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Downtown LA: Always Changing

December 18, 2012

The Los Angeles of America’s imagination is rarely downtown Los Angeles. When we envision L.A., we think of the beach, 15 miles away, or the starred sidewalk of Hollywood, or the sprawling suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. While not the center of our Los Angeles, downtown Los Angeles is nonetheless visible —it is a backdrop to films and television shows set in L.A., and, just as frequently, serves as Any City, U.S.A., easily transformed into New York City, Washington, D.C., and the generic cities of car, cell phone, or drug store commercials.

Downtown LAA view south on Broadway with the Tower and Orpheum Theaters at left and the Eastern Columbia building further down on the right. (Photo: Jennifer Mapes)

In a city known for its sprawl, it is easy to forget that Los Angeles has a center. In many ways, the story of downtown Los Angeles is far more representative of the city’s (and nation’s history) than its obfuscated past and backdrop present would lead us to believe.

While in Los Angeles this April, take a few hours to walk through downtown, outside of the Bonaventure, past the bustling office workers and the chain coffee stores of Bunker Hill. Walk north to Chinatown, south to L.A. Live, west to the financial district, and east to Skid Row. Look through the layers of history, and into a multi-faceted, storied, downtown.


Los Angeles, as with many cities on the West Coast, did not really begin to grow until the 1920s. Its downtown architecture benefited from this boom period, with many of its more elaborate historic structures built in the Art Deco style. Its growth coincided with the rise of the motion picture industry, and today a short stretch of Broadway contains 12 theaters.

In Carey McWilliams’ 1946 classic, Southern California: An Island on the Land, he narrates the action of a bustling, pre-suburbanization downtown as he walks into a bustling Pershing Square after a night spent at the Biltmore Hotel:

“…it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would ever be another place like this City of the Angels. Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me — a ringside seat at the circus.”

Pershing Square was once meant to be the “Central Park” of Los Angeles, but its latest iteration has come to symbolize the city’s uneasy relationship with public space. In later years, McWilliams’ grand Biltmore changed its entrance to face the street, not the park. The park was most recently redesigned in the late 1980s. It is now primarily cement, punctuated by windowless, multi-colored buildings and out-of-place sculptures from its earlier days. The small amount of grass that remains is often roped off to prevent use.

Some argue that instead of being the center of public interaction, the park became central to the city’s attempt to control its populace. A long list of restrictions greets the park visitor, and what Mike Davis called “bum-proof benches” (constructed to make sleeping impossible) line its edges. And yet the park, at the center of the city, remains an important site of political protest.


Walk north a block from Pershing Square and you’ll find Angels Knoll, a steeply-graded park that had a brief brush with fame in the 2009 film (500) Days of Summer. The green space (maintained by goats, who will “mow” the hillside for cheap) is not particularly useful for soccer games, but makes for a good vantage point with which to view Spring Street’s historic financial district.

Angels FlightAngels Flight is a landmark funicular railway in the Bunker Hill district of Downtown Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Jennifer Mapes)

At its northern edge is the relocated Angels Flight, a 298-foot long funicular railroad that once ferried people between the homes of Bunker Hill and the city’s financial district. Angels Flight, built in 1901, is a reminder of a time before Los Angeles embraced Urban Renewal, when Bunker Hill was downtown’s residential district, with large Victorian houses overlooking the city.

But the neighborhood changed in character, and by 1942, novelist Raymond Chandler described it as “old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town,” full of rooming houses and petty criminals: “people who look like nothing in particular and know it.” In 1951, the Community Redevelopment Agency declared this working-class neighborhood, “blighted without hope of piecemeal restoration,” and in the late 1960s and ‘70s, its 133 acres (7,310 housing units) were bulldozed.

Angels Flight was dismantled in 1969. The razed and re-graded landscape gradually filled with some of the tallest buildings in the city, a few apartment buildings, but predominantly bank-owned skyscrapers, and Bunker Hill became the new financial center of downtown Los Angeles.

With the redevelopment of Angels Knoll and California Plaza, the funicular was brought out of storage and in 1986 was reopened a block north of its original location. Its entrance on Hill Street is across from the Grand Central Market, a public market that has served Los Angeles since 1917. The railroad primarily serves tourists, but also offers a reverse commute: residents from gentrifying Spring Street and Broadway can now take the funicular uphill to the offices in the new financial district.


Downtown Los Angeles MapFor an interactive map of downtown Los Angeles, visit (Photo: Jennifer Mapes)

A block east of Spring Street, Main Street is a borderland between new and old Los Angeles; rich and poor; visible and invisible. To some it is the center of success in “cleaning up” downtown, but to others it is ground zero for gentrification, a battleground for some of the last affordable living spaces in the city.

Main Street marks the edge of Skid Row, as defined in a 2006 legal ruling that the city could not enforce a ban on sleeping on the sidewalks, as it did not provide enough beds for its homeless. While best known as a center of L.A.’s homeless population, Skid Row also houses thousands of residents. Affordable housing that brought many residents to this area includes Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs), aging hotels that once catered to temporary workers arriving via the nearby railroad station. These affordable rooms and their clientele brought social services to the area, which in turn attracted more low-income residents, both housed and homeless.

While late to the trend of downtown revitalization, the population of downtown Los Angeles increased from 35,884 to 51,329 between the 2000 and 2010 Census. One ten-block area along Main Street gained 2,500 people. Many of these new residents are moving into lofts in older buildings that were restored after the city’s Adaptive Reuse Ordinance was approved in 1999. The construction of the entertainment venue L.A. Live has also increased demand for more upscale downtown living spaces. Today, many once-affordable spaces like the Rosslyn Hotel have been renovated and now focus their attention on higher-income tenants. Downtown Los Angeles continued from page 1

The new residents have brought new life to downtown Los Angeles, along wine bars, a full-size supermarket, a Target, and a monthly Art Walk. However, the newfound popularity of downtown, particularly along Broadway, Spring Street, and Main Street, has driven up the cost of housing there, putting pressure on existing residents. The influx of new customers also resulted in a push by the local business community for greater policing of the area and enforcement of laws that target activities of the homeless.


At the edge of downtown, the 32-acre Los Angeles State Historic Park provides a look back further into the history of the center of Los Angeles, and a glimpse at its future. If you have the time, and 50-cent fare, take the B-DASH bus past Union Station and tourist-oriented Olvera Street to the Chinatown Gold Line Station, and walk north on Spring Street to the park

At the north end of the park, edged by the light rail line that runs north to Pasadena, is a portion of the Zanja Madre (“mother ditch”) constructed by Spanish colonizers and Native American laborers to irrigate farmland along the Los Angeles River. This portion of downtown was once called “the cornfields,” a name that may have come from the corn grown beside the river, or its shipment through this area as the railroads expanded and a rail yard was built.

That there is a park here — and not an industrial warehouse — speaks to the power of a neighborhood coalition that fought for the land to become public open space. When a developer offered to redevelop the defunct rail yard into a warehouse complex, 35 different community organizations argued that the open space should be purchased and turned into a park. With the assistance of the Trust for Public Land, the state purchased the parcel in 2001. The park is still being designed and built, but developers are hoping to connect it back to the river, one of the city’s great (but long mistreated) assets.


Downtown Los Angeles stands out among downtowns of other large American cities for its Spanish colonial roots, impressive stock of historic theaters, large homeless population, and late-to-the-game interest in redevelopment. And yet its stories are also very familiar for those who study cities: a victory of community coalitions, conflict over public space, a landscape transformed by urban renewal, and success and hardships brought by gentrification. New York writer Dorothy Parker once referred to Los Angeles as “72 suburbs in search of a city.” Clearly, she’d never been downtown.

— Jennifer Mapes,
Assistant Professor of Geography,
Kent State University


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