Mulholland wanderings

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(published in June 2020)

What have you learned about your neighborhood during these quarantine times? I discovered Mulholland: the famous road and the somewhat forgotten Los Angeles visionary William Mulholland (1855-1935), after whom it is named. 

It happens that I live around the corner from Mulholland Drive (which, like most thoroughfares in Los Angeles, is mentioned simply by its first name). It runs about 21 miles east-west along the Santa Monica Mountain range separating the heart of Los Angeles from the sprawling San Fernando Valley. You can access the eastern end of Mulholland from Hollywood, a 2-mile drive just past the Hollywood Bowl. 

Like much of Los Angeles, Mulholland is not pedestrian-friendly. There is no footpath, not even a decent shoulder. I walk a tiny stretch every day to reach the northern entrance of Runyon Canyon, a hilly trail for fashionably attired hikers. After the city closed Runyon Canyon, I just kept on walking.

I was transfixed by the mountain views, the hidden houses, the cars, oh the cars! All the cool convertibles seem to parade along Mulholland, like fashion models on a catwalk. It is definitely the most beautiful drive in Los Angeles, crisscrossing the Hollywood Hills in a rustic two-lane route. 

Sure, I have driven it many times before, and I have stopped at its scenic overlooks to show off Los Angeles to friends and family. Walking is different, especially when the sky is ridiculously blue and the light seems perfect. I feel tiny, displaced, distracted by eagles, crows and colorful birds. Most of the photos on this page were taken in early April 2020, after a few days of rain. 

I have noticed more people walking Mulholland recently. And more bikers, too. And much more trash, unfortunately. Lots of cars park perilously along the road to take in the view. And before leaving, their inhabitants toss their trash: pizza boxes, beer cartons, paper wrappers. There is also a particularly disgusting type of trash: clear plastic bottles with a yellowish liquid inside. 

The trash has been accumulating. Last time I found an office safe by the road (photo in the end) in a very popular spot. It seemed like a movie prop. I can imagine the scene: the robbers break into a fancy hilltop house, explode the safe by the road, grab the gold and flee in their getaway car. 

I first learned about Mulholland Drive through the 2001 movie of the same name by David Lynch, who coincidentally lives nearby. A college student and movie buff in São Paulo, Brazil, I was getting my grip on the European nouvelle vague. I had learned to love to be lost in the universes of Antonioni, Godard, Chabrol. Lynch was similar. For me, it was more about the atmosphere than the plot. The blond, the brunette, the Club Silencio! 

Until a smartass friend told me she understood “everything” in Mulholland Drive. The internet had all the crazy theories, you have to read them, he said. Well, I replied, I would rather just move to Mulholland Drive. So I did. 

Today, more important to me than understanding Lynch’s movie is to understand Mulholland the man. I had a vague idea he was some multimillionaire who got rich during the old times of Los Angeles. But he actually helped build the city. Or better, he saved it. Mulholland was the water czar of Los Angeles. 

An adrenaline junkie from Ireland, William Mulholland arrived in California in 1877, aged 22 years, with five dollars in his pocket. He was looking for family members after some traveling across the United States doing odd jobs. He settled in Los Angeles, amazed by nature because it somehow reminded him of Ireland. Little did he know what an unruly dump the city was. The next year, he got a job as a driller of artesian wells at the Los Angeles Water Company. 

To learn about Mulholland’s life is to learn about Los Angeles’ history. And it happened that I had the perfect book at home to read between my walks. It is called Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water, and the Real Chinatown, by Marc Weingarten.  

Mulholland became a self-taught engineer and conceived an aqueduct to bring water to the city from Owens Valley, 233 miles away. It was the fourth-largest civil engineering project in American history at the time. Built between 1908 and 1913, the aqueduct saved the fast-growing desert metropolis from drought and allowed it to surpass San Francisco as the largest city in California. 

But the aqueduct also destroyed the farming community of Owens Valley: the water wars between the two regions are the “real Chinatown” (Chinatown is an allusion to Roman Polanski’s heavily fictionalized movie of the same name about Los Angeles’ water woes.) 

Marc Weingarten wrote: “Some say Los Angeles shouldn’t have been built at all. But there is no question that the Owens River plan that Mulholland envisioned was necessary and the right thing to do. The city at the time had no other recourse. Without the aqueduct, Los Angeles would have ceased to exist.” 

Mulholland was responsible for the construction of 19 dams until his last one ended in tragedy. In 1928, the St. Francis Dam, 40 miles from Los Angeles, collapsed just 12 hours after his safety inspection. The resulting flood killed around 430 people. The book has incredible tales of survivors. Even though an inquest determined that Mulholland was not criminally negligent, he was “condemned to live out his remaining years as a murderer by proxy,” Weingarten wrote. He died in 1935, aged 79

Frank Black has a song about it, St. Francis Dam Disaster. But a way way cooler music video is Free Fallin’, where Tom Petty sings “I wanna glide down over Mulholland”.

But let’s get back to Mulholland Drive. It was essentially a rural byway to nowhere when it opened in 1924. William Mulholland, at the height of his fame, was not involved in either its planning or construction. The name was a tribute to him, as the road was another grand urban conquest of nature, similar to his great aqueduct that traversed the Californian desert. 

But he had “dreams” of the idea in 1914: “He dreamed of a great scenic road along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains and a high-line water main through which to convey water to mountain states which he belive would dot both sides of the range”, according to the Automobile Section of the Los Angeles Times in 1924.

The opening was a big fanfare, with an all-day festival that continued “at full tide until after midnight”, reported L.A. Times. A photo of the ribbon-cutting ceremony shows a “somewhat embarrassed” Mulholland trapped inside several rings of dancing actresses, as described in the journal Technology and Culture, by Johns Hopkins Press (Vol. 40, July 1999). 

Mulholland “smashed a bottle of Los Angeles Acqueodut Water over the golden key and then inserted it into the gold lock holding the flowering chain together [to open the road gates]”, reported the paper.

Some developers were interested in turning “the barren waste of hills into a beautiful residential area,” according to Technology and Culture. But its remoteness — not to mention the threat of fires and landslides (still a threat today) — meant that it would take a generation for Mulholland Drive (then called Mulholland High Way) to thrive as a Hollywood hideaway (then called Hollywoodland). 

I walk Mulholland from the eastern end off Cahuenga Boulevard to Laurel Canyon Boulevard, a four-mile distance. By car, it can be done in ten minutes. By foot, it takes me a bit more than an hour, with all the stopping and clicking. 

I pass two scenic overlooks, as well as a fire station. I could continue past Quentin Tarantino’s house to Jack Nicholson’s pad. But I guess I am not such a good walker after all. Still, I hope you have enjoyed my photos. 

Interestingly, Mulholland Drive both starts and finishes at the 101 freeway. The eastern end is just off the Hollywood freeway portion of the 101, and the western end is at the Ventura freeway portion. Just before it finishes here, Mulholland Drive splits into the Mulholland Highway which winds for more than 50 miles until it reaches the Pacific Ocean.

I attempted to drive the length of Mulholland Drive, but failed. At the western end, I drove a few miles on an unpaved section, known as Dirt Mulholland, before hitting a gate (last photo). Past the gate was a dusty 8-mile track blocked to motor vehicles. You could bike or walk it, though.

Once you are back on Mulholland proper, following some circuitous driving through the suburbs of Tarzana and Encino, you will pass by the entrance (and only the entrance, don’t expect to get inside without an invitation) of some luxurious gated communities, such as Beverly Park, where Sylvester Stallone, Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington either live or used to live (per Wikipedia). There is also The Summit, where Britney Spears lived until recently.

And if you take a quick detour south of Mulholland down Coldwater Canyon, you can see the entrance to Beverly Ridge Estates, an exclusive community with just 14 mansions, including one being inhabited by Meghan Markle and her unemployed husband Prince Harry.


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