Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 1, 2010

Stranger in Town

I have to travel today to attend a meeting in one of the remotest, and little-known parts of Los Angeles: downtown.

Because the subject has been covered by hundreds of writers before me, I don’t have to write at length here about the status of Los Angeles as ur-ancestor, the very avatar of the contemporary dispersed, suburbanized city. Having ripped out the rails of the long-ago interurban cars and replaced them with freeways, Los Angeles pioneered the modern decentralized metropolis. Prior to that and continuing for some time, it engaged in an aggressive urban “renewal” that leveled old central-city neighborhoods and constructed the odd, dysfunctional downtown of today, where almost no one lives, and which, despite boasting a fairly regular grid of streets when viewed on a map, is nearly impenetrable to the understanding of an average driver.

I’m being somewhat misleading; tens of thousands of people do work in downtown L.A. There is a clutch of skyscrapers there (CLICK HERE), and the center of the city includes both the city and the county’s primary municipal, legal and official offices, courthouses and other operations. Relatively recent developments have constructed a large, burgeoning entertainment center at the south end of downtown around the Convention Center, starting with the Staples Center, home of the Lakers, Kings, Clippers (if they’re still considered “professional,” that is), and Sparks. However, layering the street grid over Bunker Hill required running some streets through tunnels, others over viaducts, and while a map implies that they intersect, they actually pass over or under one another, or go through an unexpected tunnel in mid-city. You can be standing precisely where your map indicates is you ought to be, but find that the building you seek is a hundred feet over your head.

Like all cities over a certain age, Los Angeles once had a vibrant downtown, chock-full of fabulous vaudeville and movie theaters (CLICK HERE), hotels, department stores and temples of commerce, including some impressive Art Deco and Art Moderne structures that persist, salted away now between later construction or adjoining vacant spaces.

Many contemporary downtowns share one trait: it’s tough to really ARRIVE there: the interface between expressway and surface streets is difficult when you have large volumes of freeway traffic attempting to intersect with the dense pattern of downtown city streets. L.A. has more than its share of these difficulties, as the 5, 10, 101, 110 freeways all converge from various angles into different parts of downtown. In just one example, the 9th street entrance to the 110 uses the same lane as the 6th, 4th and 3rd street exits, a merger mania that plays out in constant repetition all along north-south Interstate 110 on the west side of downtown.

L.A. is making tiny strides toward restoring a modicum of public transportation, has built the first tentative tendrils of a rail/subway system that converge on glamorous old Union Station (CLICK HERE). Along with the new entertainment complex south of town, there has been a modest growth of restored buildings housing condos, live-work arrangements and other gentrification, but it takes a special breed of urbanite to homestead in a city that has almost no grocery stores or other amenities for residents. Once the office buildings empty out in the evening, it can be a quiet place for street after street.

Therefore, my trip today takes some planning, because I almost never go downtown: I don’t typically have any business there; this will be the 3rd meeting I’ve attended there in 17 years. We do go there to attend concerts at Disney Hall, and we’ve occasionally visited a few other points of interest (The Bradbury Building, Clifton’s Cafeteria among them), but in my mental map of the world, downtown is mostly white space: terra incognita.

If I make it there and back, though, I hope to bring a few tales of adventure from the belly of the urban beast; there are some architectural and cultural gems within a few blocks of my destination today, and I’ll report on them soon. If you don’t hear from me, send out a search party. Start at Philippe’s: at least I can get a french dip sandwich while I’m awaiting rescue.

The next 5 entries will follow my brief, intense exploration of a portion of the Los Angeles downtown.

Note, 2016: Downtown Los Angeles has changed significantly in the 6 years since I wrote this post. There are more live/work accommodations, the Staples Center area entertainment complex is greatly expanded, and some notable 40+-story towers have or are being completed, altering the skyline (while not necessarily enhancing the traffic situation). The Los Angeles Metro light rail has new links extending west into Santa Monica, as well as other additions. The mythical, long-awaited direct connection between LAX International Airport and downtown may actually exist within my lifetime. I owe you an update.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2016

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