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Los Angeles finds its heart

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

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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.

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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."