My Broadway story begins with the memories of those who came before me. What I know about the city center, from 1st Street, near the foot of historic Ft. Moore, south to Olympic Boulevard, is much more than what I've actually experienced. Like most deeply rooted Angelenos — in particular Latinos, African Americans, Southerners, Jews and Asian Americans — I carry the Broadway gene. It ties me tight to the city's past and its future.
FOR THE RECORD:
Broadway: In a Dec. 6 Op-Ed about the history of downtown Los Angeles, references to two Catholic high schools were misspelled. The correct spelling is Bishop Conaty, not Bishop Cannady, and Loretto, not Loreto.
As early as 1900, downtown L.A. was the region's transit hub, the epicenter of a vast streetcar (and later bus) network that connected the basin from the ocean to the mountains, city to city (San Bernardino to Santa Monica, Pasadena to Long Beach) and neighborhood to neighborhood (Boyle Heights to South L.A., Echo Park to Eagle Rock). And Broadway was the epicenter of the epicenter.
My family moved to L.A. — the promised land — from dusty Texas and northern Mexico in the 1920s. Even then the automobile and tony Westside shopping districts were pulling well-to-do white Angelenos away from downtown. But Broadway's grand department stores — its food, fashion, movies and music — were where the rest of us learned to get along.
I grew up hearing Broadway chronicles. Downtown's nightlife, fancy facades and shopping seduced my grandmother and her sisters. They changed their names from Clementina, Manuela, Maria, Dolores and Guadalupe to Flora, Ruby, Nellie, Lottie and Mar. They bobbed their long black hair, outlined their eyes like silent movie star Theda Bara, shortened their skirts and danced in the streetcar aisles on their way to the beach. Like the rest of the newly arrived, they reinvented themselves.
By the 1940s, my grandmother was married to Victor Griego, a prizefighter, and settled in a small house on the edge of Boyle Heights just off the streetcar line that led to Broadway. When she put on her gray Chanel-like suit and hat, it signaled to my then-5-year-old mother that they were going to the Grand Central Market for day-old bread and vegetables at good prices, along with all the other Latinas from the Eastside. At the market they mingled with returnees from Japanese internment camps, Depression-era Midwest refugees, Great Migration African Americans and Chinatown newcomers. The two of them fortified themselves with Chinese food, sitting at the counter at the market, where Mom plucked old chewing gum from under the stools.
My dad's downtown stories start later, in the early 1950s, when he was a teenager watching sci-fi double features and smoking pot in the balconies of the old movie palaces that lined Broadway. He walked home high to Boyle Heights — it took about hour, straight down 1st Street.
I first physically connected with the street when my mother took me to see the Christmastime storefront displays. Then, when I was 12, I rode the bus alone from East Los Angeles to Broadway, a rite of passage in my family. At the 6th Street Viaduct, the view of downtown opened out in an amazing panorama: L.A. as Oz's Emerald City. I tried to time the perfect moment to pull the cord to signal my stop. Someone always beat me to it (the regret still feels fresh).
Weekdays, Broadway was the meeting point for kids crisscrossing the city from Catholic high schools around town: Cathedral, Loyola, Bishop Cannady, Loreto and Sacred Heart. On weekends, Broadway was the place to kill time buying records and clothes, and, like my dad, going to see movies. At home in East L.A., I saw and interacted only with Latinos. But Broadway had every sort of person: gay, straight, black, white, kids and senior citizens.
In high school, I started working at the May Co., at Broadway and 8th, selling clothes in the same store where my grandmother and my mother shopped. In their day, it was the fanciest and largest department store in town, nine stories of white marble and a rooftop garden. By the time I worked there, it had been whittled down to three floors and a bargain basement.
On Saturday afternoons a frenzy of shopping swept even the diminished Broadway shopping district, like a New Year's countdown, as folks rummaged the racks and the bins up and down the street for something to wear that night. Among my own prize purchases: a pair of patent leather and suede platform shoes.
The night before I went into the Army, in 1982, I went to the movies on Broadway. When I came out of the Tower Theater, I looked north and south and wondered if such a street, with its vibrancy and bravado, existed anywhere else. What I discovered was that Barcelona's Las Ramblas, London's Oxford Street and even the Champs-Elysees were great thoroughfares, but they didn't have the raw energy of Broadway.
Later, my Broadway experience separated me from most of my classmates and professors when I studied urban planning at MIT. It was the late 1980s, and the question was "Can the American city be saved?" I didn't see the problem. I considered L.A.'s original downtown, and places like it, alive and well — we just needed to understand how they worked.
Back in Southern California, as a planner at the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, I advocated for improving public transportation into and out of downtown. I had hopes that L.A.'s Metro would help Eastsiders go west for jobs and to the beach, but a reverse migration is what has happened. The Westside has rediscovered and colonized Broadway.
Now people of color, whose street it had steadily become over the last century, are less welcome on Broadway. The barriers aren't security gates and high walls but high rents, youthification and the sudden appreciation — in every sense of the word — of a rehabbed and gentrifying "historic core."
One prize ripe for gentrification now is my old workplace, the May Co. building. East Coast developers promise a return to glamour that could outdo the flagship store in its heyday: two swimming pools, a Turkish bath and a two-story food court like Harrods.
Meanwhile, Grand Central Market's mom-and-pop vegetable stands and the Chinese food counter compete with an upscale cheese shop, oysters on the half shell and ice cream imported from Santa Barbara. From the Ace Hotel to the Bradbury Building, "desirable" Broadway is shrugging off anyone who doesn't fit the picture.
I believe Broadway is more than restored structures, a fancified streetscape and power-washed sidewalks. It encompasses personal experience, collective memory and narratives like mine. The Broadway gene is less tangible but no less integral to downtown than the built and now rebuilt environment. It transforms mere infrastructure into "place," and makes it mine, no matter what.
James Rojas is a city planner, community activist and artist whose focus is on community engagement and Latino urbanism. Website: www.enactedenvironment.com