Living thirteen stories above one of the most dangerous and deadly curves in L.A.
BY JESSE KATZ
Three months after I moved to MacArthur Park, the feverish immigrant district that encompasses the frayed 32-acre oasis of the same name, a white 2011 GMC Sierra came barreling through the neighborhood. The truck was on Wilshire, LA’s grand sea-to-skyline boulevard, a street that east of Koreatown and west of downtown bisects the parkland itself. It was 1:20 am, a cool, dry October night.
The tires started skidding just below my thirteenth-story windows, where Wilshire first meets the perimeter of shaggy fan palms and spiky dragon trees. The truck leapt the curb, flattening two parking meters as it fishtailed, then crumpled into the concrete Art Deco balustrade that, in the 1930s, announced the boulevard as our Champs-Élysées. Oil and blood spilled onto the sidewalk. So did flesh, a grisly mash of tissue and muscle, even a severed foot. It would take hours for rescue crews to saw through the wreckage and comb the debris. The driver was arrested. Two passengers were pronounced dead at the scene.
I shudder at it now—the stuff, truly, of nightmares—yet as ghastly as the crash proved to be, I was almost more horrified to learn that I’d slept through it. My first inkling was the impromptu memorial that sprouted the next day, a spread of sunflowers and daffodils, votive candles and metallic balloons. At the center, affixed to the buckled wall with packing tape, was a collection of photos preserved in plastic sleeves. A wedding party. Raised champagne glasses. Toddlers with hair in bows. Lives had been irrevocably shattered right under my nose—the tragedy aided by the very landscape that had drawn me to this corner of the city—and I had been oblivious: a bad neighbor, a somnolent reporter.
MacArthur Park has contained a park since the 1880s, not long after the Southern Pacific Railroad’s completion helped transform Los Angeles from a dusty pueblo into a speculator’s jamboree. Until then, the alkaline sumphole between 6th and 7th streets had been a foul eyesore; during droughts, the swamp became so crusty it was known as LA’s Dead Sea. To turn this neglected hinterland into an open-air resort, the city piped in millions of gallons of fresh water, manufacturing a lake deep enough for boating and fishing and logrolling contests—a “dimple on the face of Nature,” as the poet and philanthropist Eliza Otis put it. The lake even hosted the stagecraft of a shackled Harry Houdini, who took the plunge as a crowd of thousands gasped and squirmed.
The park soon bloomed into a lush and rarefied sanctuary, insulated from the tumult of the turn-of-the-century boomtown. There were elegant hotels and smart boutiques and ritzy tearooms on all sides. Mrs. Otis lived at the western edge with the imperious General Harrison Gray Otis, founder of the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper that would draw me to LA in the 1980s. They called their mansion The Bivouac. Wilshire at the time dead-ended right there, halted by the lake, forcing eastbound traffic north or south. In 1920, after the publisher’s death, business leaders commissioned a life-size bronze statue of him, in double-breasted military garb and walrus mustache, and installed it atop a granite boulder at the southeast corner—where it still stands, just steps from the fatal wipeout haunting me now.
“Dangerous Road Is Guarded By Monument,” read a headline that year in Popular Mechanics, which described the statue as both a tribute and a preventative measure. “A Los Angeles boulevard comes to an end at the edge of a high embankment over a park lake,” the magazine explained, adding that “incautious motorists have gone over several times, but with fortunate results.”
In an aspiring metropolis of 4,000 square miles—a grid whose defining language was movement—a great boulevard cannot be allowed, of course, to come to a premature end. The campaign to extend Wilshire, to join east and west, to connect the city’s historic and political center to the commercial orbit of the Miracle Mile, Beverly Hills, Westwood, and ultimately Santa Monica, thus became something of a civic obsession. In 1922, the Times called Wilshire’s build-out “the biggest thing yet proposed for the advancement of Los Angeles.”
For the next dozen years, LA wrestled with the aesthetic and mechanical conundrums of getting Wilshire across or around the lake. The potential fixes, rendered in sketches to aid public debate, ranged from the elegant (bridges, tunnels) to the snide (pontoons, dirigibles). In the end, city hall embraced the most Angeleno of routes: not over or under but through the water, a dirt causeway that would split the park and shrink the lake. It is tempting to conclude that the automobile won that battle—a four-lane thoroughfare cleaving one of LA’s oldest green spaces—yet the longer I live here, the greater my doubts about the final score.
To limit costs and preserve as much of the natural landscape as possible, engineers chose to alter Wilshire’s trajectory. Rather than a straight shot, the boulevard would bend a few degrees as it traversed the park, a gentle curl to the north that conformed to the lake’s reconfigured lip. If Wilshire had been considered a danger before, when it came to an abrupt stop, its arced continuation would create an entirely new kind of obstacle—one magnified by the tide of cars it has been asked to accommodate ever since.
Snipping a garland of roses on December 8, 1934, the mayor called the undertaking the “definition of the spirit of Los Angeles progress.” Eighty-plus years later, it would be my dead-man’s curve.
They awake me now, the accidents, the knowledge lurking in the recesses of my sleep. Six years of screeches, thuds, hisses, crunches, bursts of glass, whooshes of flame: My brain is conditioned and my ear is attuned. After that first wipeout, I began keeping a tally, my own morbid exercise in neighborhood vigilance. The inevitability of it all made me think of a short story I’d read in high school, “The Holiday Celebrators,” in which a gang of wise guys wager on the highway death toll one Labor Day weekend.
I counted two crashes in 2011, two in 2012, one in 2013, two in 2014, three in 2015, and two in 2016. These were just the ones I was home for. I saw a Mercedes Benz land on its side and a Porsche burst into flames and a Lexus grind ass-end into the concrete. Once, while the police were out on Wilshire sizing up a Mitsubishi Montero that had flipped onto its roof, I watched a Chrysler Sebring slam into the curb and skid nearly up to the squad car—the rare twofer.
Most of these wrecks have occurred between midnight and 4 am, as the soju parlors and karaoke lounges a mile or two to the west empty out, and it seems reasonable to assume that some combination of alcohol and exhaustion and darkness conspires to make the bend in Wilshire more like a hairpin. The boulevard till that point is a corridor of faded apartments and modernist offices, a slot canyon that abruptly spills into the gloom of the park. The lake, as viscous as tar, looms ahead; beyond that, skyscrapers rise like beaded curtains. Rather than veering left, the hapless driver continues straight, adrift in the sudden emptiness—until he’s on the sidewalk and glissading toward the water. (The protective benefits of General Otis have proved illusory; in 2009, before I moved to MacArthur Park, a young woman died when she plowed her Scion headfirst into the statue.)
The lucky ones tend to bail as soon as they come to a stop, disappearing on foot into the shadows of the park. Those too disoriented or injured to run are probably just as stunned to discover that their first responders have emerged from those same shadows. A hundred years after its swankest days, 50 years after Jimmy Webb (with help from Richard Harris and Waylon Jennings and Donna Summer) immortalized it in trippy verse, and 25 years after its gang wars enmeshed the LAPD in what became the Rampart scandal, MacArthur Park is a modern-day frontier town, a crossroads for the newly arrived and the chronically unwell. The urban jungle now envelops the village green. By day the park is a burbling commons, full of soccer matches and soup kitchens, drum circles and gambling rings, ground zero for Central American evangelists bellowing into bullhorns and Hollywood film crews prowling for noir. After dark it reverts to a squatter’s camp, a tagger’s canvas, a tweaker’s playground, which is to say that no matter the hour of the crash someone will be on hand to sound the alarm—even if the rescuers might be as infirm as those needing rescue.
If I manage to fall back asleep, I will sometimes wake in the morning under a hazy spell, wondering if what I witnessed really occurred. I’ll wander down and size up the skid marks, pinpointing the exact juncture at which tires breached curb. I’ll kick my shoes over the shards of glass, the shreds of rubber, and try to make sense of my adopted neighborhood, its forgotten history, its perpetual thrum. MacArthur Park was the distraction I thought I needed when my son left for college, the sort of place for a single-dad empty-nester to reboot after two decades in the ethnic burbs. As someone who often writes about LA’s margins, I expected the hurly-burly; I didn’t expect a single corner to invade my subconscious. The crashes, each a shockingly public event, have become my private ritual.
I tell myself I should probably say something—surely I have an obligation to do more than gawk—and yet I always hesitate, waiting for a sign that what I experience is not invisible to the rest of the city, that somebody else knows or cares. But I already have my answer. You don’t notice it at first because it's not there: a 15-foot-long stretch of waist-high concrete that should be wrapping behind General Otis, a segment of the ornamental balustrade that’s supposed to cordon off the park from Wilshire. Like the missing teeth of someone too poor or afflicted to see a dentist, the gap expands year by year, each mishap removing a new chunk. LA has just learned to live with it.
In the first sentence of his Gen X novel, Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis famously wrote: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Driving was just another iteration of our estrangement, of lives too alienated and self-involved to care much about anything. In Crash, the Oscar-winning morality play, Paul Haggis went further, portraying us as car-cocooned tribes starving for the human contact of a real city: “I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
At my corner of Wilshire, the story isn’t so much man vs. man or even man vs. machine as man vs. city. The folks missing the turn are neither avoiding their fellow drivers nor colliding with them: They are smacking solo right into the built universe, tripped up by architectural decisions made at a time, long ago, when the city was dismantling its streetcar system and exalting car ownership as the new religion of personal freedom. LA rarely pauses to look in the rear-view mirror. More than most cities, we hurtle into the future, often without realizing where we’ve been.
Six times a day, roughly every hour, a cherry-red Starline Tours double-decker bus leaves Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre for the sights of the civic center. The route follows Wilshire for a stretch, and as the bus approaches my apartment, a prerecorded narrator—in a proper British accent, oddly—salutes the neighborhood’s place in the pop canon: “We are now entering MacArthur Park…where someone left a cake out in the rain.”
The bus usually keeps going—MacArthur Park is not on the official itinerary—but occasionally the driver pulls to the curb, to give folks on the open-air deck a steadier photo-op. No picture says LA better than the view of downtown from across the lake, a pleasure garden repurposed by refugees sandwiched against a fortress of glass and steel. Where the bus idles for that minute or two is the exact spot—really, you couldn’t have aligned it better if you tried—that every car has gone careering off Wilshire. Lately, a homeless encampment has sprung up there, too, a tumble of soiled blankets and flattened cardboard right behind the wall’s missing link.
Nobody, on the bus or in the bushes, would have any reason to know the name David Lee. I do only because he was the driver who, as I slept that October night, decided to gun his truck 85 mph down Wilshire, a 35 mph zone punctuated by stoplights. It is hard to imagine how that could have happened, both the psychology and the physics of it. He was 27 then, an unemployed mortgage processor on his way home to Orange County from a mediocre sports bar a few miles up the street from me. Riding with him were three friends. The two not wearing seatbelts were the ones who didn’t make it.
I’d always figured the guy must have gone to prison, which I’ve come to learn he did, though he was required to serve only half his five-year sentence for gross vehicular manslaughter, so he’s been out a few years already. As I flipped through the court file recently, one calamitous fact jumped off the page: The dead included Lee’s best friend, someone who’d named him godfather to his two little girls. Long before the accident, Lee had vowed to support the children if they were ever left fatherless, and at his sentencing, after he accepted responsibility and expressed remorse, Lee pleaded for leniency, to begin fulfilling that promise as soon as possible. “I can’t replace him,” Lee told the judge, “but I can…fill in his shoes.”
Those girls were just one and two years old at the time, too young to understand what had happened. But at some point—assuming Lee follows through, which I want to believe he has—they will come to an awful realization, that the man doing right for them is also the man who killed their dad. I can’t look at the corner now without that burning in my head.
Whatever this fragment of LA geography means to anyone else, to the tourists and the vagabonds, the wide-eyed and the dazed, its secret history remains mine. The bus always moves on. The hobos come and go. But one of these nights, sooner or later, I will be jolted awake.
JESSE KATZ spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Times and nine years with Los Angeles magazine. Winner of the James Beard Foundation’s M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, he is also the author of a memoir, The Opposite Field.