Downtown L.A. isn’t ‘vibrant,’ it’s a gritty melting pot. And that makes it even more compelling

An empty pack of Sheriffs, a cigarette of choice on Skid Row.
An empty pack of Sheriffs, a cigarette of choice on Skid Row.
(Dan Johnson)

Have you heard? Downtown Los Angeles is vibrant.

What was once a desolate swath of urban blight bordered by freeways and brutalist civic structures is now the hippest address in all of America. Since 1999, the population of the city proper has grown threefold from 18,700 to 57,797. The Downtown Center Business Improvement District reports that 700 “restaurants, bars, retail, nightlife and amenities” opened here between 2008 and 2014. They’d also like you to know that 75% of DTLA residents are between the ages of 23 and 44 and the mean annual household income is above $98,000.

This portrayal of downtown as a real estate paradigm, an institutional solution to a municipal embarrassment and a cultural phenomenon has been craftily reduced down to one word: “vibrancy.”


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Vibrancy is a by-word for energy and vitality. It implies possibility, connectivity, malleability, prosperity and all the other sought-after intangibles that make the millennial city so appealing. It mixes exclusivity with inspiration and seduction.

But the high-status downtown of vibrancy is an illusion, a selective fiction — as is the talk of a new and pristine community where all are welcome if they can pay for it. Our city center obsesses over a sense of history but can’t quite seem to grasp that downtown Los Angeles is historically a place of down and outs.

A man dressed as Santa Claus passed out in the middle of the day at 7th and Main.
A man dressed as Santa Claus passed out in the middle of the day at 7th and Main. (Dan Johnson)

The idea of vibrancy exists to attract fashionable professionals with disposable income to a zone of tightly held real estate. Once stakeholders and planners have achieved a Lower Manhattan-esque coup, Los Angeles can march proudly into the 21st century, chest a-puff with the knowledge that it righted the urban policy wrongs of the mid-20th century — and made a killing doing so.

I don’t begrudge the financial windfall inherent in building a new downtown. I do, however, resent this disingenuous, stale version we stand to inherit. If the recent spate of violence is any indication, the whitewashed rendition of downtown that boosters are pushing isn’t just boring—it’s out of touch.

I propose a rebranding. Let’s call downtown what it is: visceral.

Downtown is passing notes of perfume and feces and wood-smoked cuisine wafting through the streets between piles of vomit left over from last night’s bender. It is silence cut by sirens. It is 2 a.m. drunk shouts and 3 a.m. screams for help. It is smog-tinted sunsets framed by century- old buildings and draped with a parade of shabby tents. It is the maddening frustration of traffic jams born of closed streets and the ecstasy of jasmine in bloom by the cathedral on a warm spring night.

Vibrancy fails downtown. It neglects reality in favor of wishful thinking.

Ours isn’t a perfect world. It’s downtown -- a gilded toilet where people defecate in the streets, where untreated crazies run amok, where Business Improvement District dispatchers get stabbed in the back, where residents gleefully attend midnight arson, where cars pin people to walls, where tourists disintegrate in water tanks, where old men get beaten to death outside their apartments.

Increasingly, downtown boosters are subject to criticism precisely because the city has run out of cheap, effective or politically expedient solutions for the identity crisis that threatens to disfigure the dream of vibrancy. A new crop of residents, retail and restaurants are adding their “I pay x amount to live/work here, I shouldn’t have to deal with this!” gripes to the mix.

Downtown is not some happy reprieve from the burdens of reality. Downtown is the razor’s edge tightrope walk by which we negotiate our intense journey as a city.

It is a multitude of sensations, common ground for people from diverse ethnic, philosophical, socioeconomic backgrounds — all searching for some sort of inspiration, luck, prosperity, meaning, salvation or buzz. It is a tinder box of tension, perched on the fault line where haves and have nots intermingle. It shakes with crime, poverty, insanity and desperation as much as wealth and celebration.

Downtown is a beautiful place. It earns top marks in my book precisely because it refuses to be domesticated or pigeonholed. In a world of Disney-fied approximations of life, rough and gruff downtown is an authentic city center, a true zócalo where the best and worst of this life are in constant dialogue.

Let’s call downtown what it is—as much heaven as hell, equal measures past and future, matched parts hope and horror, a split bill of destiny and doom.

Enjoy it.

Dan Johnson is a downtown resident and writer. Follow him on Twitter @YankeeJim213 or digest his collection of downtown photo gems on Instagram @beautyissuspect.

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