There's a scene in Bridesmaids in which the character of Megan, played by Melissa McCarthy, claims not only to work for the U.S. government but to have Top Secret security clearance. This means, she adds, that she knows where all the country's nuclear missiles are hidden. "You would be amazed," she whispers conspiratorially. "A lot of shopping malls."
There's more truth to this joke than you might expect. During the Cold War, many missile defense sites—precisely because their purpose was to guard infrastructure of vital national interest—were housed in urban or suburban locations. Los Angeles in particular, thanks to its aerospace facilities, military bases, and booming postwar population, became one of the most fortified regions in the United States. "Unknown to millions of Southern Californians who lived among them," a story in the Los Angeles Times reported back in 2000, "hundreds of surface-to-air missiles fitted with nuclear warheads were poised at nine of the bases to be launched against enemy bomber formations that never appeared."
At the intersection of Woodley Avenue and Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys, Nike missiles—named, like the athletic shoe, after the Greek goddess of victory—were housed in silos until 1974. The site, known as LA-96L and still used by the Air National Guard, is now a giant concrete pad fenced from public access. It sits across the street from a well-groomed golf course behind a lush Japanese garden that is part of the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant. Beyond lies the domestic sprawl of the San Fernando Valley, just as it did when the site had an underground arsenal ready to fire on a moment's notice.
LA-96L was part of an unsettling constellation of Cold War missile defense sites scattered throughout the area. These locations, more often than not hidden in plain view, included a former launch facility called LA-14L in El Monte that is now within spitting distance of an outdoor tennis park. Tucked into the rolling landscape of Puente Hills was LA-29L, a short hike from the sidewalks and swimming pools of an idyllic Californian suburb. The former missile silos of LA-32L are now capped and buried beneath an Army Reserve base near the corner of Chapman and Western Avenues, a few miles west of Disneyland, part of an expansive industrial park that gives no hint of the immense subterranean firepower that once hummed away belowground.
In other cases, L.A.'s former missile sites have blended back into the natural landscape with an ease that is both ecologically inspiring and somewhat disconcerting, with nature's apparent triumph serving as an acknowledgement of the narrowly averted horrors of nuclear war. The launch site known as LA-43L is now a public park and "nature education center" near the coast west of Long Beach. Aside from an aging concrete pad beneath which missiles were once kept, the most distinctive feature of the landscape today is a Native Plant Demonstration Garden.
There are many great websites for discovering these locations around L.A., including Techbastard, Cold War: L.A., and the Fort MacArthur Museum. Interesting former missile sites are also by no means limited to Los Angeles. A fascinating list of Nike missile sites across the United States reveals bases from Alaska to Miami, Dallas to San Francisco that offer a similarly surreal blend of the civilian and the apocalyptic. As a New York Times story pointed out back in 2000, Long Island is peppered with now-derelict nuclear defense sites, where missiles were once stored, moved, and prepped in full view of local residents. "Unbeknownst to residents at the time, those missiles were fitted with nuclear warheads, some more than twice as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima," Vivian S. Toy wrote. "The instruments of nuclear Armaggeddon were literally in their backyards."
The LA-96L site in the San Fernando Valley was brought to my attention by Wayne Chambliss, a friend who had just returned from a long expedition down the L.A. River with a cadre of fellow urban explorers. The group's route brought them close enough to LA-96L that they made a short detour to stop by for a quick look. Chambliss, a digital geographer by trade and global traveler by hobby, later sent me a list of other former missile sites around the United States. One has since been transformed into an ice-skating rink in suburban Massachusetts. An entire necklace of repurposed locations lies on the outskirts of Chicago. "On top of where weapons once lurked," stated a 1991 Chicago Tribune report on the latter, "are soccer fields in Naperville and Lincoln Park, a golf course in Arlington Heights, an armory in Homewood and a storage depot in Addison."
Like the missile sites themselves, information about these sites is hidden in full view of the public. In a 1998 Los Angeles Times article, Jose Cardenas described the radar control post LA-96C in the hills above Encino that was the sibling site to LA-96L in Van Nuys. Its remoteness and elevation "offered soldiers a clear view of downtown Los Angeles 15 miles to the southeast," Cardenas wrote. "If enemy planes managed to snake through military defenses, LA96C's radar—able to detect planes as far as 100 miles away—could spot them." This same, picturesque view has helped transform the location into a popular if somewhat eccentric hiking destination today.
Tracking down abandoned military landscapes of the twentieth century has become something of a niche pursuit. While the insights and discoveries of a loose group of freelance geographers, photographers, and urban explorers are most easily found online, there are also fantastic books on the subject. For the journalist Tom Vanderbilt, author of Survival City: Adventures among the Ruins of Atomic America, the Cold War "was—and is—everywhere in America, if one knows where to look for it. Underground, behind closed doors, classified, off the map, already crumbling beyond recognition, or right in plain view, it has left an imprint as widespread yet discreet as the tracings of radioactive particles that below out of the Nevada Test Site in the 1950s."
In Los Angeles today, next to shopping malls, industrial parks, tennis courts, and gardens—just as in Chicago, Long Island, and other American locales—these ruins remain an otherworldly reminder of how close our nation came to doomsday.
Follow Geoff on Twitter at @bldgblog.