Life imitates art in ways too strange to imagine.
Take, for example, two recent proposals for downtown redevelopment. Developer Sonny Astani wants to hang a 14-story animated billboard on the side of the condominium tower he’s building at 9th and Figueroa, up the street from the Staples Center and the new Nokia Theatre, which already is shrouded in video billboards.
Astani needs city permission to light up his building and one he plans to build next door. One only can hope that somebody says no. There’s a difference between something that excites and something that assaults -- like a 14-story commercial light show looming over a public thoroughfare.
The funny part is that Astani is frank about his inspiration: It’s “Blade Runner,” the 1982 film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s dystopia of a visually, environmentally and socially degraded urban future.
Go figure. Astani was a new immigrant from Iran when he first saw the film, and maybe memories of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Tehran made even director Ridley Scott’s Hobbesian vision of a future L.A. look good by comparison.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away -- over on Broadway -- another aspect of the “Blade Runner” archetype is being invoked, though apparently unwittingly. In this case, a partnership of city agencies and property owners proposes to spend $36.5 million to redevelop what was once the city’s premier shopping and entertainment venue. A dozen of the palatial old vaudeville and film theaters that once made Broadway a regional destination still survive and would be restored for movies and live performances. New stores and restaurants would go in around them, and a Red Car-style trolley would carry people up and down the boulevard.
Sounds good -- until you look a little more closely at what’s being proposed. One of the premises of the bleak urban future Dick imagined in the 1968 book, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” -- which inspired “Blade Runner” -- was that the poisoned Earth had been depopulated when all the “successful” people left for extraterrestrial colonies. Society’s losers had crowded into the surviving urban areas.
In the film, those “losers” were represented as Asian, Latino and other non-European immigrants. It’s a cheap, xenophobic thrill that lent the film some of its appeal in an era made anxious by mass immigration.
It’s also an association that inescapably comes to mind when you read the “vision statement” for the proposed Broadway redevelopment. You can search it from top to bottom and never find the word “Latino.” What makes that odd is that Broadway has been for decades one of L.A.'s most vibrant shopping streets, though one patronized almost exclusively by working-class Latino immigrants.
Apparently they’re invisible to the street’s aspiring redevelopers. The authors of this “vision” intone the phrases “eclectic cultural amenities” and “diverse retail options” like a kind of mantra. It is, of course, a euphemistic way of saying, we intend to obliterate Broadway’s essentially Latino character -- which has persisted for far longer than the two-decade interlude of glitz in the 1920s and 1930s that the planners hope to revive.
The authors promise “a joint marketing authority ... to attract new patrons.” Hmm. Wonder what language they’ll speak?
You get to the heart of the matter when the authors cite the 1,195 lofts and condos currently being built along Broadway and the thousands more planned. “Broadway will, for the most part, offer services and amenities needed by downtown residents who want to enjoy some time away from their apartments,” they write.
OK, now we’re getting a little closer to what’s going on. It isn’t ethnic cleansing that’s being proposed but the replacement of working-class families with affluent loft and condo dwellers. As already is true throughout the remarkably integrated revived downtown, some of these people will be Latinos -- but like their Anglo, African American and Asian neighbors, they’ll all have platinum Amex cards.
The oddest part of all this is that the two city officials who have their name on this proposal -- Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Jose Huizar -- know better. The councilman not only immigrated from Zacatecas as a boy, he has a master’s degree in planning from Princeton to go with his diploma from UCLA Law. They have to know that what’s being proposed here is to displace the working-class Latino shoppers and the merchants who serve them from a street they’ve called their own for more than three decades. They’re going to be replaced by more upscale merchants with more affluent patrons from whom the city can collect far more in sales taxes.
That may or may not be a good thing, but the people who propose it ought to be honest about it. They also ought to acknowledge that the people they’re proposing to shove aside also need a place to shop and eat. Where, precisely, will that be?