in that newly expanding area of Los Angeles in 1892 and became the night school by 1915. In the nearly fifteen years until the mention in Azuride, the institution, as recorded by the 2 January 1928 edition of the Los Angeles Record offered courses “in all the commercial subjects, Spanish, English, civil service, mechanical and architectural drawing, orchestra, printing, furniture making, sewing and millinery.”
With the growing number of immigrants, especially recent arrivals from the revolution-torn México, it was added that
This evening school conducts classes for foreign-born students who wish to learn to read and write English, and in citizenship for those persons eligible to apply for their final citizenship papers.
McKinley continued to offer its classes into the 1940s, but major demographic changes involving the movement of the rapidly growing African-American community from the central core of Los Angeles to South Los Angeles led to a change with the campus, which became George Washington Carver Junior High School, a feeder to the nearby Jefferson High School, for the fall 1943 term following the death early that year of the great Black agricultural and botanical scientist, George Washington Carver. The school will soon be marking its 80th year under that name.
Each issue of Azuride had at least some transportation-related humor, denigrating the auto and praising the streetcar. So, one played off the Old Testament story of Lot’s wife by stating that, while she turned back, despite warnings to the contrary, to look at the doomed city of Sodom as she and Lot fled and as turned into a pillar of salt, “we know a fellow who looked back and turned into a street car.”
A limerick referred to that problem raised above with respect to cars halting the forward momentum of streetcars by noting that:
My motorman, Philander Meade,
Of the autos on car tracks takes heed
He can’t dodge, and can’t duck,
So he has little luck
In his inch-by-inch efforts to speed.
Finally, another little tidbit of versification about dangerous auto drivers fancied a heavenly realm where,
You will find no crazy speeders
All the angels are law-heeders,
You may safely cross the street;
None will knock you off your feet;
Wouldn’t such a state by sweet,
While we’re here?
The Museum’s collection has 17 issues of Azuride, so there will certainly be future editions of “From Point A to Point B” that will feature some of them, so please be on the lookout for them!