The Hollywood Sign might be one of the most recognisable things on Earth. In Los Angeles, it's also one of the most visible. You can see it from a plane as you glide into LAX. You can see it from a car as you drive up the 101 freeway. But a group of people who live near the sign are trying to hide it, even as it looms in the hills, in plain sight. By removing it from Google Maps.
Why hide the Hollywood Sign? It begins with the story of the Hollywood locals vs. the Hollywood tourists. For decades, the people who live below the sign have been battling the constant wave of sightseers who flock to see the nine giant letters as part of an Essential Los Angeles Pilgrimage. Signs (some illegal) have been erected on streets, warning that there is "No access to the Hollywood Sign."
But in the last few years, technology has amplified this battle into an all-out war. Since they can't physically block the streets to stop cars from arriving, residents have spent years working on the next best solution: Make the sign invisible online -- so no one can find it.
"How do you get to the Hollywood Sign?"
The sign hangs off the side of Mt. Lee, a peak in the Santa Monica mountain range that runs east to west through Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the U.S. While you're not allowed to scramble right up to the letters and take a seat on the W, you can summit the mountain itself, rewarding yourself with a stunning view of the city, the famous reversed-out letters at your feet (it's where I shot the photo below). The best access is from nearby Beachwood Canyon, home of the original Hollywoodland neighbourhood that the sign was erected to advertise in 1923, at the end of a steep but well-maintained trail.
My photo from behind the Hollywood Sign, taken during the urban hike The Big Parade in 2009
When I first moved to LA 13 years ago, I lived at the base of Bronson Canyon, one canyon over. From our street we had a fairly clear shot of the sign and on the weekends there were often tourists taking what would later be known as selfies with H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D behind them. Whenever I hiked through the neighbourhood and up into the park, I'd have at least one carful of visitors stop me to ask for driving directions to the sign.
For starters, the sign is in a park, so you can't really drive there, I'd say watching their faces deflate. Then I'd deliver the second piece of bad news: To actually get to the sign, you have to hike, and even then, you end up above it. When I'd try to explain that where they were at the moment was probably the easiest place to get the best view, they'd often wave me off, determined they could get much closer by feeling it out themselves.
So close, yet so far away. Picture: Seng Phomphanh
But the sign is both tempting and elusive. That's why you'll find so many tourists taking photos on dead-end streets at the base of the Hollywood Hills. For many years, the urban design of the neighbourhood actually served as the sign's best protection: Due to the confusingly named, corkscrewing streets, it's actually not that easy to tell someone how to get to the Hollywood Sign.
That all changed about five years ago, thanks to our suddenly sentient devices. Phones and GPS were now able to aid the tourists immensely in their quests to access the sign, sending them confidently through the neighbourhoods, all the way up to the access gate, where they'd park and wander along the narrow residential streets. This, the neighbours complained, created gridlock, but even worse, it represented a fire hazard in the dry hills -- fire trucks would not be able to squeeze by the parked cars in case of an emergency.
Google Maps clearly showing the exact location of the Hollywood Sign, on a trail north of Beachwood Canyon (much to local residents' dismay)
The neighbours pleaded with the city to help. Then the local councilmember, Tom LaBonge, who is known for leading regular hikes through the park and up to the sign itself, proposed something that seemed crazy, if not impossible: He would look into changing the sign's official GPS coordinates, effectively hiding it from tourists forever.
So how do you get to the Hollywood Sign?
By 2011 the anti-tourist rhetoric reached a fever pitch, with homeowners mounting a vicious campaign threatening visitors, who, unsurprisingly, just kept coming. Some neighbours painted their curbs red (illegally) to discourage parking and tacked up more signs (illegally) warning against trespassing. In a vacant lot, someone took the time to build a full-on piece of land art that seemed to echo the large white letters in the distance: TOURISTS GO AWAY.
In response to the vitriol, and because I myself had witnessed the crowds firsthand, I wrote what I thought was a very helpful bit of service journalism on my blog, "The best way to see the Hollywood sign." In my piece, I argue that driving through the twisty-turny streets of Beachwood Canyon is actually not the best way to snuggle up to the sign. I very clearly direct would-be visitors to the address of a small public park with an excellent view of the famous icon, from which you can hike up to the sign.
My map of how to see the Hollywood Sign, with directions to a local park and then walking directions the rest of the way
Three years later my story remains one of the top hits if you go searching online for the best way to see the Hollywood Sign, and every few weeks I still get emails from people sharing the photos they took from the location and thanking me profusely for posting the information on my blog.
Why? Because if you try to find out how to actually get to the Hollywood Sign by asking Google Maps, you won't get anywhere near it.
Even though Google Maps clearly marks the actual location of the sign, something funny happens when you request driving directions from any place in the city. The directions lead you to Griffith Observatory, a beautiful 1920s building located one mountain east from the sign, then -- in something I've never seen before, anywhere on Google Maps -- a dashed grey line arcs from Griffith Observatory, over Mt. Lee, to the sign's site. Walking directions show the same thing.
Even though you can very clearly walk to the sign via the extensive trail network in Griffith Park, the map won't allow you to try.
When I tried to get walking directions to the sign from the small park I suggest parking at in my article, Google Maps does an even crazier thing. It tells you to walk an hour and a half out of the way, all the way to Griffith Observatory, and look at the sign from there.
No matter how you try to get directions -- Google Maps, Apple Maps, Bing -- they all tell you the same thing. Go to Griffith Observatory. Gaze in the direction of the dashed grey line. Do not proceed to the sign.
Don't get me wrong, the view of the sign from Griffith Observatory is quite nice. And that sure does make it easier to explain to tourists. But how could the private interests of a handful of Angelenos have persuaded mapping services to make it the primary route?
Anyone seen a Hollywood Sign around here?
To find out how this happened, I had a very nice conversation with Betsy Isroelit from the Hollywood Sign Trust, a nonprofit which protects and maintains the sign, and has become in many ways the keeper of the sign's public interests.
She admits that there was once a goal to "hide" the sign online completely, but it was deemed impossible. "At one point we were successful in getting Google to take the address down, but it appears so many other places like the city council offices and the city of LA that they put it back up."
In the end, it was Councilmember LaBonge who found a different solution. Working closely with Google and the GPS company Garmin, he was able to convince them to change the directions to the sign. Google did not respond to my requests for comment, but Carly Hysell from Garmin confirmed to me that the change was made in their spring 2012 map release.
"The point of interest right at the sign was removed and 'sign view' points of interest on the ground were added, but they aren't at the sign itself." Now there are actually two places that drivers might be directed: Griffith Observatory, and puzzlingly, the viewing platform at the Hollywood & Highland Center, which is about four miles away on busy Hollywood Boulevard.
The view of the sign from the Hollywood & Highland Center, which is frankly not going to cut it with most tourists. Photo via Hollywood Sign Trust
Now imagine for a second that you've flown all the way here from Istanbul to see the Hollywood Sign. And you end up at a mall.
Although the Hollywood Sign Trust has posted these viewing places on their website, Isroelit says the nonprofit's official position is to remain vague. So the website insists there is no address, devotes an entire page to explaining why you shouldn't hike to the sign. "We're very explicit about not parking in the neighbourhood," she says. "But we don't own the land and we don't control the city streets."
Technically, neither do the neighbours, who continue to harass tourists -- and residents -- who have every right to use the streets, trails, and public parklands to access the sign.
Now, at least two people who live in the neighbourhood have now decided to come after me for publishing accurate information about where the Hollywood Sign actually is and how to get there.
The Hollywood Sign on Google Street View, which lists this address as 6084 Mulholland Hwy
Last week, I received an email from a homeowner who threatened to take legal action against me for posting two separate addresses on my blog (the address of the small public park and another place to find the access gate to the hiking trail -- neither of which are residential addresses or actual addresses of the sign):
Please immediately cease and desist from using 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland [Hwy] or any other residence as the address for the Hollywood Sign and change the address to one of the two official viewing spots sanctioned by the Hollywood Sign Trust as shown in their map. The locations are: Griffith Park Observatory and the Hollywood and Highland Center...
Please be advised that up to this point your actions may have simply been due to an oversight of the local situation. However, should the address not be changed going forward, you may named in a lawsuit and be held liable for damages in an accident or due to your knowing and/or negligent continuing direction of visitors to the viewing spot at 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland Hwy.
As I was still trying to process how I might be held liable for making a map, the initial email was followed by eight separate emails from the same resident with photos of how my writing was encouraging people to park illegally.
Within a few hours, another resident emailed me:
[W]hy are you referring people to the Hollywood sign, using addresses that are not sanctioned by Recreation & Parks or by Hollywoodsign.org?
That is because you are referring people to a death trap. You are actually not advocating for "safe" or "fun" walking.
We do not have the infrastructure to handle all these extra cars. There is nowhere for them to park. There are no LA Park Rangers in these areas. There are no bathrooms, no drinking fountains, no sidewalks. You CANNOT hike to the sign, yet you are encouraging a volatile situation.
This email was accompanied by photos of a small fire and a burst fire hydrant, both of which my writing had caused. Also, the email mentions that a dog was run over by a car in the area, which was apparently also my fault.
It gets worse than simply firing off a few emails. Earlier this year, these Beachwood Canyon residents successfully petitioned the city to close a public trail to the sign to keep tourists at bay, erecting a giant fence and hiring security guards. The trail has been closed since late March. Now no one, even residents, can use one of the most popular trails to access one of the country's largest urban parks, in the middle of our public space-deprived city.
I saw the sign
When I spoke to Councilmember LaBonge he emphasised that his job was to protect potential environmental and safety concerns. "There are impacts to the canyon that we are trying to resolve," he said. But on the other hand, he said, nothing has actually been restricted in the area as far as parking or roadblocks. "It's very important to have access at all time to that mountain." The trail that's been closed -- ostensibly for repairs -- is being reopened soon, he told me.
The solution going forward likely won't involve more mapping tweaks. LaBonge's next project will be a shuttle that would take people from a location in Hollywood to a place where they could easily access the park and the trail to the sign -- without bringing their cars.
But he also agreed that the online battle had been tough for the city to win. "The internet is like a wild river," he said. "It allows anything and everything and you hate to see anybody drown."
When that wild river is tamed, it's usually in our best interest. Mapping companies might blur satellite imagery in the name of public safety, like certain international borders and government buildings. But the fact that cartographers are publishing false information about public lands in the middle of Los Angeles is quite worrying.
An art installation by On The Road in May addressed access to the sign by making it appear that the Hollywood Sign had been dismantled
Over at Garmin, Hysell noted that their cartographers do, in fact, take input outside of their own experiences driving the routes. "They do receive data on a regular basis from city officials, county officials, DOT websites, and so on, and of course, make updates and adjustments to the mapping accordingly," she says. "They also take reports from users, too, and apply changes as deemed worthy and verifiable."
So what's happening in Hollywood is a disturbing peek into the future of digital cartography. A few dozen homeowners in one of the city's wealthiest zip codes -- who bought their homes knowing (I assume) about the letters hanging just outside their bedroom windows -- have found a way to keep people out of their neighbourhood by manipulating technology.
This is the next iteration of a gated community.
It doesn't seem like it could happen just anywhere; Hysell agrees that the Hollywood Sign was a special exception. But where do the exceptions end? A group of homeowners petitions Zillow to hide specific property information and prevent certain populations from buying homes? A group of well-to-do Yelpers deliberately scramble the addresses of their favourite restaurants, so undesirables can't "discover" them?
Another Google Street View shot from behind the Hollywood Sign, which homeowners claim you cannot hike to
Thanks to the duplicitous nature of NIMBYs, now we have three levels of censorship happening here in Hollywood: Organisations erecting digital walls around our most famous landmarks, technology companies lying to tourists about our geography, and a faction of vigilante residents cracking down on bloggers who are trying to disseminate accurate information about our city.
Because our mapping services are now subject to the whims of angry, powerful residents, we have to rely on other sources to give us accurate directions. In a way, the post on my blog is almost like passing out hand-drawn paper cartography from person to person, a map to buried treasure that hangs in plain sight. Until the online maps are updated properly, I'm here to help anyone -- tourist or resident -- who wants to experience all LA has to offer. Just let me know if you need directions.
Picture: Michael Hession