The California Incline
I first learned about the California Incline in Carolyn See’s novel Making History, which I read not long after moving to Southern California in 1991. It wasn’t the portrayal that struck me. See describes the road in the most pragmatic terms: an abbreviated slope of blacktop, a quarter of a mile in length, tacked onto the Santa Monica palisades, slipping downward to the Pacific Coast Highway. What I found compelling was that name. The California Incline. The very phrase suggested possibility, gateway to the Pacific, dividing line between the ocean and the coast. As a newcomer, I wanted a piece of history, a story in which I might fit. This is what we do in Los Angeles: make myth out of landmarks that might otherwise seem banal, even dreary, and invest them with gravity. The desire was driven further by a second novel, Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 noir In a Lonely Place, which opens with a psychopath trailing a woman down the Incline on a fog-drenched night. The scene dripped with atmosphere, so much atmosphere that I could not help but be disappointed by the Incline in real life. Built in 1930, it was already a relic by the time I saw it, the hillside underneath eroding, concrete deco railing crumbling and pocked with age.
This, of course, was as it should be, although I did not understand that until later on. It took having children, setting down roots, to shake off the myths of Southern California and immerse myself in its enduring daily life. When my kids were young, we used to drive the Incline every time we found ourselves in Santa Monica, delighting at the stomach-dropping churn when I would turn left off Ocean Avenue and accelerate, the Pacific glinting blue-white through the windshield, across the slanted surface of the road. The experience brought back a whisper of my childhood, a hill not far from where my grandparents lived in Connecticut that my father liked to take at equivalent speed. Driving the Incline, I would recall sitting in the back seat, the anticipation of the rise and then the sharp descent, and smile at the way the generations had eclipsed. The roads may have been different, one bounded by pine woods and the other not especially bounded at all, but the Incline left me with the sense that I was now a part of a place.
Transplants have to stay somewhere for a while to make it theirs. For me, the Incline has become a shabby-chic monument to this idea. Now it is closed for reconstruction, and I worry about what will be left when work is done. Will it still resemble the landmark I invested with weight, the road I drove with my children? Will I recognize it, recognize my memories, or will all that be erased? Southern California, its critics like to insist, is a landscape of forgetting, but I no longer believe this to be the case. Rather, like the Incline, it is a landscape of association, in which the connections we make, our attachments, are what render us native.