Downtown L.A.: Splashes of Color and Soul on a Blanket of Asphalt

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The comment popped up randomnly while walking along Spring Street, which has been the center of revival in downtown Los Angeles:

“L.A.’s downtown is very ghetto fabulous,” said Lee, who was my drinking companion that night. “And sometimes, it’s just plain ghetto.”

What he meant, using generation Y’s version of the word, was that the neighborhood had the workaday authenticity now lacking in other downtowns: it was diverse, dimly lit, industrial and unclean, with few tourists or green spaces, and a shocking number of street people. By “fabulous” he meant that it also had the traditional amenities expected in a major city, like stunning architecture and fancy restaurants. But in combining the two, downtown L.A. was the type of neighborhood that Richard Florida—who celebrates such mixtures of grit and cosmopolitanism—couldn’t have drawn up any better on his own canvas.

“And by the way, when I say ‘ghetto’,” Lee concluded, “I definitely don’t mean it in a bad way.”

This is the new downtown Los Angeles, meaning it is one that’s somewhat different from the last two decades, and even the last two years. In 1990 it was depicted by Mike Davis, in his mesmerizing book City of Quartz, as a Third World-style neoliberal dystopia, full of police brutality, excessive surveillance, and the almost willful segregation by race and class. This was echoed by the owner of Pete’s Café, who opened his restaurant—the area’s first trendy one—in 2002, when downtown was still, according to him, a “lousy neighborhood”.

The conditions of downtown hit me too like a jab across the face when first visiting in 2007. I had exited the Greyhound Station from deep in the warehouse district, and when spotting skyscrapers to the west, began walking that direction. Before long I was inside America’s Heart of Darkness, Skid Row itself, which is the city’s designated “containment zone” for the homeless. The area was like an open asylum, full of crack pipes, violent arguments, and makeshift cardboard houses. Crossing Los Angeles Street—which ushers Skid Row into the financial district—meant going from a destitute area to one that was merely lower-class. All throughout this district, Mexican immigrants who barely spoke English operated cheap jewelry and clothing dives, which were shoved together along crowded sidewalks. In the adjacent Little Tokyo, toys that were manufactured at nearby warehouses were sold at discount storefronts just a stone’s throw away. Much of the kinds of supportive housing found in Skid Row were also located downtown, attracting crowds of men outside who drank unconcealed vodka all day, occasionally pissing it back out into nearby bushes.

A crowded side street in Little Tokyo, with downtown mid-rises in the background.

A crowded side street in Little Tokyo, with downtown high-rises in the background.

These same characteristics still define downtown L.A. But one recent addition has thrown a kink into the equation: the in-migration of stylish young professionals, who have grown intrigued by the neighborhood’s atmosphere, and its dense, asphalt-laden backdrop. While they have gravitated to Spring Street, they are also scattered in lofts throughout downtown, many of which are historic cast iron and Art Deco masterpieces. The businesses these people support suggest a neighborhood in the early stages of gentrification, with art galleries, coffeehouses, and even a used bookstore. The murals that have appeared are starkly different from the more sanitized ones in other cities, emitting in some cases the dark hues of postmodern noir culture, and in others a riot of colors that resemble a cross between a Jackson Pollack painting, and the graffiti of a Mexican street gang.

The most notable part of these changes is how quickly they have occurred. Several times I’ve returned since that first visit to downtown Los Angeles, and have seen it grow more refined each year. But this is not to say these changes have alleviated the neighborhood’s structural problems. Skid Row remains a policy disaster, bad both for economic development, and the well-being of the homeless. The presence of such people, on every corner and alleyway, has left a veneer of insanity that wafts up from the concrete and into thin air. Their mixing in, side by side, with such overt displayers  of wealth is disturbing not only to Mike Davis, but to others I talked to, including an area bartender who called it “literally—and I mean literally—the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.”

This view of Skid Row, visible from a high-class bar across the street, suggests the class divides that straddle Los Angeles Street.

This view of Skid Row, visible from a high-class bar across the street, suggests the class divides that straddle Los Angeles Street.

The challenge for the city, especially in the face of modernization, will be learning which neighborhood characteristics should be preserved, and which should be reformed, to anticipate this inevitable onrush. In the meantime, the people now there can enjoy an area that may be seedy, but that is also dynamic and undeniably urban, and that offers a bonanza of aesthetic and cultural flair.

(All photo credits go to Christopher Berggren.)

(All photo credits go to Christopher Berggren.)

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