I’m not a big fan of street festivals. The kind where they close down a few blocks of one street to vehicular traffic, set up information booths, food stalls and stands, roulette wheels, amusement rides for the kids. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City invariably playing on a corner sound system.
I like the idea, in theory. Pedestrians taking back the streets. It’s just the inevitable crush of people, grinding things to a slow crawl, the bike pedal to the shin from a passing cyclist on foot, tzatziki on your shoe, dripped off from that guy’s gyro. People love these events! Why aren’t there more of them? Hint, hint. Hint, hint.
None of this stopped me, however, from heading downtown to check out Bringing Back Broadway on Friday night.
Wait a minute, I hear you thinking. Downtown? “Downtown”?? You’re in Los Angeles, aren’t you? What do you mean by “heading downtown”.
But I do understand your confusion.
Back in the day, the early-90s to be exact, the last time I spent any time here, downtown Los Angeles was something of a mythical place, a place you’d never think of going unless you had to. I travelled there once, when I had to get some visa work done. During office hours, in and out, no looking back.
Downtown Los Angeles loomed grimly in the distance, over your shoulder across the 101 and 110 freeways, when you were taking in a Dodgers’ game at Chavez Ravine. Or maybe you might venture there on Sunday mornings to walk through the farmer’s market. Downtown Los Angeles was that forbidden zone outside the convention centre if you were unlucky enough to have to attend to business there.
“Downtown L.A. in the 1990s was the most terrifying urban landscape I have seen,” writes David Ulin in the final chapter of his book, Sidewalking.
That was over 20 years ago. Downtown Los Angeles has since been undergoing something of a renaissance. Was it that 5 stop subway, running from Union Station to MacArthur Park that opened back in 1993? Sure, why not. Let’s heap all the credit on public transit. It feels appropriately ironic.
Downtown Los Angeles is so happening these days, it even has its own little moniker. DTLA. Which doesn’t really roll snappily off the tongue, though. Like the area it represents, it is a work in progress.
So ingrained is the impossibility of a downtown Los Angeles in my mind that I found it hard to grasp that there was once a vibrant downtown to revive. Yet, as Reyner Banham describes in Los Angeles: The Architecture of 4 Ecologies, Los Angeles “was an inland foundation that began to leap-frog to the sea in the railway age…” The city as we currently know it mushroomed into being from the railway lines running out from the historic core, opening up tracts of land to the coast, further inland over and through the mountains to real estate speculation and development. So successfully did the increased mobility spur the growth of people to other places throughout the region that, with the rise of the private automobile hitting its stride by the 1920s, no longer did those having the choice see the need to live or, in some cases, do business downtown. De-populating the core. A familiar pattern.
Broadway is one of the oldest streets in the oldest part of Los Angeles and, unsurprisingly, given its name, is home to the city’s theatre district. The “historic theatre district”, in fact. Vaudeville and classic old movie houses dot the street. There was once a bustling commercial and retail sector in the area too, with the early-20th century vintage buildings still standing in the area as proof.
Downtown Los Angeles was so abandoned, both literally and figuratively, that many of these structures were simply left behind rather than razed to make way for new construction. Derelict through sheer neglect but not wiped from the map. Something to work with. A place to revitalize.
While Broadway itself feels and looks to be in the early stages of this revival, I think only 2 of the 13 extant theatres are up and running in any sort of fashion, many of the other buildings on the street don’t appear to be open for business either, the wider downtown area is definitely in full renewal mode. Trendy (and presumably expensive) loft apartments are now a thing. Bars and restaurants are plentiful enough to host pub crawls. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall sits beside the Broad Museum, both across from the Museum of Contemporary Art, all atop Bunker Hill. Access to public transit abounds.
Downtown L.A. is becoming the very model of an easterner’s view of a proper downtown. There is now a there there! A destination, as evidenced by the packed crowd, fighting its way along Broadway between 3rd and 7th Streets, past the chess-boxing biathalon and silent disco, lining up for a half block for an inside tour of the Roxie or Rialto or Cameo theatre. I wasn’t able to jot down the name of which one as I was too cramped to work a pen and notebook.
I’d just have to come back to check it out another time when the place wasn’t so much less crowded as differently crowded. With fewer tourists. Like me.
Which is when I realized, not that I was a tourist here in Los Angeles, I am, but that the downtown of the city was a destination for me. It didn’t sit pretty much in my backyard, an easy walk or bike ride away. To get here from where I live, I’m the better part of an hour on public transit. On a good trip.
According to every rule I’d learned in the urban playbook, I have become a suburbanite. And it happened so quickly – I’ve only been here since the 23rd of January — I hadn’t even noticed.
— surprisingly submitted by Cityslikr
Glad to see you’re finally seeing things that lead me to love L.A.!
Downtown LA may have been abandoned by suburban-izing anglos, but our vast and varied immigrant populations moved in and have kept things lively for more than half a century. That’s why there’s still a Downtown to go back to, even if, as Thomas Woolfe would understand, you can’t go back.