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The Los Angeles no one sees

by Jerome Weeks 27 Feb 2008 4:15 PM

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 […]


Entrance to Eastern Building in downtown LA
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.)

 If you follow the jump, be prepared for a number of photo images to load.

Tower Theater in downtown LAOrpheum Theater in downtown LA

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.
Broadway Bar in downtown LA
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.

To stand in for New York City.
Broadway in downtown LA

  • Bill M.

    You may have convinced the people at KERA that you were on the job in L.A. But I know a photo of the Hall of State at Fair Park when i see it.

  • Bless you – this brings back a flood of happy memories of last year’s trip to LA. We stayed downtown in Little Tokyo, and it was hard not to appreciate the tatty glory of our surrounding environs (insert faded starlet cliche here) because even underneath the grit, it was easy to see something worth saving. And it did feel like New York in places! Here’s hoping those marauding developers don’t gentrify it out of existence completely.

    P.S. Architecturally speaking, I’m crazy for train stations, and Union Station totally delivered the goods. Plus, it’s catty-corner from Phillipe’s, whose lamb French dip sandwiches I salivate at the thought of at least twice a day.

  • Ha! Bob and I ate at Phillipe’s!

    If I knew how to download a cellphone photo to a blog comment like this one (and if it were even possible), I’d post photographic proof. All of the shots in “The LA no one sees” are from my cellphone.

    And yes, Union Station is indeed fab, one of those downtown masterpieces I should have mentioned along with the Bradbury.

    As for Bill’s comment — all too conveniently, I have an eyewitness in Anne Bothwell, my editor. She came along for the ride, while I did all the real conference work.

  • Hee hee, they fooled you.

    The Broadway Bar is not “Sinatra era” by a long shot, it just looks like it. It was built in 2005. Owner Cedd Moses also did a great job with The Golden Gopher nearby, built in 2003.

    Perhaps you can add that story to the L.A. cliche of everything in the town being “phony” or a “facade.” Not saying that you invoked such cliches in your narrative, just that people in general seem to do that far too often.

    And yes, Downtown L.A. has been in many movies (playing New York or Chicago), and probably 80% of car commercials filmed in the last three years. If I had a nickel for everytime I spotted the corner of 4th and Main…

    One of my favorites is “Phone Booth” with Colin Ferrell, supposedly all taking place in Manhattan. Nope. The phone booth itself was near the corner of Fifth and Spring in downtown L.A. Yes, part of that movie was actually filmed in New York…maybe 10 minutes of it.

    from a Downtown L.A. resident