Whose downtown is it?
WHEN I WAS growing up not quite middle class in a suburb at the southeast edge of the county, when downtown Los Angeles seemed as remote as Duluth, my father worked in the former Southern California Gas Co. building on Flower Street. Sometimes he would take me to his office on Saturdays. On those mornings in the early 1960s — between the bulldozing of Bunker Hill and the fires of Watts — downtown’s deserted streets looked like the setting of a “last man on Earth” sci-fi film. My father’s downtown wasn’t the center of anything except in TV reruns, where film noir L.A. looked like the capital of regret.
The making and unmaking of downtown has been the focus of the city’s business and political elites since the 19th century. The area is historically contested ground, dividing Angelenos by ethnicity and class but rarely uniting them. The divisions are brutally sharp now. Fewer than 9% of the jobs in the city are downtown, and income disparities there are among the widest in L.A. The non-homeless population is less than 25,000, with middle-class residents a tiny fraction of that. So, whose downtown is it, anyway, and why are so few of us asking?
It’s easy to see why. From its conception, the city’s heart was divided. The pueblo that clustered around the plaza in the 1780s was purely secular. Its religious center was Mission San Gabriel, whose Franciscan padres were so suspicious of the pueblo’s unruly residents that L.A. didn’t have its own church until 1822.
By then, the city’s pattern of centerless edges had been set. The foothills and valleys of the L.A. and San Gabriel rivers were divided into more than 40 semi-self-sufficient ranchos. The Pueblo de Los Angeles was just a depot and general store.
After California became a state, new American owners subdivided the ranchos into farms and crossroad villages only loosely tied to Los Angeles. Railways in the 1880s created more towns along the mainline tracks in the valleys north and east. Beginning in 1901, Henry Huntington’s network of electric trolleys filled the intervening space with miles of housing tracts and little Main Streets. Only between 1890 and 1920 did a real downtown — with tall buildings, all-day pedestrian traffic and neighborhoods — boom. By the early 1920s, mostly suburban visitors filled the city’s movie theaters and department stores. And by the end of the decade, suburbia had unmade downtown.
The Depression, World War II, the freeways and waves of newcomers from Asia, Mexico and South America put even more distance between an increasingly gritty core and millions of white and middle-class residents little concerned whether Los Angeles was a real city or not.
In the 1950s, Mayor Norris Poulson pushed a business-backed redevelopment plan that would erase downtown’s last intact neighborhoods from Bunker Hill, along with its ethnic and working-class residents. An island of government bureaus, high-rise offices, luxury hotels and Music Center theaters rose in their place. The streets downtown emptied every night, leaving behind transients and immigrant families who struggled to fit their dreams into the city’s grid. The working poor walked the mercado along Broadway, worshiped in the old plaza church, lived in what remained of the rental housing on the fringes of downtown and labored in garment-district sweatshops.
Above them hovered an alternative downtown of executives in polished corporate headquarters. In the recession of the early 1990s, L.A.'s Fortune 500 companies erased themselves as completely as if their downtown — then called the capital of the Pacific Rim — had never been.The downtown that remains superimposes and blurs all these places, so quick were we to be on our way to the next “city of the future.” In our forgiving climate, a lot of the city’s past is still usable as loft units and spectacularly good places to order a martini. That prospect — downtown as a zone for noir-adjacent lifestyles — is so diminished in its aspirations that some observers see newly hipsterized downtowns as urbanism’s dead end: niche housing for the unattached young and the affluent old, a real estate bubble kept afloat by creative forms of public/private financing, taxpayer-financed cultural amenities and aggressive law enforcement. When a developer at the southeastern edge of downtown promotes condo sales with the news that David and Victoria Beckham have purchased a pied-à-terre and that (unidentified) sports and Hollywood players are buying multimillion-dollar penthouses, you know the old L.A. sales pitch hasn’t changed, just the location of the dreams being sold. The politics of development haven’t changed either. They are still steered by elected officials needing developers’ campaign contributions and developers needing the entitlements that elected officials and their appointees OK. Which explains why the fight earlier this month between the City Council and the mayor about the sale of $200 million in Convention Center “air rights” was agreeably settled by giving both the council and the mayor a say in how 9 million square feet of new downtown construction would be parceled out.
Between tomorrow’s shiny new downtown and the one we have are long stretches of sidewalk patrolled by the homeless. They occupy real estate that will be even more valuable when enough of them are gone, and downtown’s growth machine is taking a two-pronged approach. The Police Department’s “Safer City” program, underway in the Central Division since September, has tallied more than 6,000 arrests and reportedly cut the nighttime population of those sleeping on the streets to fewer than 800.
That decline, however, seems to have been paralleled by an increase in the number of homeless in West Hollywood and Santa Monica. City and county officials would like some of them to become permanently suburban (in an ironic replay of the resettlement of downtown’s working-class population in the 1950s). Under a long-delayed plan, the county would spend $100 million to open shelters and 24-hour service centers in five working-class neighborhoods far from skid row. So far, Pomona and the Whittier-Long Beach corridor are possible locations.
Boosters see a new downtown as essential to an urbanizing metropolis, while critics dismiss the current revitalization as backward looking. These views mirror our historic conflicts about the center of the city and limit our ability to remake downtown as a place for all of us.
The Gas Co. building where my father worked has been remade as 251 loft-style apartments (53 of them set aside, under a city ordinance, for tenants who cannot pay the market rate). The sales pitch includes “on-site concierge and management services, 24-hour courtesy patrol, multicamera monitoring and keycard controlled access entrances.” The units in the sales brochure look rather nice.