Los Angeles finds its heart

Downtown L.A.'s cultural corridor struggles to define its profile and its audience.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Couples like Wolfgang Schmidt and his wife, Anna Hauck, who have lived in Beverly Hills for 35 years, say they are more willing to venture downtown now that the area is safer.
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    The Draw: The Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in 2003, boosted hopes of vitalizing the city's heart.
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    World-class magnets: The Mark Taper Forum, which anchors the Music Center plaza, just underwent a $30 million renovation as part of an ongoing investment in the cultural corridor.
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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.

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.

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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."

Some observers suggest the problem is philosophical – a failure to grasp the underlying "narrative" of the area. Architecture critics have long pointed out that the fortresslike design of the Music Center plaza, set up high off the city sidewalks, has set a decades-long tone of separation between the city's culture and the city's street life. Indeed, farther down the hill a bustling, largely Hispanic community thrives but rarely makes its way up the hill. Patrons who can afford the high ticket prices of the cultural corridor come largely from outlying regions.

And critics say a traditional, high-rise approach to vitalizing the area ignores the fundamental nature of Los Angeles. "People come to L.A. for the weather, the beaches, Hollywood, and the outdoors," says Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. "L.A. is not a 19th-century city built on that old vertical model. It's a 21st-century city with a diverse, mobile population spread out over a vast area. It's not going to work to try to force it into an old model," he says, adding that it won't attract the kind of street life and residential buffer that characterize a urban hub.

Other longtime L.A. watchers say the so-called cultural heart must be seen in the larger context of downtown. Ms. Borda points to a "renaissance" that has flowed from the recent arrival of other catalytic buildings such as the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the nearby Staples Center arena. According to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC), 13,000 residential units have moved into the downtown area since 1999.

However, points out Mr. Kotkin, some 200,000 jobs left downtown during roughly the same period. Also, according to the LAEDC, housing values have plummeted due to lack of buyers. Condos priced at nearly $1 million just two years ago have fallen below $300,000.

That may disappoint investors in the "big box," vertical approach to city renewal, but ironically, it may begin to produce the sort of street-level vitality that gives a city its heart. Many of the expensive condos have converted to rental units as upscale buyers failed to materialize, points out Jon Regardie, executive editor of Los Angeles Downtown News, who adds that they now hover above 90 percent occupancy. Pockets of bustling urban life, including the arrival of Ralph's, a major supermarket chain, are inexorably moving toward the Grand Avenue strip, he says. "This is a slow process, but it is much livelier down here than even just five years ago." As with so much in the backyard of Tinseltown, the final word may be what arises from the "buzz" on the street. And these days, the word about downtown seems to be evolving.

"Before Disney Hall I did not like to come downtown," says Anna Hauck, a 35-year Beverly Hills resident as she pauses in front of the box office. Her husband, Wolfgang Schmidt, agrees. "It's been a muddle down here for many years. But now it's much safer and easier to get in and out, so we'll come."

Carol Martinez, an empty nester and former suburbanite whose apartment of four years overlooks Disney Hall, says 10 years ago it was downright weird to even consider moving downtown. "Now," she says, "all my friends think it's cool."

While the downtown cultural institutions may have turned the tide in attracting their traditional audience, a largely affluent populace that commutes in from the larger region, they still face a longer-range, but potentially trickier challenge.

The city population is now "majority minority," say economists, which largely means a lower income and in many cases, lower education level. Whether this upcoming populace will provide the financial support these institutions require is not clear, but Brazilian immigrant Jaqueline Calfruni who came downtown with her children for the free day of concerts gives a hint. "I like the culture," she says, "I think it's important for my children to see the music. But I only came because it was free. I would never come down and buy a ticket. It's too expensive."

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