The Rip Post                                Riposte Archive


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Oct. 11, 2007

There was a time when downtown L.A. was full of old-fashioned east coasty downtownish bustle. Men in charcoal suits and tan fedoras smoked cheap cigars, and perfumey ladies in print dresses and nylon hose shopped at the May Company. Pedestrians clogged the streets, day and night. Pacific Electric Cars clanged and electric buses sparked overhead wires, and families and poets and hookers inhabited the rotting grandeur of Bunker Hill. Garish, swanky Chinatown restaurants glowed at night, and Little Tokyo twinkled all the way to where Parker Center is today.
           This was a downtown with a funky but friendly Philharmonic Hall, and a well-loved second-rate orchestra, and Taj Mahal movie theaters that once hosted the world’s greatest entertainers, from W.C. Fields to Buster Keaton to Fanny Brice. It was rife with friendly bar-and-grills and liquor stores and curio shops and clattery warehouses and four---count ‘em, four---daily newspapers (more, if you go back to the twenties.)
           It was the Raymond Chandler downtown of newsboys hawking eight editions a day, smoky pool halls and cheap flophouses and mean white cops---a meandering burg of low brick or stocky granite buildings where city hall towered by law, as earthquake regulations prevented anything from showing it up. It was a downtown lousy with car exhaust and the dinging of those mechanical signs that waved arms saying “stop” and “go.”
          It's all as long gone as modesty.
          After the Red Cars were ripped out and everyone bought post-war Buicks and Chevys and moved to two-bedroom-one-bath TV-chirping dreamhouses in Glendale and Van Nuys and Mar Vista and Monterey Park, downtown slipped into a perpetual half-existence, a downtown in name, but not so much role. The cops were headquartered there, and the Biltmore was just as handsome, and lots of people worked for lots of city and county agencies, and lunch restaurants hopped, but the place lost its thrive.
           In the sixties and seventies, it had become largely a downtown to drive to---for work, for concerts, the library. The Music Center was first-class, Olvera Street an earthy delight, Chinatown chocked full of good dim-sum and bad knick-knacks. Then came massive change. With earthquake regulations discarded, Mayor Bradley invited and cajoled lots of hotshots with hot money to build a bunch of skyscrapers. In a hilarious contrast, increasing numbers of latino immigrants concurrently evived Broadway, at least during the day. But it remained a symbolic downtown, a hood ornament.
           I’ve always loved the place, regardless. I even have a little history with it, seeing as my old man worked for the old Daily News at Pico and Los Angeles Streets in the 40’s and 50’s, and later at United Press. I have foggy memories of him taking me to ride Angel’s Flight in the 50’s, and being fascinated by the sparking electric buses. Of course, the highlight of any visit was city hall, which to all kids was the Daily Planet building, where Clark Kent worked in the “Superman” series with the great George Reeves.
           My memories continue through the 60’s, when my step-parental unit occasionally ventured downtown from our suburban hideaway, with me in tow to carry packages. I recall the clattery escalators of the old May Company at 8th and Broadway, being amazed by all the different races that mingled on the streets (my home town, Thousand Oaks, was rather pale), stopping for a fresh-squeezed boysenberry juice at the Grand Central Market. The memory of breathing brownish-yellow air that made my chest hurt now arouses nostalgia (humans are funny creatures.) I sang in a big choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Wilshire once a year, highly amused by the dead people in the floor. It all made me feel like an urban sophisticate.
Through the 70’s, I drove to Chinatown for cheap clothes and oddball decor for my rent-controlled box in Sherman Oaks, and to Philippe’s for beef dip sandwiches, potato salad and cheesecake. Dim-sum with my wonderful then-girlfriend and her kind family was a regular Sunday morning deal. I attended every one of the fondly remembered L.A. Street Scene Festivals---as merry and peaceable a cultural meld as has ever existed, a microcosm of L.A. (or what people wanted L.A. to be)---before gangs forced their cancellation.
            I attended my first L.A. Phil concert at the Music Center in 1969 (Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Varoujan Kodjian and Zubin Mehta), and in the late 70’s became the first writer at the old Valley News (now Daily News of Los Angeles) to regularly review the orchestra. I have many a cherished memory of heading downtown after work at the paper to lose myself in Scotch-lubricated Mehta-led performances of Mahler, Brahms, Bruckner. . .
            In ’79, I finally more or less lived there---when I was hired at the late Herald-Examiner, and spent most of the next five years at 11th and Broadway. (A couple blocks from where my old man had worked, decades earlier.) Midnight dinners at The Original Pantry often ended 12 or 14-hour workdays. In the late 80’s through the mid-90’s, I also typed a few stories in the sterile Times building, but don’t hold that against me.
           Looking back, I realize that downtown has always been my preferred refuge, sanctuary, home-away-from-home. You can’t go home again, but you could always go downtown. Even now, I occasionally hit Philippe’s, though my waistline doesn’t tolerate it so well anymore, and there is no more pleasant or dear place in all of Southern California, to my way of thinking, than Little Tokyo, what with its rich (if tragic) history, summer festivals, art exhibits, concerts, plays, shops, cafes, temples. A gem.
           Of course, lots and lots of people have similar feelings and far greater attachment to downtown, which is why I am writing this obituary.
           Downtown Los Angeles died this decade after a sudden illness. It was about 110 or 120, depending on which history you like. You may read the full obit in the Washington Post article: Angelenos' New Refrain: 'I Love (Downtown) L.A.' City's Once-Wasteland Is Hipster Heaven.
           Yes, headlines and articles and TV newsmannequins will tell you the opposite---that downtown is being spectacularly reborn, that it is, as the Post says, “one of the hottest residential real estate markets on the West Coast.” A place full of “hipsters,” “trendsetters,” half-million-dollar “Zen retreats” in old warehouses, where “newcomers are drawn by the insidery (sic) buzz of the next cool place.”
           That's technically, if nauseatingly, accurate. Downtown in recent years has somehow acquired the dreaded anointment, “cool,” and almost every claptrap, decaying office building and haunted warehouse has been grabbed for conversion to so-called lofts. The staggering totals: 9,300 converted spaces, 8,000 new condos and apartments under construction, 8,500 more planned.
           But. . .lofts? A loft connotes a cheap urban living space coveted by artist types, and that vaguely bohemian phenomenon peaked in the early 80's warehouse district. The only thing lofty about the new so-called “lofts” of downtown is the average price---about $750,000, by my rude calculation, with many going for millions. Rents: $1500-$2500 for pocket-sized one-bedrooms (on streets sprayed daily with fresh urine.)  
           Pretty funny. Places you could not give away 20 years ago are now de riguer. Rooms where smack addicts and crackheads lived among filth and stinky mattresses are tres chic. Sic transit gloria funky. And just who, you wonder, are these “cool,” “insidery” “trendsetters” (remember when that was a laughably contemptible term?) shelling out the cash to live in these former junky joints? The Post:
           "The vast majority of residents moving downtown are between 25 and 35 years old, with sizable disposable incomes, making $100,000 or more a year.”
           It’s true that I don’t get out much, and I am used to a writer’s “income,” but I’d really like to know what these young trendsetters with “sizable disposable incomes” are doing to bring in over a hundred grand a year. I mean, how many personal assistants can Hollywood sustain? How many actor/writer/ directors? How many hairstylists does Carlos Amezcua require? Does web-design pay that well? Maybe they’re all paparazzi. Feng-shui specialists for pets. Freelance Zen Digestion Counselors.
           A hundred grand. That's half as much as most city and county officials make, and while they don’t do much of anything, The Post seems to suggest that neither do the new downtownies. They are “pretty people,” the article explains, who seek out “chic restaurants and underground dance clubs with dress codes and guests lists.” They are “scenesters” (there’s a new one) who sit in cafes, listening to “Pan-Asian Music” while “grazing on ahi tapas and sipping soju.”
           Pan-Asian music? What is that, music played on woks? Call me un-cool (please), but I don’t graze. (Make that un-cow.) I eat. Ahi tapas? (Bless you!) Sorry, I’m an ethnic purist, food-wise. I still distinguish between tapas and izakaya, and I am not fascinated by cross-culturalism. I’m so un-insidery that I do not even define myself by what I eat. Soju? So what. Gimme a glass of draft at Philippe’s.
           No, I’m not a “cool-hunter,” which is also how the Post describes the new denizens of downtown, as they go about "zeroing in on the sudden appearance of specific social clues -- American Spirit cigarette butts, or black kale on the menu, or art graffiti (as opposed to gang tags) -- that signal the presence of like-minded urbanites.”
           That signal the presence of snobby, rich, cigarette-sucking, overpaid pinheads, you mean. The downtown clues I look for are oh, spit, diesel exhaust, good old imagawayaki in Little Tokyo, bleary-eyed black guys shouting about UFO’s, bus drivers that flip you off if you honk at them. And I prefer my graffiti real.
           Ah, well, perhaps I am too down on the new downtownies. They can’t help being snobby, arrogant, cigarette-sucking, overpaid pinheads. Corporate America and the media train them to be that way. But my point is that everyone who is hailing the rebirth of downtown is actually hailing its---warning: great big stale buzzword ahead---gentrification. Please explain: how does turning the place into an exclusive playground for the rich and shameless signify rebirth?
           The only rebirth going on is in the bankbooks of the corporations and venture capitalists who are exploiting the new “coolness." Do you think they care a whit about the history, or how million-dollar “lofts” and the Black Kale People are impacting it? Ask the residents and merchants of Little Tokyo. They are
organizing to save their precious neighborhood. Two huge chunks of it---Weller Court, with the New Otani Hotel, and the beguiling, doggedly unpretentious Little Tokyo Plaza---have just been snatched by corporate megalopoloids. The poor little Plaza is set for a makeover. Translation: it will likely be steroided up a la The Grove in order to bring in more “cool” money, never mind its history and importance to the Japanese-American community.
           "This is the story of people looking for the hip, the cool, the genuine," summarized Sharon Zukin, sociology professor at City University of New York and author of "Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change," in the Post article.
            Well, not quite, professor. They’ll sniff out the “hip” and “cool" like rats on goat-cheese-pizza crust. But it’s getting to be that the only genuine thing left down there are the poor souls lighting cardboard fires and drinking Peppermint Schnapps on Skid Row.
            Yes, downtown L.A. might soon hop and buzz and glow, Paris-like, as it has not done since the 30’s and 40’s. But it will be as hollow and stupid and soulless as Paris Hilton.

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