ALIVE IN '85 : Fifteen or 20 Years Ago, Eric Sevareid Wrote That 'Downtown Los Angeles Is Already Dead'

December 01, 1985|JACK SMITH

I get impatient with people who sell Los Angeles short.

I don't mean our Eastern and foreign critics. I love their harangues about our cultural wasteland. I collect them. It is wonderful to live in a place that provokes such envious abuse.

I get impatient with people who live here and sell us short. That is a classic attitude among theatrical people who have been drawn here by the big money, and, in fact, the creativity but complain that it is a stultifying place to live. They'd much rather be in London, or Philadelphia, or wherever they came from.

I love London. I consider it the capital of my cultural life. I even liked Philadelphia, on my one visit, because of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and the other symbols of our struggle for independence.

But as for living in Philadelphia, I tend to sympathize with W.C. Fields, who asked that his tombstone bear the epitaph: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

As my father used to say: "Any place you're alive in is OK."

He also used to advise me to buy real estate. "You can't go wrong," he said, "in Southern California."

Of course, he didn't follow his own advice or I wouldn't be writing this column. I'd probably be dead, after having spent my millions on yachts, champagne and women.

He did instill in me, however, the idea that one must own his own house. So my wife and I bought our house on Mt. Washington in 1950 for $8,425. I got it on the GI Bill, but I had to borrow the $156 in closing costs from my mother. I suppose that today, with the improvements we have made, it is worth $200,000.

Meanwhile, as we have lived here, the downtown skyline has grown to come within our view. I realize that to a New Yorker it's a bush skyline, but I think it's rather pretty, and in any case it suggests that Los Angeles does, after all, have a core, and that downtown isn't dead.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, Eric Sevareid traveled about the country examining what was then called urban decay, and he wrote that "downtown Los Angeles is already dead."

Nick Williams, then editor of The Times, asked me to just walk around the downtown area and find out if that was true. It was odd, what I found. I found one "skyscraper," the Occidental BUilding at 11th and Hill (now Transamerica).

But I also found a lot of holes in the ground. From 9th and Los Angeles, in the garment center, to the new financial district of 6th and Flower, holes were appearing in the earth. They were to hold the foundations and parking garages of the new high-rises.

Eric Sevareid was wrong. Downtown Los Angeles was not dead. It was just coming back to life.

Downtown Los Angeles has become a place.

There used to be a joke (I may have made it up myself) that nobody on the West Side ever came to downtown Los Angeles except to get a divorce. Of course, one could easily get a divorce in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, where Superior Courts seem to exist for that purpose only, so there was no reason to go downtown at all.

Still, downtown Los Angeles has survived, and grown, and it is prospering.

Among the new skyscrapers, there are many wonderful old landmarks. I think, in the long run, it will add to the charm of downtown if they are kept.

It looks as if we are going to keep the library, which certainly is as precious as the little church at the end of Wall Street. Many of the old Beaux Arts buildings on Spring Street are being preserved and restored to use; the Biltmore survives in Renaissance splendor; the Caravan bookstore, in the beautifully restored Pacific Mutual Building at 6th and Grand, keeps alive the tradition of the 6th Street booksellers' row; and Stanley Marcus still serves an honest lunch in his restaurant on Olive, next door to the Oviatt Building, a classic of Art Deco.

From our house, with my telescope, I can see the clock tower of the Eastern Columbia building, Broadway at 9th.

I'd rather see that than Halley's comet.

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