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HEARTS OF THE CITY | ESSAY

Cardinal Mahony's Long Bet

June 05, 1996|ROBERT A. JONES

Sometimes the bad guys are right. So here was His Eminence, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, standing behind the remains of the altar in St. Vibiana's Cathedral, spewing venom at anyone trying to stop him from tearing it down.

What did he think of the suggestion that the church might need a city permit to level the cathedral? "Ludicrous," Mahony replied.

What about the notion that the cathedral, one of Los Angeles' most historic churches, might contain some cultural value? "I am shocked that any architect thinks this is a building worth preserving," he said.

In case attendees had missed the point, Mahony held his press conference amid the stripped interior of the church. The pews, gone. Stained-glass windows, gone. The altar, gone. The bones of St. Vibiana herself, gone.

Above Mahony, the cupola had been removed from the earthquake-wrecked bell tower, and no one even suggested that the city might force him to put it back. For all intents, St. Vibiana's, centerpiece of the nation's largest archdiocese since the 19th Century, has already disappeared. Only the fractured walls and roof remain to be knocked down and carted off.

Hey, you got a problem with that? The Los Angeles Conservancy has a problem and is gamely hanging onto the slender thread of court action to stop Mahony. The conservancy makes the outlandish argument--actually, Mahony termed it "shameful"--that the city should consider carefully before it destroys one of its official historic monuments.

Will the conservancy win? Not a chance. I predict it will lose and do so swiftly. Furthermore, it probably should. This time, the bad guys are right.

St. Vibiana's, you see, is a sad case. The plight of the cathedral might be missed by those who rarely travel downtown. And, as Mahony notes, that constitutes most of his parishioners. He estimates that 98% of all Catholics in the archdiocese have never darkened the door of the cathedral.

For good reason they stay away. If you regularly cross paths with St. Vibiana's, the dilemma is hard to miss. The church sits at the corner of Los Angeles and 2nd streets, a location that is not exactly a tourist mecca. It is a neighborhood with a certain--how to put this delicately?--aesthetic problem.

To put it unaesthetically, you catch the whiff of urine from blocks away. The walls of buildings next to the church are smeared with the unspeakable. On Los Angeles Street, just across from the church entrance, the sidewalk is burned black from hundreds of night fires that warm the homeless.

One day several years ago I passed that corner and noticed that one of the landscaping trees on the sidewalk had been draped in decorations. An empty can of baked beans on one branch, a string of Styrofoam dangling from another. It seemed sad and funny. A few days later I passed again, and the tree had been burned to the ground.

You could argue, what better place for a cathedral than among the poor and homeless. I would argue you still don't understand. Faced with this squalor, St. Vib does not respond with uplift or inspiration. It does not seem to confront the human misery at all.

Instead, it cowers. In the universe of cathedrals, St. Vib is something of a dwarf, short and squat. It appears to hide behind its fence of steel poles that surround the perimeter. Steel poles, I might add, topped with spikes so fearsome they would rip the guts out of a T. rex.

As you reach the office buildings of the archdiocese the spiked fence is replaced with an even higher wall of steel mesh. Here and there, concertina wire has been strung. There are prisons with fences less formidable than St. Vib's.

The real question, in fact, is not whether the archdiocese should spend $20 million repairing the cathedral or whether it should spend an equal amount trying to combine the old cathedral with a new one. The answers are no and no. It should face the sad truth and nuke St. Vib's, which is exactly what Mahony proposes.

The real question is whether the archdiocese should stay at its present site after the nuking. Mahony has implied that--given the city's speedy cooperation in leveling the cathedral--he would still like to stay at the site, which he calls the "historic core" of downtown, to build a new cathedral.

This subtle offer dangled at the city has produced a show of unseemly groveling by the mayor and various City Council members who have promised all the cooperation they can muster. They would like to fantasize that a new cathedral will "save" the neighborhood by pushing out the homeless and attracting new business.

But will it? Or will the neighborhood devour a new cathedral like it devoured the old?

More specifically, should Mahony bet the archdiocese's money on the outcome? It's long odds, to be sure, and the money very big: Mahony has raised $45 million for the new cathedral.

If Mahony decides to stay and build, he will either end up as a visionary who brought eastern downtown back from the dead, or as the cardinal who sunk $45 million into a neighborhood that remained, literally, a toilet.

We know, on the basis of the last several days, that Mahony can play poker with the best. He never blinks. But it will be a while before we know whether he walks away a winner.

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