Los Angeles finds its heart
Downtown L.A.'s cultural corridor struggles to define its profile and its audience.
Grand Avenue, Downtown Los Angeles
Stand in the honey-toned atrium lobby of the iconic Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall at the end of a performance, and the chattering crowds radiate a sophisticated urbanity that seems ready to pour into a bustling city's vibrant après-theater night life.Skip to next paragraph
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But take a few steps back through the hall's front doors and it's as if someone abruptly pulled the plug on a movie projector. Virtually none of those concertgoers make it onto the sidewalks of downtown Los Angeles, which are eerily muted.
Shortly, the concert hall itself is quiet, the patrons having funneled down into a vast underground garage and into their autos.
Up and down Grand Avenue, similar scenarios play out by night and day at the various institutions – the Los Angeles Opera, the Center Theatre Group (CTG), The Colburn School, the Museum of Contemporary Art – that line this cultural corridor.
This is hardly the vibrant cultural city heart envisioned by civic leaders and benefactors such as Dorothy Chandler and Mark Taper, whose names grace the 1950s-era plaza directly modeled on New York's Lincoln Center. This stubborn contradiction between the increasingly world-class magnets downtown – from the impending arrival of classical music wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel as the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the rapid growth of the opera under the leadership of tenor superstar Placido Domingo – and the frankly depressing downtown environs continues to bedevil the city's cultural leaders.
"We have great challenges," says Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. "This is a sprawling, horizontal city, not a vertical one, and it has poor public transportation," she says, adding, "how do we get people to leave their basin villages and drive downtown?"
Efforts to tease a constituency from the largely suburban 10 million or so Angelenos include special events such as the recent, all-day Grand Avenue Festival, complete with free concerts, street performers, and food, as well as contemporary programming. The opera just closed a production of "The Fly," based on the film. No single event, however, has given as much hope to the cultural corridor denizens as the arrival of Gehry's stainless steel masterwork in 2003.
"Disney Hall has brought a glow to the entire downtown," says James Conlon, music director of the opera. Now, another Gehry design, the Grand Avenue project, is in the works, a $2.5 billion multi-use development with hotel space, restaurants, shops, housing, and what many hope will be its pièce de résistance, a 16-acre park. The core construction will replace what locals have dubbed a "Tinker Toy" parking garage (so named for its shoddy construction) directly across from Disney Hall. But delays over amenities such as low-income housing and aesthetics such as an elegant open stairway to connect the project to adjacent neighbor- hoods have left the community in limbo.
The credit-market problems are not helping, says Carol Schatz, CEO of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District. Financing, due to be completed by next year, is now up in the air. This rattles some residents, though not deeply. "The arts are the soul of a city," says Michael Ritchie, artistic director of CTG. "They will always attract an audience, no matter how far they have to come."