Eight years ago, as I watched a building near my work be converted from vacant offices into lofts, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. If I lived there, in that beautiful old building, I could walk less than a block to work. That micro-distance was important: Any farther and I wouldn’t have felt safe walking home after dark.
There were no streetlights on the block back then. Homeless people curled up in doorways and under cardboard boxes. On the sidewalk was a row of public outhouses, which I soon realized were “owned” by drug dealers. (I will never forget one lunch hour watching as a man who’d just made a buy took off his suit jacket, crouched between two outhouses, rolled up the sleeve of his dress shirt and put a needle in his arm.)
Today, the outhouses are gone and there is a restored landmark (the former St. Vibiana’s Cathedral) and two major new civic buildings (Caltrans and the LAPD headquarters) across from me. The streetlights are on; that was the first of many civic initiatives my neighbors and I became involved in as we rolled up our own sleeves. We fought for a park, to save a neighborhood landmark, for a Metro line to be built underground, not above. Even when we didn’t prevail, we won. We got to know our elected representatives and their staffs, developers, city planners, the LAPD and Fire Department. And we got to know each other.
Slowly but surely, new businesses opened: coffee shops, galleries, theaters, groceries and dozens of restaurants and clubs. It’s been exciting every time. Blocks considered unsafe became safe. Initiatives by police and social service agencies reduced the number of people living on the streets as well as the most blatant drug dealing.
Gradually, Main and Spring and other streets came back to life. When I walk down the street, I always see someone I know. When I ask what’s going on, something usually is.
I walk to the library (the branch in Little Tokyo and to the Central Library on 5th Street). I walk to my doctor’s and optometrist’s offices, to Walt Disney Concert Hall and to the free Grand Performances. I walk to one of the coolest little hardware stores in the world (Anzen Hardware & Supply), to a great store for used books (The Last Bookstore) and to purchase art supplies (at Raw Materials). I walk to restaurants with friends for dinner and drinks, and we never need a designated driver.
Often, my neighbors and I put together impromptu dinners in each other’s homes. There are plenty of great cooks in the kitchen, and lessons too. We’ve savored incredible cheese souffle, pho, arroz con pollo and apple pie. We throw parties to celebrate neighbors becoming citizens, and we held a centennial celebration when our building turned 100.
Living downtown means coming to terms with seeing poverty, mental illness and broken spirits. But it also means realizing that “the homeless” are individuals with names and emotions, and that a piece of sidewalk is sometimes a home.
My community is filled with marvelous artists, musicians, lawyers, bankers, photographers, filmmakers, architects, nurses, doctors, clothing designers, educators, engineers and skateboarders. And it is also home to their bulldogs, poodles, greyhounds, labs and schnauzers.
I’ve watched with joy as neighbors have started families. Some of them then decided to shift to a suburban setting. But for others, it’s worked well to stay put. Just down the hall is a delightful 7-year-old who has never lived anyplace else: We knew her as a newborn, and watched her learn to ride a bicycle.
Plenty of downtown residents have lived here longer than I have. Many more have moved in — and some have moved in and out. This place is not for everyone. It can be noisy, gritty and annoying.
But if I didn’t live downtown, I wouldn’t have had the chance to hang out in a real speakeasy. To come home for lunch when I was on jury duty. To watch life unfold on the street and marvel at the skyline from my own windows. To be not only part of a community but part of building it.
I didn’t know any of that when I decided to give up my commute to live downtown. My job is no longer downtown — it requires a long, cross-town commute. But now it’s downtown I can’t give up.
Joan Springhetti is an editor and writer who has lived in downtown Los Angeles since 2003.