Los Angeles as film set: A new look at the lost Bunker Hill

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Author Jim Dawson photographed at the foot of Angels Flight by Gary Leonard (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Long before the busloads of tourists and soaring skyscrapers and Disney Concert Hall, the Bunker Hill area of downtown Los Angeles was a charming neighborhood marked by its stunning Victorian homes and vibrant street life.  A hundred years ago, as LA grew south and west, the once majestic structures had started to fall into disrepair; by the 40s and 50s, Bunker Hill was most notable for flophouses and heroin addicts, and city leaders plotted to mow it all down for the sake of progress.

Writer and historian Jim Dawson has long been fascinated with the area, since the days in the ’70s when he worked at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, just as the last of what remained on Bunker Hill was being razed.  He learned that as it had deteriorated, Bunker Hill had become a favorite spot for noir filmmakers.  Why build a grotty set on a back lot when there were real, live mean streets ripe for the shooting?  Dawson sleuthed out the history like a detective.

The result of his research is a new book called Los Angeles Bunker Hill: Pulp Fiction’s Mean Streets and Film Noir’s Ground Zero!  (His exclamation point, not ours.) I met Jim Dawson at the scene of what some people consider to be the worst crime in Los Angeles’ history: the decimation of Bunker Hill.  And he talked how the long-lost neighborhood is preserved in dozens of films.

“During World War II, the studios were forced to cut back on how much they spent on sets.  They started going out to the streets.  Directors would say if you shot on the streets, suddenly these films became much more real,” Dawson said.  “It was just a visually arresting place.”

Their was another charm: As it does even today “post-reconstruction,” Bunker Hill was Zelig-like in its adaptability.  Filmmakers used it as a stand-in location for other cities–they just had to shoot around the palm trees, Dawson said.

Still from the 1951 film Cry Danger

You can meet the author at Gary Leonard’s Take My Picture gallery downtown on Thursday night during Art Walk, and on Saturday evening there, too.  Special bonus: a photo exhibit of pictures from the time taken by the late George Mann.

Here’s the audio of my talk with Jim Dawson, which we had near the site of the topic of his first book, Angels Flight.