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Downtown Los Angeles, 21st Century: A Personal, Urban History
An ode to an once anti-urban neighborhood
The defining mural of my childhood. Hotel Figueroa, facing Staples Center. Source
Much like the birth of Jesus Christ, there is one event which shaped how I understand the grand flow of time. The event’s Gregorian date is July 21, 2007. The perceived salvatory effect was on par with the birth in Bethlehem. Like Before Christ and Anno Domini, I posit the following for chronicling Downtown Los Angeles in the 21st century: Before Ralph’s and After Ralph’s.
It was a very hot July morning on the corner of 9th and Flower. More than a thousand people waited in line to enter the first grocery store to open in Downtown in 57 years. The food desert Berlin Wall was coming down, and its guards served free food samples, according to the Los Angeles Times.1 Traffic officers were called in to control the swelling crowd.
Per The Times:
As the 11:30 opening time for the store approached, the crowd, chanted, “Open! Open!” Carol Schatz, chief executive of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, did her best to quiet the shoppers.
“We’ve been waiting 50 years for this,” she said. “You can wait five more minutes.”
Then-Mayor Antonio Villaragoisa joined the stage as Ralph’s made a $730,000 donation made to local charities, schools and community programs. Coupons were mailed out to local residents weeks in advance, as a house-warming gift. For Ralph’s, it was more of a homecoming: the first Ralphs opened in 1873 on Sixth and Spring streets, just four blocks north and six blocks east.2
I was part of that impatient crowd that morning. As a teenager on summer break, I lived just a block away, on Olympic and Hope. Excitement of a next door Ralph’s inside Hope Village – a 66-unit rent-subsidized apartment complex housing Koreans, Blacks and Latinos, including my family for the past six years – was palpable. I saw Villaragoisa cut the Ralph’s logo-red ribbon and was flooded into the glass-and-stainless-steel store. Even the vegetables looked polished that day. I think I got fried chicken for lunch.
Every local in that crowd understood what Ralph’s would mean to their shopping behaviors. For me, the new Ralph’s equaled less car trips to Costco in Los Feliz, or bus trips to Koreatown. An octogenarian living in 3rd and Olive since the 1980s was so excited she called the mailer to check if this was a hoax, per The Times.3 A tech worker living in Downtown said this will help cut back her trips to Japanese markets in Little Tokyo. “Everything was a big schlep,” she told Los Angeles Downtown News.4
But everyone, including myself, was blind to what was to come. Ralph’s was the first nice amenity which arrived in the neighborhood – and the waves kept coming. Nice third wave cafes, juice and cocktail bars, frozen yogurt shops, and Chipotle restaurants arrived in force shortly after Ralph’s. In 2010, I left for school in the Bay Area. Two years later, my parents moved out of our home of 11 years due to rising rents and increasing hostilities from the management. The last neighbor we knew at Hope Village was out by 2014. The rate of change has only accelerated since. When I visit Downtown every two, three years, I’m left stunned by the condos, grocery stores, bars, cafes, shops and restaurants lining every street. They even have a protected bike lane on Figueroa Street!
The Downtown Los Angeles of my childhood of the 2000s was an exurban neighborhood plonked at the center of a worldly metropolis, or perhaps a recently opened containment zone after a meteor very tactically wiped out a half-mile radius of any desirable urban living. When all bankers or fashion students left Downtown by 7pm, the neighborhood was reduced to a husk of its daytime self. The Downtown Los Angeles I knew was a sundown town of its own making at the end of history. No children in our apartment had a bicycle because it was too dangerous to bike in Downtown. Everyone in the apartments looking for human connection drove to Koreatown or South Central. Any group of non-locals milling about outside was usually intuited as there being a Lakers game that night at Staples Center two blocks west.
This is an ode to the anti-urbanist, Before Ralph’s-era Downtown Los Angeles that, upon my last visit in summer of 2020, I can testify no longer exists. As the years pass, I start doubting whether such a Downtown, the locale of my childhood, even existed. Along with Ralph’s on 9th and Flower, I picked out four more locations in Downtown that meant something in the Before Ralph’s era and to me dearly in my personal formation. I intend to relive, revisit and remember in the face of a smoldering question which I’ve asked myself for a decade: If your neighborhood got gentrified but no one was there to see it, were you really gentrified out of your neighborhood?
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This is a different post than usual. I’ve been wanting to write something about my rather unique upbringing in Downtown Los Angeles for a long time but have put if off. It can be intimidating to write about yourself. The timing (recovering from a surgery) and my inspirations aligned, finally, to produce this in record time.
The biggest inspiration, as I think will be made very evident, was the historian and Angeleno Mike Davis. I’ve read his works since college, but have avoided his opus history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz. It was really just ego that made me not want to read about something I thought I knew innately. But I wolfed down City of Quartz in two days, and I wrote 4,800 words right after finishing. If this feels like a blatant rip-off of Davis’s writing style and substance of City of Quartz, it is because it is. I just hope it is a worthy emulation. Consider reading this beautiful paean to Mike Davis, “a titan”, from Defector. All the best wishes to the Davis family as Mike enters palliative care. Thank you for everything, you’re an inspiration.
LA Central Library
The Central Library has seen them come and go. From its perch at the base of Bunker Hill just north, the library was born out of the City Beautiful Movement in the 1920s on the parcel which once housed the predecessor to UCLA. Through the Great Depression, the automobilization of Los Angeles, the postwar decay of Downtown’s political power, the subsequent skyscraperization of Downtown, the 1986 arson fires which damaged its books and structure but galvanized the library as a civic symbol, and the next era of redevelopment of Downtown in the 21st century, the Art Deco building stood resolutely as a public, altruistic institution in an ever hyper-charged capitalist neighborhood.
The Library has seen me come and go several hundred times through its doors. It’s pretty neat to have the largest library west of the Mississippi as your neighborhood one. In my teenhood, to get away from my parents, my hormonal angers and my deep teenage anxieties, I would pack up on weekend mornings and head to the library five blocks away by foot. I would usually stay until closing most weekends. I would take care of lunch and even dinner at the Panda Express on the first floor, next to the western exit facing the Maguire Gardens.
And that Panda Express…To this day, that Panda Express’ orange chicken is by far the best I’ve ever had it — anywhere, including Michelin-worthy Chinese restaurants. I’ve told friends about it. I’ve dreamed about it. I’ve revisited it as an adult, and it has not disappointed me. Sure, this is all heavily tainted by saccharine nostalgia, but when I sit outside on the patio looking toward the garden and Flower Street picking out chunks of orange chicken with a plastic fork, I have felt total serenity like I have felt only a few times prior. I find myself getting younger and wiser at the Library eating orange chicken.
Growing up on Hope Street, which gets cut off on Sixth Street for the Central Library, this was the northern boundary of what I considered “my” Downtown. Until I was in deep into high school, I would rarely venture north of Fifth Street (more on this later). Bunker Hill on the other side of Fifth Street was a business park wasteland, and I innately understood it was no space for a sloppy, acne-filled Asian boy to hang around. It turns out, per historian Mike Davis, that was exactly the plan for Bunker Hill, when it evicted residents and created a financial sector complex from scratch with taxpayer money in the 1960s:5
Like similar megalomaniac complexes, tethered to fragmented and desolated Downtowns…Bunker Hill and the Figueroa corridor provoked a storm of liberal objections against their abuse of scale and composition, their denigration of street landscape, and their confiscation of so much of the vital life activity of the center, now sequestered within subterranean concourses or privatized malls…
The goals of this strategy may be summarized as a double repression: to raze all association with Downtown’s past and to prevent any articulation with the non-Anglo urbanity of its future. Everywhere on the perimeter of redevelopment this strategy takes the form of a brutal architectural edge or glacis that defines the new Downtown as a citadel vis-à-vis the rest of the central city.
It seems like a miracle in hindsight that the Central Library was not demolished, as it was proposed in the 1970s.6 The space serves a diametrically opposite purpose to its neighbor in Bunker Hill and its surrounding skyscrapers which came as Los Angeles joined the Pacific Rim co-prosperity sphere of the 1970s and 1980s. Whereas Bunker Hill malls are coated spaceship-white with random postmodern artwork splayed around, the Library (at least the original Goodhue building) is Mediterranean warmth in its color palette and filled with symbolism-laden murals and statues harkening to some ancient civilization in the Old World. As the architect Bertram Goodhue intended, you knew by sight, smell and sound this was a “temple to knowledge itself.”7
But it is also a monastery, or perhaps a cathedral like the one on Skid Row: doors open to all who need shelter. It was at the Library I had my first and frequent exposures to unhoused people, often smelling of urine but totally unable to harm. It was at the top floor at the fiction department, where I saw a homeless man masturbate while reading. I felt only pity with no judgment. Like him, we are here to escape. I felt no right to indignation. In an astonishingly harsh anti-homeless city like Los Angeles, the Library was a true societal center for all – warts, acne, sperm and all. They really don’t build them like they used to.
Can such a space survive in Los Angeles in the 21st century? I’ll hedge my bets. As long as they keep selling orange chicken there, I can buy into it.
Staples Center before L.A. Live. Source
Staples Center Parking Lot (Now site of L.A. Live)
It is rather absurdly funny that only an Angeleno can appreciate that when the city of Los Angeles, AEG and Majestic Realty Co. agreed on the construction of Staples Center on the corner of 11th and Figueroa in 1997 two huge surface parking lots accompany the arena. Despite being only four blocks’ walk from the Downtown nexus of the LA Metro rail system, which opened only seven years prior to the agreement, giant asphalt parking lots served as the red carpet for visitors coming across Olympic Boulevard.
Lots like that were readily available in Downtown in 2001, when my family moved to the neighborhood, and the Staples Center parking lots were the crown jewels. No one I recall questioned the incredible waste of land use: how else were Lakers fans supposed to go watch Shaq and Kobe in the middle of their legendary three-peat? If anything, the parking lot was welcomed as a quasi-containment zone for street parking and drunk fans. It also served as a part-time neighborhood park when there were no scheduled events. When I and other children in the apartment were young enough, and the adults weren’t too bored or jaded by the new neighborhood, we would be chaperoned to that parking lot two blocks away to kick a soccer ball on a cooling summer night. I recall a few kids in their scooter and rollerblade fads would be accompanied to ride around there. On the corner of Olympic and Figueroa, the children played. On an asphalt plain as far as the eyes can see, we had fun.
Not like there were many options. Grand Hope Park was across the street, overlooked by the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and its student dorms, but it would be closed before sunset and the hawkish security guards made it too hostile a space for high-energy youths to frolic. Pershing Square five blocks north was larger but had a rap for visible drug use; the only times anyone went to Pershing Square were when the local non-profits would give us free tickets to their winter ice skating events. I was explicitly told by the adults to never walk past Main Street five blocks east and Pico Boulevard two blocks south; the city through infrastructure implicitly told me not to pass the 110 three blocks west and Fifth Street six blocks north by foot. So the parking lots it was for some needed R&R.
These parking lots often gave back tokens of gratitude. Every summer, the X-Games would descend on the parking lot, setting up skyscraper-tall ramps and skate parks to create an amusement park overnight. X-Games would mail out free tickets to the apartment complex for the children, and I have been to two, three X-Games. I like to imagine I saw 13-year-old Ryan Sheckler win a gold medal in Skateboard Park in 2003. Ten years later, the 23-year-old Sheckler waxed poetic about the parking lot, by then fully developed into the L.A. Live entertainment complex which opened in 2007. “It's only been 10 years, but it seems longer,” said Sheckler.8
In my patchy memory bank, L.A. Live too was built overnight like Skateboard Park. One blink, the Microsoft Theater and Nokia Plaza was up. Two blinks, Grammy Museum. Three blinks, the 54-story Ritz-Carlton and the Regal Theaters megaplex. The notoriously nicknamed “Times Square West” landed on our rather moribund neighborhood overnight like a UFO and kept its huge bright screens on 24 hours a day.9 Our family would try to make the most of this new space by grabbing coffee and enjoying the outdoor shade at at L.A. Live’s Starbucks, and my sister and I would go watch movies at the Regal Theaters. But the arrival of L.A. Live signaled the beginning of the end for our time in the neighborhood. Whatever developer-rentier contract was arranged for our move-in to Downtown in the first place was running out of time. Downtown was moving in a new direction without us.
As The Times’ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote of L.A. Live in 2008:10
For cities, the benefit of a gargantuan new development is not only the boost it gives to the tax base but also, in urban terms, its spillover effect -- energy and people flowing into the surrounding area. The entirety of the AEG development downtown -- Staples plus L.A. Live -- is designed like an airtight cruise ship, turning not a welcoming face but the architectural equivalent of a massive hull to the neighbors. Its spillover effect may be measured not in gallons but in drops…
I have written before about how the plaza, which sits entirely on property owned by the developer, creates an impressive stage-set version of a public square. The problem is not just that the space is primarily aimed at visitors to L.A. Live’s concerts and restaurants rather than local apartment- and condo-dwellers; it is that it actively discourages any of the activities we traditionally associate with the use of collective space in a city: talking, reading, sitting under a tree, even pausing with a friend for a cup of coffee.
Perhaps it was arrogant of me to expect anything otherwise from this part of Los Angeles. As I thought of myself as a Downtown expert, I started with the base notion that Downtown once cared for me and wants me to stay. But then I did not know the fact 250 residents – mostly low-income Latino families – were evicted rapidly out of their long-neglected apartments, which were razed to make space for Staples Center in the late 1990s. For all the talk of Chavez Ravine, the South Park displacement is hardly known. 11
One evicted resident told The Times in 1999: “They are going to make an awful lot of money off of the arena…I think they could have provided more for the families.”12 They were the first wave, and I was the second wave, caught between the openings of Staples Center and L.A. Live. In the eyes of our beholders, all waves ebb and flow. The water recycles without memories or sympathy. Of course we had to leave.
Grab a popcorn…Source
Laemmle’s Grande 4 Plex
I almost hate to write review for fear the secret will get out about this theater. Although there's nothing foo-foo shi-shi about this theater, it's appeal comes from it's simplicity..
The seats are uncomfortable, But the popcorn is delicious. The drink holders are flimsy. But parking is only 2 dollars (with validation) and never an issue finding a park. Again, I hate to make this theater sound appealing to you, because I don't want the word getting out. I hope to never run into you there!!
-Yelp review from 200913
It was a natural passing of the torch. When Laemmle’s Grande 4 Plex movie theater on 4th and Figueroa closed in October 2009, it was timed with the opening of the Regal Theaters’ megaplex at L.A. Live seven blocks south. Grande 4 Plex has been struggling to break even for years and was hit hard during the 2008 Great Recession. The four-screen theater, built like an underground grotto underneath the Marriott Hotel, was not only out of time but out of place in a new era of Downtown.
As I entered full-blown teenhood, I craved more escapism. The Library was the base but I wanted bright lights too. So I ventured north, past Bunker Hill and Bonaventure Hotel, and found an outpost in Laemmle’s Grande 4 Plex. I watched most of the blockbusters from 2006-2009 at this theater, including some French and Japanese art movies that were on rotation. The theater had a huge poster of the French movie Amelie with actress Audrey Tautou smiling devilishly at the viewer. Right before the theater closed, I asked if I could buy it without any money or plans for storage. The manager told me it was not for sale.
I kept pushing up north. During one summer, I got a membership at the YMCA at 4th and Hope – the mountaintop of Bunker Hill – to relearn to swim. I would lunch at One California Plaza, the most whitewashed and sterile urban space west of Las Vegas built solely for the 9-5 workers in business casual. I’ve traversed Bunker Hill west to east and headed downhill to check out Grand Central Market for the first time despite living in Downtown for nine years. I soon reached the end of my world on foot: City Hall on First and Main. Ironically, I would run into Mayor Villaraigosa several times around Fifth and Flower, where the ritzy California Club resided next to the Central Library and steakhouses were readily around.
“My” Downtown was expanding in size and was changing at a furious clip. I found the flow of investment capital flowing into the neighborhood for the first time exhilarating. But no locale thrill could match the exclusivity I felt going to the Grande 4 Plex. For around $5, I was welcomed into a dungeon to enjoy myself unreservedly for two hours. The theater was always empty but I kept running into three, four elderly moviegoers along with a handful of middle-aged theater employees. We always exchanged conversation before and after the movies. In the dingiest pit of Downtown, a community in the loosest sense of the word had once lived.
Thirteen years later, nothing has replaced the space formerly occupied by the Grande 4 Plex. In 2018, there was some work being done outside in the small amphiteater/staircase leading one down to the theaters.14 Now its street entrance is part of a homeless encampment underneath the 4th St overpass which hovers above the 110, one of many one can find in Downtown in the current national housing crisis. In Downtown of the 21st century, it seems the only way to survive is to go big, bright and loud, like the Regal movie theaters in L.A. Live. Small, dark and quiet belong only to the most depraved and destitute. There used to be a third space for those who wanted to find life away from the bright lights.
Home. Photo from me, in 2020
Sixty-six families today will receive keys to new Downtown apartments featuring such amenities as walk-in closets big enough to double as home offices, modern decor, colorful wall-to-wall carpeting and cable and Internet access.
But these are not loft conversions or Bunker Hill penthouses. Rather, these units, some up to 1,276 square feet, make up a unique subsidized housing project. Hope Village Apartments doesn't look like "low-rent housing," because that's the idea.
"You look at Hope Village and it looks like a market-rate apartment building," said Ralph Contrares, construction manager for Togawa & Smith, Inc., the architectural firm that designed the project. "Just because it's for poor families doesn't mean it has to be treated badly architecturally."
-Los Angeles Downtown News, March 26, 200115
I was eight years old when I came to America from South Korea in June 2000. Housing was not lined up prior to our family’s emigration, and we bounced around homes of friends and church pastors the first few months. Then for several weeks, we lived in motels – my only faint brush with homelessness – which I seemed to have memory-holed entirely. We soon found a two-bedroom apartment in a dingbat on Rosewood and Western Avenues, just a block from the famous postmodern KFC.16 I liked the area; I loved the wacky KFC. But my parents wanted to move out quickly after a spate of shootings in the neighborhood, an entirely foreign concept to us then.
Perhaps it was this urgency why I have no recollection when and how we moved to Downtown. One day in 2001, we were on the northwestern corner of Koreatown; the next, we were next to Staples Center. It was an incredible three-story apartment with modern kitchen appliances and a small veranda. Right below our veranda was a daycare and children services center, which would get very loud with shrieking toddlers around lunchtime. Our front door would open toward a large central courtyard, with a basketball court, playground and a community laundry room. I grew up in bliss not knowing this was a complex built for poor people.
Rents at Hope Village range from roughly $400 to $750 a month, depending on tenant income, and the $12 million development is only the seventh neighborhood apartment building to offer subsidized affordability…
"Our mission is to provide service-enriched housing," said Dr. DarEll T. Weist, president and CEO of 1010 Development Corp., as well as executive pastor of Downtown's First United Methodist Church. "The very people who qualify for affordable housing also need help in putting together their lives.
"As far as I'm concerned, it makes no sense for a faith-based development corporation-which is what we are-to build housing only. We want to empower people, to make their lives better."
-Los Angeles Downtown News, March 26, 200117
I remember the First United Methodist Church members as gift-bringers. Every Christmas, all the children received toys. Every summer, the church and the 1001 Development Corp. staff would throw a barbecue in the daycare space, at which I had my first tastes of ribs, sloppy Joe’s, collard greens, and mac ‘n’ cheese. Before they too became jaded, the staff would offer us field trips and chaperones to Clippers games (the affordable team). I knew some Korean parents in the complex didn’t let their kids accept any of the offerings because of their deep distrust of Blacks. They frequently evoked Sa-I-Gu, or the riots back in 1992, as a righteous reason for their distance.
There were simmering resentments to each other between the majority Koreans and the minority Blacks and Latinos in the complex I only now recognize as an adult. But that racial leeriness never trickled down to the children. We all hung out and played in the courtyard without fail until our parents would yell to order us home for dinner. A Black kid a few years older than me, Abraham, taught me how to play basketball, telling me to defend by looking at the chest, not the ball. But Hope Village was a mere oasis, not a sanctuary. Whatever the adults had to sow at Koreatown, South Central, Vernon, Alhambra, and Commerce were reaped at home. Many parents beat their kids, some got into messy divorces, a few got deported. Just before my move to Berkeley, I learned Abraham was arrested and in jail for selling drugs. His grandmother was devastated and moved shortly after.
Hope Village represents a growing trend away from previous efforts at subsidized housing. "It started with the government trying to do it, and they're blowing all those buildings up now," Weist explained. "And for a brief time, the for-profit community decided they wanted to do it, but that fell apart because there's no money in it. So the non-profits took over-about 20 years ago."
-Los Angeles Downtown News, March 26, 200118
Where would I be had the lottery (more than 500 families entered for 66 units) not broken our way? I’m too scared to even ask. I’ve confronted this question every time I’m back in Downtown and walk to the corner of Olympic and Hope. Facing Figueroa and L.A. Live, Hope Village now has a mural of two hand palms — one black, one white — reaching toward the sky. The mural, to me, has felt like a throwaway attempt to fit in with the blindingly colorful canvas of the new bougie Downtown. The surface parking lot on Olympic and Flower – owned by the Methodist church and once discussed as the site for another Hope Village – remains as it was in 2001, allowing the mural to be visible if standing on Olympic facing east.
Mural of now. Photo from me, in 2020
The promise of more affordable housing in Downtown made at the turn of the millennium was never fulfilled. Glassy luxury condos and hotels now flank Hope Village in all directions, especially on the south side between 11th Street and Pico Boulevard. The allure of catering to moneyed millennials yearning the urbanist life steamrolled through whatever morsels of rent-subsidized housing idealism remained. Akin to the Central Library, Hope Village’s exterior paint job of olive green, beige white and terra cotta brown looks inadequate and warm for a neighborhood with rum bars, spray tan salons and Whole Foods. Hope Village still looks nice and new — but increasingly dated. It took a village to build Hope Village; what if the village now wants mojitos and ahi tuna tacos at this prime real estate space?
When Hope Village is converted to luxury family housing or repurposed or demolished, which I believe will happen because this is my hometown Los Angeles after all, truly then my Downtown of my childhood would be in the history books. No one will cry for them, no one will wax nostalgia about them, no one will commodify and fetishize them to prompt a mutated comeback in the future. This is not Boyle Heights, or Koreatown, or Leimert Park. Downtown is an amnesiac neighborhood, where every generation believes they were the first of its kind before they are pushed out forcibly or passively. You and I will forget this history ever existed in Downtown Los Angeles in the 21st century.
"Nobody ever thinks about these people," said Contrares. "They don't make a lot of money, so they can't afford market-rate apartments. But they'd like to live near where they work."19
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Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1992, pp. 229–230.