Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Wildly Inaccurate Article On Downtown Los Angeles In Sunday LAT Opinion Section!

The normally reliable D. J. Waldie has a rather unusual Op-ed in Sunday's Los Angeles Times about Downtown Los Angeles in which he contradicts historic facts and indulges in some bizarre logic at times. It also shows the desperate need for a Los Angeles Museum (the first incarnation of which will shortly open on Main Street - stay tuned) so people who write for the Time might learn the actual history of the city instead of just repeating long discredited myths.

Rather than go into the whole article, I will just address a few of the errors:

From its conception, the city's heart was divided. The pueblo that clustered around the plaza in the 1780s was purely secular. Its religious center was Mission San Gabriel, whose Franciscan padres were so suspicious of the pueblo's unruly residents that L.A. didn't have its own church until 1822.

The 'purely secular' Plaza of the 1780's was laid out in 1781 with a chapel as part of the original plan and that chapel was constructed for weekly services in 1784 (or at least construction was started, there is debate as to exactly when in the 'purely secular' 1780's the chapel was finished). Then in 1810 the slowly growing Pueblo felt financially able to support the chapel being upgraded to a church with a full time priest as opposed to a just priest on Sundays and the San Gabriel Mission granted that request.

The cornerstone was laid in 1814, but the site later had to be abandoned due to flooding from the LA River. Because of that, both the church and the entire Plaza had to be eventually relocated and the present church resumed construction in 1819.

So the whole premise that the city was totally secular for forty years - is false. But even so - who could possibly believe that the present state of Downtown has anything to do with how some Franciscans in San Gabriel felt about Los Angeles in the 1780's? Ergo, I'd like to see a show of hands of how many people who think that is a valid intellectual argument.

I thought so.

By then, the city's pattern of centerless edges had been set. The foothills and valleys of the L.A. and San Gabriel rivers were divided into more than 40 semi-self-sufficient ranchos. The Pueblo de Los Angeles was just a depot and general store.

Again, total fantasy. In both Spanish and Mexican California Los Angeles was the social, cultural and economic center of not only what was to become Los Angeles County - but almost all of Southern California. It was nothing remotely resembling just a depot and a store.

While each rancho by necessity had a certain degree of economic self-sufficiency for the day to day necessities of life - for everything else - Los Angeles was the place everyone went. For that reason most of the larger rancho owners maintained residences around or near the Plaza since that was the place where social life of all of greater Los Angeles revolved and the place where business was transacted for most of Southern California.

Even the most cursory readings of either first hand accounts of that era or later histories of that era make that clear.

Besides, is there any city anywhere that did not originally have scattered settlements around it? There was nothing unique about LA's development during that time. LA's sprawl was due to one fact and one fact only; it became a city at the time street cars came into general use, followed by the automobile's invention.

LA's sprawl had nothing do do with the settlement patterns of the early 19th Century; settlement patterns that were the same ones that Chicago and other cities of that era had. The only difference was that that Chicago became a major city far before street cars or automobiles. Also illustrating that point is that other cities which developed at the same as LA did - such as Houston and Dallas - also had the same development patterns as did Los Angeles.

After California became a state, new American owners subdivided the ranchos into farms and crossroad villages only loosely tied to Los Angeles. Railways in the 1880s created more towns along the mainline tracks in the valleys north and east. Beginning in 1901, Henry Huntington's network of electric trolleys filled the intervening space with miles of housing tracts and little Main Streets. Only between 1890 and 1920 did a real downtown — with tall buildings, all-day pedestrian traffic and neighborhoods — boom. By the early 1920s, mostly suburban visitors filled the city's movie theaters and department stores. And by the end of the decade, suburbia had unmade downtown.

After California became a state, the ranchos remained places where cattle and sheep were raised, albeit in increasingly smaller parcels, for several decades and most of those ranchos (though far from all) did pass into American hands. But this was already happening long before California became a state due to the continuing influx of Americans - starting in the 1820's and rapidly increasing in the 1830's and 1840's - who married into the rancho families.

The subdivision into farms and towns though only seriously began in the 1870's - and even then they were mostly paper subdivisions leaving Los Angeles as the only center in the region for both commerce and social life. As an example of Downtown's importance even in 1880, thirty years after the statehood Waldie cites as a turning point, Long Beach and Burbank did not even exist, Pasadena only had a little over 200 full time residents, Santa Monica a little over 400 and most other towns were far smaller than even those two.

Only Downtown LA had the critical mass of people for anything other than the most basic needs of life, much less cultural and social activities of any size, making it the only regional hub in the area. For anything else, people had to come Downtown.

As for a 'real downtown' boom only happening from 1890 - 1920, that too is wrong. First, if one ignores the tall buildings aspect, the 1850's was one of the greatest booms in city's history as money from selling cattle to the Northern California gold miners flooded the city with commerce and gold coins and flooded the streets with people (as contemporary accounts vividly describe)in the admittedly compact city. That was the period that shops and business and cultural activities of all kind first appeared in Los Angeles on a large scale, making Los Angeles even more the heart of the region since it suddenly offered far more attractions than any other regional center could offer.

Finally, the big boom was not the in the 1890's but in the 1880's with the coming of the second railroad. That created the single greatest boom in the city's history if one looks at the degree of change that occurred to the downtown portion of the city. LA entered the decade the market center for a largely stock raising area but quickly developed into a modern city with large new hotels, factories, office blocks and high rises - for the time - such as the massive new City Hall and Courthouse.

And photos - and first hand accounts - from that era show the sidewalks filled with pedestrians.

No other boom - or any other decade - ever saw such a fundamental change in the city, much less downtown. What happened from 1890 - 1900 was merely a far more subdued, far more incremental example of what happened in the earlier decade. It was not a fundamental change. And the rate of population growth in the at decade was far below what it had been in the 1880's boom; in the 1880's the city grew by over 400%, in the 1890's LA grew by only 100%.

Lastly, the statement that suburbia had unmade downtown by the end of the 1920's is also inaccurate. While the rapidly expanding, sprawling city did in time unmake Downtown and while that process did start in the late 1920's, the actual change did not happen until the 1930's - and later (though it also made a huge comeback during the 1940's). So while the suburban boom of the 1920's had stated the process of mass decentralization that would soon undo Downtown, in 1929 Downtown was still the retail, business, cultural, banking and entertainment heart of the city. It was far from undone. That came, but at a later date.

Then comes his description of Downtown as it is today - and, if anything - it is even more inaccurate.

The making and unmaking of downtown has been the focus of the city's business and political elites since the 19th century. The area is historically contested ground, dividing Angelenos by ethnicity and class but rarely uniting them. The divisions are brutally sharp now. Fewer than 9% of the jobs in the city are downtown, and income disparities there are among the widest in L.A. The non-homeless population is less than 25,000, with middle-class residents a tiny fraction of that. So, whose downtown is it, anyway, and why are so few of us asking?

The first statement is odd since in the 19th Century Los Angeles WAS Downtown and a few suburbs. The focus, if anything, by the business elite then was in developing the surrounding suburbs and annexing all the land around Los Angeles into the City of Los Angeles. And every ethnic group in the city was living within the Downtown at that time and the differing classes often lived within one or two blocks of each other with rooming houses often being built just one or two streets over from mansions.

As for today's population, to begin with, it is close to 29,000 and not the under 25,000 figure quoted. And the middle class is far from being a tiny fraction of that and, if anyone is interested, I can explain why that is the case in mind numbing detail...

But the most important statistic ignored is that downtown has virtually equally number of market rate and subsidized housing and yet that is... bizarrely... restated as saying that the divisions are brutally sharp now - when the exact opposite is true.

The single largest subsidized project in the city is not on Skid Row - but right in the heart of Bunker Hill - right next to the new Grand Avenue Project. Another large center of subsidized housing are the buildings scattered throughout South Park, mixed in with the new high rise condos. And streets like Main and Spring have both SRO's, subsidized apartments and lofts, market rate lofts and market rate condos all mixed together.

In no other part of the city does this type of economic and social integration and interaction of the very poor, the working class, the middle class and the upper class exist - and yet Waldie claims this is a brutally sharp division compared to the rest of the city.

Is it possible to imagine any statement being any more dishonest?

All of us loft dwellers and condo owners and SRO & subsidized dwellers walk the same sidewalks and many of us shop at Grand Central Market together, eat at many of the same restaurants and shop in many of the same stores. Many of us attend the free concerts at Pershing Square, the free events at the Music Center Plaza and at the California Plaza. We interact with each every day in ways that happen in no other part of the city.

And if Mr. Waldie would ever like to actually walk the streets of downtown with me and see this for himself, I'd be glad to give him a tour.

But I'm not holding my breath.

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