In the heart of downtown Los Angeles there’s a series of tunnels running between buildings. I first learned about the tunnels from Atlas Obscura, which noted that they were once used during the prohibition to connect various basement speakeasies. Apparently the tunnels are 11 miles long.
So this week I set out to find them myself. After reading this Yelp page, I discovered I needed to find the door in the picture to the left (click to enlarge), which is located at the back of the LA County Hall of Records on the west corner of Broadway and Temple.
The Hall of Records itself was designed by famous modernist architect Richard Neutra and is worth poking around for architecture buffs.
Anyway, it turns out the door is located on the south side of the building in a covered loading dock. When I arrived I didn’t immediately see it, but I did see a couple of people with decent cameras walking around looking at the building. They seemed to be searching for something and when I asked it turned out they too were looking for the tunnels.
Their names were Adrian and Holly, and when I showed them the pictures on Yelp they immediately knew where the door was. They hadn’t tried it yet, however, because it looks like a back entrance that wouldn’t be public.
But it is. In fact, according to a sign posted on a nearby plaza, they tunnels are public property and open daily.
After walking through the door, Adrian, Holly, and I found ourselves in what appeared to be a storage facility filled with boxes of papers. It felt weird because we were behind the scenes in a government building, but a few people walked by and didn’t seem to think twice about coming across three strangers. In fact, before we got much further I asked a lady who was walking around where the tunnels were, and she helpfully pointed us in the right direction.
Which was part of a surprising discovery I made over the course of this outing: The tunnels are actively used by workers in the area. They’re relatively obscure and thus interesting to find, but for a small group of Angelenos they’re also part of daily life.
In any case, we walked by more boxes, a row of dumpsters, and then finally found ourselves at the beginning of the actual tunnels. The scene was one born of utilitarian design; smooth concrete and florescent lights made it feel halfway between a business space and a bunker, with just a hint of that eeriness you sometimes feel when you find an urban frontier.
As we pressed on several things stood out. First, the tunnels became quite hot, presumably from heated water running through the pipes. The heat increased dramatically the deeper we went.
There’s also not much graffiti in the tunnels, which was surprising given the amount of graffiti in LA generally. I took this as further evidence that the tunnels are both well used and regularly maintained.
And finally, it got really noisy as we went deeper.
Eventually the tunnels led us to a dead end at a locked door. Curiously, even at the deepest, noisiest, hottest part of the tunnels, there was still a young woman walking around who seemed to be leaving work.
Ultimately, we turned around after taking some pictures and peering through the gates that led to closed-off tunnels. It would have been cool to explore these areas, but what we did see still offered an interesting glimpse into a little-known part of LA’s past and present. For more images, click through the gallery below.
— Jim Dalrymple II