Our Lady ... our lunch spot

During lunch hour, the city's new cathedral is full of reassuring if wildly disparate sounds. For Catholics, the nave resounds with the solemn and spiritually soothing consecration of the Eucharist; for non-Catholics there is, just a few hundred yards away, the promising hiss of a cappuccino machine.

The donors' wall and a fountain muffle the freeway noise to a grumble, which can't compete with the soprano swoops of a hundred schoolkids on a field trip or even the voices of lawyers yelling into their cell phones.

This is the sound of expectation meeting reality.

During all the years of planning and controversy and construction, much was made of the cathedral as a new, and many thought much-needed, downtown public space.

Los Angeles, we are occasionally told, does not have enough of the urban loci that unite and beautify so many other large cities. The cathedral and its plaza do both of these things, and if they don't have the weathered grace of historic landmarks, they have the more vital, if sometimes irritating, contrasts of city life.

The plaza and gardens of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels were designed with workday sanctuary in mind; the cafe added another lunch-hour destination to an area perhaps over-dependent on Koo Koo Roo and California Pizza Kitchen. And if anyone finds it odd to be standing in line with 20 or so very short nuns in full habits, ordering a pastrami sandwich from a menu emblazoned with a purple banner reading Our Lady of the Angels, it doesn't show. "Mayonnaise or mustard on that?" the lady in the hairnet asks. "Mustard," says the young man with a lip stud. "Wait, do you have Dijon?"

Although they have no idea how many freelance tourists or downtown denizens visit during the week, church officials estimate that 300 people on organized tours and 40 to 100 students on field trips tour the cathedral each day.

At lunch hour, the tables are often full, forcing some visitors to arrange their meals on the nearby benches or balance themselves on the walls that surround the olive tree grove or a bed of day lilies, whose trumpets echo the mod orange and yellow of the cafe's chairs in a way that is almost eerie.

The tour groups give themselves away in size and homogeny. On a recent field trip, seventh- and eighth-grade students from St. Gregory the Great School in Whittier wore matching jackets, which proclaimed their proposed graduation dates -- 2003, 2004. All over the plaza, adults, many well past retirement age, did their personal math and sighed.

"Everyone here is either 14 or 40," said a friend of mine as we strolled the perimeters of the plaza and trailed after groups from Yucca Valley and Redondo Beach as they moved through the cathedral, many with soft-sided coolers banging against their legs.

It was a workday, after all, so most of the grown-up tours were older folks with matching docents, women striking in their maroon jackets, navy slacks and friendly assurance.

Dark herds of priests or habited nuns occasionally swarm up the stairs and across the courtyard like something out of a picture book. If only there were pigeons, and perhaps a few more young lovers, one could be in the Piazza San Marco or in front of St. Peter's.

"It's funny," my friend said, "practically no one but Mike Davis talks about L.A. as a Catholic city, but here it is."

The lunchtime drop-ins are easy to categorize: conservative suits and sweater sets ID many county employees, belt-looped cell phones and pagers and short sleeves mark city workers fixing something nearby; clusters of jurors are literally tagged.

Sound carries well across the plaza, and it is pleasant to hear the jumble of conversation one expects in a city, a sound so often absent or drowned by traffic. More musical certainly than the piped-in strains of "Be Not Afraid" and other sacred selections that envelope visitors in front of the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe or the ATM machine at the entrance to the gift shop.

"My God, it's like the Grove," my friend said as we paused before the shrine.

He likes the cathedral very much. But as he surveyed the entire scene -- the glare off the plaza, the mod plastic, the people perched on the low walls with their Tupperware and tubes of Pringles -- he sighed.

"These architects come out here and they think they are going to do something different and they all wind up building a mall."

Which is a bit harsh. Public space is tougher to create, and justify, in L.A. because we have plenty of space.

People here are not necessarily pacing the tiny confines of apartments or hanging out on stoops or fire escapes for a breath of fresh air. People here often have backyards with trees and grass and pools. And even if they don't, there is undoubtedly a park a short drive away. There are the beach, the palisades, the mountains.

Unlike other downtowns, L.A. is not chockablock with tall buildings. There is no claustrophobic call to please add some sky to the skyline. The sky is all around us even if decent lunch spots aren't. So it's not enough to provide space in this city, no matter how well designed; you have to have some value added.

Along the ever-hopeful "Grand Avenue corridor," most of the public space reflects this. From the leafy pocket park behind the Richard J. Riordan Library to the bi-level courtyard of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the wide white way of the Music Center, most tables, chairs, benches and greenery are part of some institution and come complete with requisite fountain, sculpture, cafe and gift shop.

In fact, it is now possible to stroll Grand Avenue at lunch hour with the noble goal of finding the best version of the California chicken salad, the most interesting use of recycled water and the archest, artiest birthday gift.

Front-runners in all three categories can be found at the cathedral, where ready-made salads fly off the cafe's refrigerated shelves and the fountain at the plaza's entrance is a circular marble table etched with the phrase, "I shall give you living water" in 37 languages. Meanwhile, the gift shop offers an assortment of great L.A. tchotchkes among the standard rosary beads and holy medals: from Our Lady of the Angels table wine and sherry jelly to floaty pens depicting what seems to be a large family heading to, and from, the cathedral.

Which really is reason enough to hang out there. How many other lunch places around town have their own floaty pens?

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