Sunday, September 17, 2006

Downtown Los Angeles

I was called for jury duty last week and had to spend a couple days in downtown Los Angeles. During some of the breaks I wandered around town a bit and was reminded of why I almost never go into LA.

I don't mean to be harsh toward the city. It's a huge expanse and I know there are some lively and interesting areas of LA, but the Downtown (by which I mean the area in and around City Hall) is ratty and uninviting, though up the hill (on Hill Street) it is nice and uninviting. I mean, this is one of the most important cities in not just the United States, but in the world, and at its heart it is pretty much a disgrace.

If I may for a moment treat Downtown as a seperate entity from the rest of sprawling LA, I'd say it seems to be just a commuter zone. For example, I was looking for a place to have lunch and asked a woman on the street where I might find a restaurant.

"You like Mexican?" she asked.

"Sure," I said.

Well, she walked with me all the way to Olivera Street, about five blocks away. It was one of the few lively spots I found in the area, and the whole of Olivera Street is tiny, not to mention being quite a distance from all the big office buildings and across a grubby freeway overpass. (When I got back to the courtroom I heard another juror say that he went on what sounded like an even longer hike to find a restaurant.)

Anyway, as we were walking along this woman mentioned she lived in Corona.

Corona!? Ouch! What a nasty, long commute!

But that is the impression I got about the whole Downtown, that few if any of the office workers live nearby and that the place is probably pretty abandoned at night.

The area is covered with huge full-block buildings - mostly government - that you clearly don't go into unless you have business there. You can walk for long stretches and encounter no openings for people, just monolithic walls with the occasional vehicle service entrance and locked doorway decorated with yellowing sheets of newspaper. It seems that whatever life there is in Downtown is inside these huge buildings, but get out on the street and it's dead. Unless you're outside at the beginning or ending of the work day, or at noon, you can walk blocks and blocks and seldom pass more than a few people per block, most of them apparently homeless (and nothing against them; they provide what little life there is on the streets).

Don't get me wrong. Some of the buildings in the Downtown are beautiful (though others are gag ugly) with nice grass areas, and there are pretty parks - which appear generally abandoned, even at lunch time. So where are the people?

Well, one day at lunch I found quite a few of people - underground. There is a "mall" that is below ground level. It features a set of not-impressive-but-okay fast-food outlets, most of them apparently independent. The mall has a tiny sign at the top of the stairway going down, as if the city sort of reluctantly realizes that people need to eat but is embarassed that anything so crass as a commercial establishment should mar the solemn grandure of massed government buildings.

As I walked around Downtown I found weed and trash covered lots, places where it stinks (literally), blackened chewing gum spotting the sidewalks (all over), poor quality repairs that have been made to concrete sidewalks using asphalt, broken concrete that was unrepaired (even with asphalt), boarded up and run-down businesses. And yes, there are a few interesting spots (a seafood mall, for example), but the overall impression is one of sad, dirty dullness.

Someone will mention that if you go west a bit, up the hill, on the appropriately named Hill Street, there is where it becomes elegant. True, but it is a dreary sort of elegance. The Disney Concert Hall, the other concert facilities and the cathedral are attractive, but they are also just more block-square monoliths, though I did see some attractive condos or apartments being built (more on that in a moment).

One of the main points advanced by Jane Jacobs - a brilliant analyst of city life - is that what makes a big city lively and safe is mixed uses, which ensures there are always people on the streets, day and night. If you mix offices and stores and churches and residential and restaurants and movies and parks and other uses close together then you always have people coming and going, keeping an eye on the area and making it both safe and interesting.

And sadly, that is exactly what Downtown is not; even the new parts (at least those parts I saw). The area seems overplanned, as if the city said, "Let's clear off this whoooole block and put something really magnificent here!" And they do, and it's magnificent, and it's also lifeless.

These fine new buildings, that could contribute so much to the community, don't seem to do so because they don't have any other lively things going on around them. For example, I'd think that people who have just got out of a concert just might like to wander across the street and have a cup of coffee at a restaurant. Well, lotsa luck! From the looks of it, it's just drive in, drive out. A soulless commuterville.

In concluding I need to emphasize that I'm only speaking from my experience of a couple of days and I don't know the circumstances surrounding the development of Downtown LA, so take what I'm saying with a grain of salt. Also, just today I spoke with a friend who said the city of LA is trying to address exactly the problems I saw, so perhaps those condos or apartments I saw being built up on Hill Street are part of the solution. Well, good. If there are people working to fix this problem, blessings upon them! I wish the city well. One of the great cities of the world should have a far livelier downtown than it now has.

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