While in LA last week for a media conference, I had several hours free and realized that a) it wasn’t enough time to do something major (visit a museum across town or surf a few waves — ha! as if). And b) the Oscar madness was upon the city, and lo, it was making life difficult just to get around to the touristy locales.
So I went walking around downtown, something no self-respecting Los Angeleno (or Dallasite) would ever do. I’ve been to LA any number of times, it’s not my favorite city by a long shot. But in becoming a pedestrian, I got a very different perspective on the town.
First, outside of a few showpieces like Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, a lot of modern architecture in LA is office-tower ordinary. The distinctive southern California modern that we often think of — low-slung, futuristic homes perched on stilts over canyons — exists elsewhere. What really distinguishes the downtown, what LA seems determined to neglect into non-existence, is its large stock of older buildings. Perhaps it’s because, living in Dallas, I am seriously old-building-deprived, but I was struck by the impressive number of graceful-now-shabby pre-war office buildings and storefronts, particularly the half-dozen decrepit movie palaces along Broadway. If ever a city should be preserving some spangly remnants of our cinematic golden age, you’d think it’d be LA. Although not, apparently, if it involves doing anything about the homeless (LA officially became America’s “homeless capitol” two years ago.)
These, of course, are precisely the kinds of buildings that add some real texture and contrast to a city, the kinds of buildings that Dallas bulldozed — and continues to bulldoze (goodbye Fishburn Laundry, goodbye Hard Rock Cafe). But while LA has certainly done its share of stupid demolitions, its larger stock of older neighborhoods and the apparent lack of financial incentives have been such that the city still has an impressive supply of these ornate grande dames. At least they’re not gone, that’s something to build on.
Of course, as in Dallas, there are a number of downtown locations being retrofitted by adventurous developers into trendy loft condos and luxury apartments. They’ve even adapted the old Federal Reserve Bank. An impressive old fort, as you might imagine, now called “The Reserve.” The first photo, above, is the highly embellished, art deco-ish entrance to the Eastern Columbia Building on Broadway and 9th, designed originally by Claude Beelman in 1929 as a department store and covered with glossy turquoise terracotta, trimmed in gold. It’s like an ornate sapphire, “Sky God” version of Dallas’ Mercantile Building, complete with clock faces.
But judging from the prices quoted on the ads I saw, these residential developments are dependent upon the same apparently endless supply of multi-millionaires eager to be urban pioneers that Dallas is. They’ll spend a fortune to experience some of that artsy-gritty downtown atmosphere — from six floors up and behind massive security doors and cameras.
Still, I couldn’t get over how many architecturally graceful old buildings and once-swanky, Sinatra-era lounges there were — mostly gone to seed, of course, or simply put to different uses by a more working-class Hispanic/Asian population. A number of those movie palaces, for instance, are now rather flashy looking streetfront churches.
Naturally, there are conservation efforts — I hope they’re stronger and more effective than the ones in Dallas have been. But I also couldn’t get over the fact that — other than the rare masterpiece like the Bradbury Bulding (used in both Bladerunner and Chinatown) — we never really see these streets or buildings or city districts on film or in television shows. When Hollywood wants to depict urban squalor and must use a financially expedient LA setting, it usually employs an utterly generic, slighty rundown warehouse district or industrial park. You know, the backdrop for a hundred Starsky and Hutch or Police Woman episodes, the kind of place with “alleys” and “dumpsters” and, oooh, dangerous — “graffiti.”
When I went out to eat with my friend, Robert Abele, the TV columnist for the L.A. Weekly, I marveled about how so much of this architecturally distinctive LA remains cinematically anonymous. He agreed about LA not really coming to terms with its downtown and its pre-war past. This is the city, after all, of dreams, of that future just out of reach. Old buildings suggest death and age and history, all those things Hollywood studiously avoids.
But no, actually, Bob added, we have seen these mean streets. And we’ve seen them a lot. The studios regularly use them, he said, when they need what they think looks like a crime-ridden, poverty-plagued hellhole.