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Downtown Los Angeles Is Coming Home—to the New Elite

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities [1], Jane Jacobs wrote derisively about the state of Downtown Los Angeles in 1961:

So spattered and decentralized are the central functions … that the only element of its downtown that has full metropolitan dimensions and intensity is that of the leisured indigent…. Los Angeles is fortunate that the vacuum of a disintegrated downtown has not been appropriated by predators but has been relatively respectably populated by a flourishing Skid Row

Fifty-eight years later, Downtown Los Angeles has evolved. No longer is it the sole domain of the homeless (although LA’s Skid Row remains the highest concentration of poverty anywhere in the United States [2]). Instead, it’s a collection of tech bros, young professionals, bar hoppers, druggies, tourists disappointed by Hollywood, unhappy anti-gentrification activists, foodies, Taco Trucks, wannabe artists, real estate speculators, small businessmen, street cleaners, street vomit, a wonderful bookstore, and some of the most interesting new areas of Los Angeles.

The dominance of coastal cities has long been portrayed in the media as growing economic inequality between Blue and Red America. But these cursory explanations miss the growing economic inequality within coastal cities. As real estate values have exploded in West LA neighborhoods like Venice, Santa Monica, and Brentwood, the protectionist phenomenon known NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) has spiked as well. In Venice Beach, one of the most liberal areas of America, residents booed Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti when he announced the building of more homeless shelters [3].

With the incredible difficulty of building in suburban neighborhoods in Los Angeles, developers looking to cash in on the rising cost of rent have turned their eyes on the only area completely abandoned by pesky community organizers: Downtown. Until a decade or so ago, the only people living Downtown were homeless, and developers benefit when homeless have few rights.

Walking down Broadway Street (whose name seems envious of New York’s Broadway, because nothing in Los Angeles is authentic), it seems strange to imagine that the area was once abandoned. The streets are diverse and walkable. Most of the Historic Core is still very beautiful. Neoclassical architecture sits side by side with Art Deco and Postmodern buildings. It’s a snapshot of LA history that can’t be found in the sprawling strip malls and palm trees of the popular imagination.

Courtesy of Alix Olliver

Unfortunately, it’s those same postwar strip malls that led to the eventual degradation of Downtown. In the early 20th century, the heyday of Downtown LA was born before the age of the car. Back then, Downtown was known only as Los Angeles, a city separate from other cities such as Pasadena or Glendale which would later be engulfed into the larger county of Los Angeles. In these early days, Los Angeles developed in the traditional style of older American cities; oil barons from the west came downtown and built beautiful monuments to their legacies. That’s when many of LA’s historic landmarks were built, from the cast-iron jungle of the Bradbury Building to the austere brick triplets of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

This all changed, of course, once the car arrived. Mid-century Los Angeles exploded outwards, with abundant housing subsidies from the federal government and the post-war boom combining to create what we now know as California sprawl. Much like the style of today’s Sun Belt expansion of housing, Los Angeles was the forerunner for huge highways and sprawling city life. At the time, it led to an expansion of cheap housing for the American middle-class home from World War II.

Half a century later, the limits to sprawl have been reached. Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the United States [4], largely as a result of sprawl and poor zoning codes that force housing away from jobs. To the west, the sea has drawn a clear stop to expansion. Further north along the coastline, cities like Malibu have been hit hard by the recent dramatic wildfires, as expansion into dangerous fire zones led to the destruction of lives, homes, and communities. Along every other side, deserts and mountain ranges block further expansion of cheap suburban land. There’s nowhere left to expand but upwards.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles has been slow to shift toward upward expansion. The good news is that LA has not lost what President George H.W. Bush described as “a thousand points of light.” There’s a strong culture of civil society, with numerous charities, community clubs, and activist groups all participating in local governance. The bad news is that these groups inevitably oppose building more housing.

It’s a strange eclectic mix of wealthy suburban owners, anti-gentrification activists, and socialists who oppose city growth. This group of anti-growth activists inevitably show up to oppose any new construction in any part of suburban Los Angeles. Suburban homeowners oppose new construction on the grounds that it affects local neighborhood character, anti-gentrification activists fear the expulsion of minority communities, and socialists rant about the evils of letting needs be dictated by capitalists.

These anti-construction groups, the so-called NIMBYs, are emblematic of a classic clash within conservatism, between Hayekian libertarianism and Burkean traditionalism. The YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement advocates for housing, noting the works of pro-development economists like Professor Ed Glaeser of Harvard. The NIMBY crowd, while ostensibly all Democrats, advocates for local identity and continuity. Solving the issue of development in Los Angeles could almost be described as a conservative issue. It’s a battle between the needs of the market and the needs of the community.  

So far, the solution from City Hall has simply been to avoid constructing in politically tense neighborhoods. Downtown Los Angeles, with its 9-to-5 culture and history of urban abandonment, has been brought back to life in the past two decades. City Hall has been on a tear to rebuild dilapidated streets. An Adaptive Reuse ordinance passed in 1999 that allowed developers to reuse commercially-zoned buildings as housing. These renovated apartments serve as the set for numerous Instagram photos of artist lofts with exposed brick walls and open-air lighting. The hub of Union Station serves as a possible future center of Los Angeles, although the relative unpopularity of the Light Rail lines running through the county put that future in question. The LA bikeshare system theoretically makes Downtown multimodal as well, although it’s rare to see someone actually using the rather clunky, one-size-fit-all bikes. Theoretically, it’s an urbanist paradise!

Then you have superblocks like these.

Courtesy of Alix Ollivier

As Downtown LA has fled from its former roots as homeless capital of the nation, construction has boomed [5]. This has led to the distinction of being one of the only regions in the city where rents have actually stayed stable [6], rather than the rent-controlled neighborhoods so fiercely protected by activists. This has also led to the construction of plenty of bland, corporate, cookie-cutter mixed-use developments. On street after street, these modern mixed-use superblocks share space with older, more traditional buildings. The traditional streets have a blend of buildings from different ages; in contrast, the modern superblocks have a blend of fast-food chains from Chipotle to Subway.

In some ways, these superblocks are the suburbs of our day. They serve a young populace eager to move into their own places and don’t care much about the homogenization of the street. The process of suburbanization created a quintessentially American identity that lasted for decades; the process of re-urbanization will do the same.

While architects may decry the unoriginality of the superblocks, and traditionalists may bemoan the lack of continuity with the surrounding areas, the fact remains that this area is the only place willing to build housing for the next generation. All other areas of Los Angeles remain testaments to history and the generations of the post-war boom. They stay stagnant, encased in a sort of living nostalgia.

The sad part about Downtown LA are the people who move here. The average income of the young professional who lives in Downtown is nearly $100,000 [7]. As members of Los Angeles, a city that serves as the home of the media and entertainment elite, these are the people who will define the next generation of American identity. Unlike the suburbs of the post-war generation, these aren’t middle-class families looking to reach their American Dream. These are the privileged elite of the populist imagination: young, secular, unlikely to marry early, financially secure, liberal.

Unable to move into the communities of their parents, they have moved to conquer Downtown. The next generation of this elite will make their mark on the old downtown—and soon will again become the core of the city. This all brings up one troubling question: if the last version of suburbanization is dominated by the last generation—and this generation’s is dominated by the elite—where will the ordinary Angeleno go to seek his American Dream?

Alix Ollivier lives in Los Angeles.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Downtown Los Angeles Is Coming Home—to the New Elite"

#1 Comment By joshua On March 22, 2019 @ 9:45 am

Texas… Unfortunately.

#2 Comment By Jtp On March 22, 2019 @ 3:35 pm

But what do they do when they have kids in their 30s and want good,safe schools?

#3 Comment By anon On March 22, 2019 @ 7:21 pm

El Sereno.

#4 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 23, 2019 @ 12:21 pm

I really don’t get this. It all sounds good, but we are supposed to not like it because, what a surprise, a neighborhood now becoming hip, with more new available housing than any other neighborhood in the metro region, attracts people with money to spend to move there. Why wouldn’t it? And why shouldn’t it? I thought “the market” was supposed to be a good thing?

And more building in hip Downtown means less competition, and lower costs, for housing in the not so hip, middle class, lower middle class, working class, and poor neighborhoods and suburbs nearby. And all the NIMBYs (whose various diversity of viewpoint is apparently somehow a sign of something nefarious) are the people who actually live those neighborhoods will thus have less unwanted growth and changes to deal with it and protest and oppose. And aren’t Downtowns supposed to be more dynamic, while settled residential neighborhoods and suburbs are, by design, supposed to be more stabile?

Some people, of whatever age and spurious “generation,” and pursuing whatever spurious “American Dream,” and whether favored by the author, or not, prefer cities, some like towns, some like suburbs, some like ex urbs, and some like rural areas. And some of those people who prefer cities are also rich (or “Elite” or “liberal”). And some of those people want to live in Downtown LA, and are willing to pay for it. So what? Fancy neighborhoods are fancy neighborhoods, whether in Downtown or Malibu. What is the problem here? What is “sad” or “troubling” about any of it?

#5 Comment By upinthevalley On March 23, 2019 @ 5:02 pm

Van Nuys. It’s already happening.

#6 Comment By anon On March 24, 2019 @ 1:15 pm

Now in seriousness, Since the 1970s neighborhood “preservation” has blocked creation of sufficient housing to shelter the kids growing up in the neighborhood.

A couple with two kids eventually requires at least one additional housing unit, unless they plan to live together until the parental generation dies. 🙁

The refusal (not “failure,” this was on purpose) to create housing for a growing population amounts to forcing the exile of grown children from thei community in which they were raised.

So having had boomers refuse to plan for their own kids, we’re in catch-up mode.

We can, affordably, house everyone. All we have to do is embrace that as a positive goal, and that won’t happen until the “me generation” is out of power.

#7 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On March 24, 2019 @ 3:52 pm

Anyone want to know the reasons why 63 million people voted for Trumpie? The author has, inadvertently or not, provided at least one.

“In Venice Beach, one of the most liberal areas of America, residents booed Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti when he announced the building of more homeless shelters.”

Looks like the choir didn’t want to hear THIS homily eh?

#8 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On March 24, 2019 @ 4:26 pm

@PhiladelphiaLawyer

What is “sad” and “troubling” is the hypocrisy. Back in 70s Boston a Federal judge named Arthur Garrity ordered black/minority children to be bussed to previously all white schools. These schools were situated almost exclusively in blue collar ethnic communities (i.e. Charlestown) consisting of Irish-American (and some Italo-American) residents. The denizens thereof made a fuss, fearing a influx of blacks. They were categorized as “racist” by the same kind of people now descending into places like Venice Beach and West LA. (Judge Garrity, by the by, lived in ultra-exclusive and politically liberal Brookline).

That is what’s “sad” and “troubling” about this sort of thing. And, no, “the market” isn’t always “a good thing” (I suspect you know that). Remember, small “c” conservatism (as opposed to “Conservatism, Inc.”) doesn’t necessarily equate to “free markets”– no matter what people like Limbaugh and Hannity would have us believe.

#9 Comment By Gary Bebop On March 24, 2019 @ 9:32 pm

I’m guessing every one of us has a seedy neighborhood or bit of shabby urban backwater that we are sentimental about and prefer remain unretouched and undiscovered by the elite bargain hunters and flippers. (I’m not going to name my favorites because doing so might launch yet another scramble that’s sure to alter the charming decrepitude or indifferent lassitude in those places.) Shangri-la still exists, but you better keep the secret to yourself.

#10 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 25, 2019 @ 4:04 pm

CF:

Sounds like a total non sequitor to me. Some folks in the Seventies, in Boston, opposed forced bussing, some favored it. So, now, forty or fifty years later, no neighborhood anywhere should be allowed to become “hip?” Because, somehow, those Bostonians who favored forced bussing back in the day are “the same kind of people” as current Angelinos who might like to live in a hip, high-priced neighborhood? Makes no sense whatsoever.

#11 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 25, 2019 @ 4:08 pm

CF:

Yeah, voting for Trump is totally justified, because nobody, liberals included, really wants more homeless shelters in their neighborhood. Total non sequitor again. And totally ridiculous. This notion of, if you’re a “liberal,” or. worse yet, a “liberal elite,” then, therefore, you must be completely immune to NINBYism or else whatever crappy thing you get, in the way of Trump or otherwise, is your own fault, is simplistic, reductive and absurd.