On the Blight Side

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Flint's face has been ripped off.

Both faces, in fact.

One that stared with bronze eyes at City Hall where Flint's thoughts held so much power in the teens. The other that gazed across 1st Street for years as the dead center of downtown deteriorated into a daze where people no longer care that bas-relief bronzes are stolen for the cash price of their metal, with no thought for the value of a citizen's memory.

Flint's fountain is in worse shape.

It hasn't gurgled water in 30 years. Not since a wino went face down and drowned in a lower basin, sack and bottle bobbing alongside. In a classic of municipal wisdom, the city decided water was the culprit and turned off the fountain.

Now its white marble is broken and the latest date on initials carved into one rail is 1957 because lovers don't sit here anymore. Flint's memorial--just steps from City Hall and public workers who are paid to tend such public works--has become an open urinal, pigeon cote and dump for lunch wrappings, one dead sock and pages from a porno magazine.

That means perpetual care and undying commemoration lasted just four decades for Frank Putnam Flint, 1862-1929, lawyer, district attorney, U.S. senator, a figure within the shadowy fiddling that sucked Owens Valley water into Los Angeles, and developer of a place called Flintridge.

There, he worked around arroyos, laced his suburb with hiking trails and commissioned architect Paul Williams--designer of the Beverly Hills Hotel--to build Mediterranean and Colonial homes with discreet spacing that would not damage precious foothills.

Today, Flint would weep at sidewalks stained with filth and the acute disrepair of the central downtown Los Angeles that he helped shape.

Blame such denigration, in part, on an exodus of blazers and suits. Indeed, on businessmen such as Flint.

For while we weren't watching, downtown Los Angeles edged west of Grand Avenue to where, maybe symbolically, a restored Angels Flight carries us away from a scabby old town. To a pristine copse of financial towers in black glass and orange marble with boutiques in their basements. To a born-again library, espresso stands, outside music and Cafe Pinot. To where fountains work.

As the power base shifted--to say nothing of lunch spots with tablecloths--government keepers of Los Angeles-left-behind apparently saw no further need to staunch a core decaying into a litter of busted yesterdays, defiled monuments and once attractive things that inexcusably, inexplicably have stayed broken for years.

Like Frank Flint's fountain.

Unless years have taken some huge toll on the underground plumbing, it could be spruced up, flushed out, given new washers and turned on in about a week. As for other dysfunctionals, restoration would take a few thousand bucks here, some volunteer labor there and a resumption of the gumption that provided these facilities in the first place.

And beneath a single resolution: Old downtowns don't have to die because new downtowns form. It didn't happen in Seattle or San Diego, Munich or Paris, New Orleans or Monte Carlo. Or Phoenix.

We disrespectfully suggest that it is time for Mayor Richard Riordan to take command of his immediate turf. He needs to form a column of minions for a 45-minute walk around City Hall. He needs to lick his pencil, play "Spin City," start noting shames and kicking butt.

A few yards from the now infamous Flint fountain rises a modest memorial to firefighters who died keeping us safe. Some oaf has scratched his gang name in its black marble. What should be an altar of respect has become a brown bag picnic table. And a daylight dosshouse. (Mayor's note to fire chief: You want to light a fire under the engine buffs, cadets and retired firefighter groups on this one?)

Close by, on a stand, is a map beneath plexiglass and a street guide to public buildings in the downtown area. Fifteen years out of date, it points to places long gone. If you want to get a marriage license, don't follow the board but get to Norwalk where the bureau moved three years ago. The Hall of Justice ("Erected AD MCMXXV") is where it was, but closed and yet another testimonial to Board-Ups Unlimited with asphalt spaces under the management of ubiquitous Five-Star Parking.

(Mayor's note to County Board of Supervisors: You guys put the directory up, you guys organize a new one. Or somebody might move your offices to Norwalk.)

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Across Spring Street--behind more tall walls of Navy gray plywood--is a pit of weeds climbing a concrete bunker that looks like something World War II left on Guam. Ten years ago there was a terraced park here, a place for sack lunches, summer rest and the gentle slapping of halyards against flagpoles.

Then the space was sold for office development. There was a token churning of the site to stall foreclosure, but the builder still went bust. Homeless druggies moved in to be moved out by cops and bulldozers. Now tall weeds wave a salute to civic indolence.

(Mayor's note to Department of Recreation and Parks: How much could it cost to clean and rebuild this place and service the community? Particularly if the work is done by those sentenced to community service?)

There is perhaps no taller blasphemy in our downtown, no larger waste, no greater insult to an artist and the citizens he wanted to stir and amuse, than the Triforium.

It is three towers spearing 60 feet above the Los Angeles Mall and created as a metaphor for democracy, each tower representing a branch of government. It sat in a reflecting pool and we could walk bridges beneath it, touch it, be part of it.

Artist Joe Young received $1 million in taxpayer dollars to build the city its centerpiece, our Space Needle, our Transamerica Pyramid. It certainly was a provocative urban happening with lights bending and changing colors through 1,500 prisms and punctuating the music of Elton John. Or Mozart. Or Dylan.

Young called it the world's first polyphonoptic tower.

But its computer went down; lights failed and music tailed.

Critics called it a schlockenspiel and the world's first million-dollar jukebox.

The Triforium has been brain-dead for 16 years. Its lights continue to flicker. But there's no pattern to them, no music from huge speakers that now drip pigeon guano. No purpose that tourists can see.

"What is it?" asks Theo Ferguson, visiting from The Hague. It is a Triforium. It proved that Los Angeles once was harmlessly wacky and quite wonderful. It brought us summer concerts and Christmas carols, gave us a place to gather and a light and sound show brighter and boomier than any other.

"Like we saw people gathering in San Francisco? All around one place in the city?"

Exactly.

"Why isn't it working?"

We don't know.

(Mayor's note to City Council: Protect the $1 million already spent with a few more bucks to get this puppy fixed. If computers are the problem, call JPL. If they can land a sport utility vehicle on Mars, they should be able to fix up a couple of outdoor speakers.

(And if they say they are in Pasadena and have no interest in supporting Los Angeles, remind 'em they actually are in Flintridge and we're planning to renovate a fountain raised to their founder.)

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Signs of downtown's descent into the big biffy are everywhere.

Escalators linking street level to the mall beneath City Hall have been temporarily out of order permanently. The clock on the County Courthouse lost a hand and hasn't worked since the Whittier quake. A Parker Center memorial to 179 dead police officers has a cracked corner, green water, and needs a 409 wash-down and a good scrubbing by Explorer Scouts.

Street lights jury-rigged by conduits, string, tape and electric cable. Six-foot weeds strangling trees that should be forming boulevards. Derelicts picking their toes. And between City Halls East and West, in a space guarded by marble lions and hinting of Asian tranquillity, 10 tiled pools and fountains have been drained and filled with gravel and soon will be reduced to planters.

It clearly negates a tablet outside City Hall, one presented by dedicated groups with words inflating Los Angeles as "an environmental model for the world . . . what we do here, will raise the prospects for health and happiness for every being on the planet."

Pity the planet.

Or try this quote--literally carved in stone above a City Hall entrance--next time a disinterested public official tells the people why something can't be done. Said Cicero: "He that violates his oath, profanes the divinity of faith itself."

In Rome, there are marble fountains to Cicero that survive to this day.

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