We got the tip late Saturday night: a screenshot from a Nextdoor post, shared by a worried Angeleno who knew we’d take the case. Esotouric is nominally a Los Angeles tour company, but like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (the star of one of our more popular outings), we’re suckers for a noir mystery, and we work cheap.
Hyperion Bridge Light Pole Theft, wrote a resident of Atwater Village. “On Wednesday evening about midnight my neighbor saw 4 Hispanic men with a battery operated saw stealing an entire large light pole off the Hyperion Bridge.” Police were called and responded to the scene, but declined to take a report. By Friday night, a second pole was gone. By Saturday, it was three.
We knew exactly the poles the guy was talking about. While helping to get Sheila Klein’s streetlight sculpture Vermonica reinstalled in East Hollywood, it was the unique Glendale Hyperion streetlight that gave the Bureau of Street Lighting the most trouble. The custom bullet-shaped nuts that secured the bronze pole to its base had oxidized from proximity to the lawn sprinklers, and even with a bunch of big, strong guys wrenching from all directions, they couldn’t be unscrewed. Finally, they cut through and discarded them, which is why we have four handsome, historic nuts on our bookshelf today.
These are our nuts, and the reinstalled Glendale Hyperion bridge pole as it appears in the restored Vermonica, with its lotus like lower lip and elegant fluted shaft narrowing to a flared, ringed neck. In a row of beautiful streetlights, the green goddess is a star.
The only other place that this particular design can be found in Los Angeles is on the bridge, a complicated piece of automobile and pedestrian infrastructure and historic monument that connects Silver Lake and Atwater Village, spanning both the 5 Freeway and the River. Here’s a link to the Google streetview so you can get the lay of the land.
That night, we shared a photo of the two sentry light poles framing the World War I memorial portion of the bridge on social media, and asked Angelenos to be on the look out for the missing artifacts. We didn’t know if the sentries were still safe (at least as of Sunday afternoon, they were).
On Sunday, we got in touch with the civic-minded gentleman in Atwater Village and got the skinny on the caper—how all the lights had been out on that side of the bridge for a week or more, how his neighbor spotted the suspicious crew of older dudes in mismatched safety vests sawing the base of the poles after hours, the cops who told them to file an online report, and how now it seemed like every time he looked at the bridge, another hefty bronze streetlight had vanished.
There was only one thing to do: visit the scene of the crime and snoop for clues. Arriving at the bridge via the 5 North, we were glad to see the twin sentries still on patrol.
But when we parked alongside the dirt pile known as Red Car River Park and walked onto the bridge, evidence of the smash and grab ring was everywhere.
Rippled plastic lamp shade shards filled the gutter, showing that this crew wanted the metal and had no interest in delivering an intact light fixture.
Where the first pole had been removed, naked electrical wires hung out of the base, and we maintained a respectful distance.
At the end of the span, a DWP truck was parked with its lights flashing. The crew didn’t know or care much about stolen streetlights, but was there to check on reports of exposed wires. And by the way, lady, watch your step, because those loose ones might carry 5000 volts. Gulp!
But the wires, subject to much meddling by vandals and unhoused people who have been living inside the bridge, were giving off a lower voltage than expected. It’s still nothing to mess around with, and we were glad professionals were working their way down the bridge to neutralize the risk where the three poles had been snatched.
The remaining streetlights, too, showed evidence of tampering, with most of the nuts cut in anticipation of a return visit by the gang, who would make quick work of what remained, assuming barely bolted, heavy poles didn’t topple over into the River or onto a pedestrian first! (That 4.3 quake in Carson on Friday night was felt across the Southland.)
Back at the Red Car River Park end of the span, we ran into the fellow who had spotted the thieves on Wednesday night. He filled us in on the bridge’s many problems, and gave a gimlet-eyed account of the the robbers’ expensive tools and quick, professional technique. He’d been talking with a cop who was interested in the streetlights and was taking the theft seriously, and we got that officer’s contact info.
Our new friend was pretty hard-boiled, yet just about the most caring and observant neighbor any problematic bridge could want. Where did he think these guys would take the stolen poles to sell? One of those scrap yards in Sun Valley, definitely. They don’t ask a lot of questions. There was still plenty of light, so we hopped back on the 5 bound for the scrap district.
We didn’t really expect to find the missing streetlights, especially since all the scrap yards were locked for the evening, but it seemed like the kind of thing a noir detective would do, and we always enjoy exploring the industrial edges of the city.
So you can say we’re on the case, and as is always the case when we get an historic preservation burr under our saddle, we won’t let up until the lost landmark is saved, or the story of its loss helps us understand what it means to be an Angeleno. We’ve followed up with the cop on the case, the Bureau of Street Lighting, Council Districts 4 (Nithya Raman) and 13 (Mitch O’Farrell), the City Attorney’s local Neighborhood Prosecutor, the Office of Historic Resources and the Project Lead for the $62 Million Glendale Hyperion Bridge Improvement Project.
Those bronze streetlights are out there, and so are four guys with mismatched safety vests, expensive tools and no sense of civic responsibility. They just want money, and money can’t buy replacements for what they’ve stolen. We can’t let them strip our bridge of her jewels.
Those lovely lights illuminated the roadway when our grandparents crossed the River to get a meal at the Tam O’Shanter, and they ought to be lighting the way when our grandchildren soar by in their gyrocopters. And if we’ve got anything to say about it, they will!
• Update, November 8, 2021: Instagram user @zeppelinarts reports that another of the streetlights vanished on the west side of the bride, at Waverly and Hyperion, around Friday, November 5.
• Update, January 2, 2022: Facebook page Atwater Village News reports, with heartbreaking photo evidence: “Nearly all the historic metal lamp posts on the #HyperionBridge have been stolen. No arrests, no leads, no consequences for those stealing.”
• Update: January 4, 2022: The Eastsider blogs that it’s actually city crews removing the lamp posts to protect them from thieves, after another ten (!!!) were stolen since September.
• Update: January 5, 2022: Gregory Yee reports in the Los Angeles Times “22 historic streetlights gone from Glendale-Hyperion bridge,” with quotes from our Richard Schave, streetlight historians Glen Norman and Jack Feldman, World War I historian Courtland Jindra, and city reps, although LAPD did not answer questions about the investigation. Thefts have continued through this last week, and there are no definite plans to replace or replicate the historic poles. 22 stolen poles is five more than the Eastsider was told were missing yesterday. (Archive link.)
Additional 1/5/2022 coverage: Fox 11 News (“So many street lights have been stolen from the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, LA is taking the rest down”), ABC 7 video (“Thieves stealing lampposts on Glendale-Hyperion bridge from Atwater Village to Silver Lake”). Also, on Facebook a local metal caster shared this mock-up for proposed aluminum replicas to replace the stolen poles.
• Update: January 12, 2022: Removal of the remaining historic light poles by a city work crew is documented on Eastsider LA. And KCRW’s Greater LA host Steve Chiotakis interviews streetlight historians Jack Feldman and Glen Norman, Theft of century-old street lights casts darkness over bridge and neighborhood residents.
• Update, February 9, 2022: As Los Angeles City Council sends two motions to the Public Works Committee seeking a report on how to protect Los Angeles streetlights from metal thieves and hold scrap metal and recycling yards accountable, Bureau of Street Lighting gives a verbal report on the crisis to that committee. (For these motions, see Council Files 22-0152 and 22-0156. and an additional motion for CD12 proposed on 2/16/22).
• Update, April 19, 2022: A written report from the Bureau of Street Lighting (PDF link, from here) spells out the enormous scale of metal theft from city light poles, estimating it would take 80 years and cost $400 Million to make them safe from scavengers. We think it would be far quicker and cheaper to investigate the scrap yards that buy and melt this public property.
• Update, May 30, 2022: See where the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge streetlights are stored for safekeeping at the Bureau of Street Lighting yard in our video visit.
• Update, June 27, 2022: A post on the Bureau of Street Lighting Facebook page says “We are doing what we can to protect our streetlights” and shows a crew at work on the “new and improved fortification practices [that] have been implemented to decrease copper wire theft, power theft, and other forms of vandalism of our circuits.”
Learn more about preserving historic Los Angeles streetlights and restoring Vermonica in the on-demand webinar, and sign up to get updates on preservation and cultural history in our newsletter, available in free and subscriber editions. There’s a Raymond Chandler webinar, too.