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The Downtown Cardinal : Mahony's Amazing Temporal Power

June 09, 1996|Harold Meyerson | Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the LA Weekly, is writing a book on American labor unions

The Watts Towers notwithstanding, L.A.'s not the place for spires or steeples. They don't fit neatly into the low-slung California style; the few left in the city seem artifacts from another time and place. Last weekend, a major one was lost, at least partly, when construction workers, at the direction of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, removed the cupola from atop the bell tower of St. Vibiana's Cathedral, and were then enjoined, first by a city building inspector, then by a court, from carting off the rest. Who would have imagined that the future of the 120-year-old cathedral would assume such life-and-death importance to Los Angeles?

A decade ago, the idea that the fate of St. Vibiana would be considered crucial to the destiny of all downtown would have been dismissed as ludicrous. Then, downtown was a boomtown; glass and steel towers, home to burgeoning banks and law firms, were rising along Figueroa Street and on Bunker Hill; a downtown-west was being planned for the far side of the Harbor Freeway. St. Vibiana, home to the archdiocese, was a nice old church in a rundown corner of downtown, but the question of whether the archdiocese wanted to keep it, or rebuild it, or even move, was as much a spiritual concern as it was temporal.

In the post-boom downtown of 1996, it's become temporal as all hell. The banks' executives have been carted off to San Francisco or Tokyo; billable hours at the law firms have dwindled; vacancy rates in the skyscrapers built for those bankers and lawyers have soared. And the decline in real estate isn't even the worst of it.

In the mental landscape of millions of white Angelenos, downtown seems to be vanishing altogether. Since the riots of '92, it has become a dangerous void--a place not to go, a place that isn't there. Local TV news, the mud-caked window most Angelenos have on Los Angeles, doesn't seem to know where City Hall is or what its occupants do. Football has fled the Coliseum. The Disney Concert Hall remains stubbornly unbuilt. If the Valley doesn't secede, it won't be because the city's center is holding.

The market having failed downtown, a succession of other saviors have come forth and been found wanting. The state of California put up a new office building on Spring Street, but that didn't stop the downward spiral; the city put a theater a few blocks south, and not enough patrons came. So when the cardinal announced that he would build a great cathedral on the site of St. Vibiana--the otherwise dismal corner of 2nd and Main streets--he immediately became downtown's main man. The church, after all, is just about the only institution in Los Angeles that isn't downsizing. The era of big government may be over, and from downtown's perspective, the era of big business seems infuriatingly kaput. But the era of big religion--at least, big Roman Catholicism--is very much alive in Los Angeles.

With roughly 4 million members, the L.A. archdiocese is the largest, and one of the fastest-growing, in the land. Large enough for Mahony to put a $45-million cathedral downtown without having to worry that the banks, or the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., or any of the usual L.A. naysayers, would try to stop him.

He had not reckoned on the Los Angeles Conservancy, though. When the preservationist society (which wanted only that Mahony's architect consider including some of the old church in the new) persuaded a court to stop the sudden dismantling of St. Vibiana in mid-bell tower, the cardinal was plainly furious. His response, in a terrifically theatrical press conference Monday, was to threaten to yank the archdiocesan headquarters right out of Los Angeles. He would build a new cathedral, all right, but maybe in Burbank, or in Glendale, or in the San Gabriel Valley, unless he was allowed to proceed as planned at 2nd and Main streets. He would leave behind the rotting hulk of St. Vibiana, from which he had already removed all the relics, all the stained-glass windows. To center-city power players, from conservative businessmen to liberal City Council members, this was no mere press conference. The cardinal had just threatened to administer downtown the last rites.

And he may not be entirely bluffing. Many affluent white lay leaders in the archdiocese have privately contended that 2nd and Main streets isn't really a place that's very convenient for them any longer, or very prudent for the church. This is anything but a particularly Catholic thought process, by the way: Wilshire Boulevard Temple has recently decided to abandon its venerable building--still the grandest synagogue in town--near the (also abandoned) Ambassador Hotel for new digs on the Westside. Staying downtown is anything but the course of least resistance in today's Los Angeles. Indeed, it's a political statement.

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