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CAMPAIGN 2000 | COLUMN ONE

L.A. 2000: A Remade Metropolis

Since the region's last big moment of glory--the Olympics--there have been disasters aplenty. Evidence of improvement abounds, but optimism still lags.

August 12, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1984 Olympics linger in Los Angeles' collective imagination as a time of triumph--when freeways opened, skies appeared to clear and strangers joined together to produce a winning international pageant.

An Olympic afterglow seemed to extend beyond the event itself. People in the city have not felt so good since about the economy, the local government, public schools or the place they call home.

With next week's Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles invites the world back, hoping to evoke that distant time before earthquake, riot and recession seized the civic psyche and reputation.

Truth is, L.A. 2000 is neither that mythic Olympic city nor the seething dystopia of current imagination. It is a little of both, and something more.

It is a metropolis that has welcomed five new cities since that Olympic apex, squeezed in nearly 2 million more inhabitants and yet somehow managed to make its filthy skies and ocean cleaner. It is a place of safer streets, 400,000 more jobs and two ports that have surpassed New York's to become the busiest in the nation.

It is a determined cultural hub that has built 10 new museums, opened many of the world's best restaurants and created vibrant street life in once-moribund downtowns, from Santa Monica to Pasadena to Huntington Park.

Yet it also is a place of progress so wildly uneven that it can conjure images of the Third World. Since 1984, about 800,000 additional people have fallen into poverty. City schools leave 70% of parents dissatisfied, where once the same number were confident of their children's education. And overwhelmed freeways are crammed with as much as 50% more cars, offering barely any respite between rush hours.

The once-acclaimed Los Angeles Police Department, humiliated during the O.J. Simpson case, is now contending with scandalous allegations of drug-planting, frame-ups, violence and profiteering by some of its anti-gang officers. With municipal secession movements boiling from Hollywood to the Harbor area and the San Fernando Valley, the city itself is in danger of coming unglued.

"In the broad sense of one huge city . . . it doesn't seem to be working," says Rafer Johnson, the Olympic decathlon champion who in 1984 ignited the caldron high above the Coliseum. "But when people get zeroed in on a small neighborhood or community, they take ownership. And it can still work."

The civic mood has improved slightly in the last few years, but it does not approach the heights of the post-Olympic era. Months after the Games, nearly three in four county residents said things in Los Angeles were going well. This year, locals were slightly more likely to say things were going in the wrong direction.

Some civic leaders say Los Angeles will learn to see its evolution in a more positive light, given a few more disaster-free years.

"I think we are at a moment of great potential energy," says Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which opened its showcase museum on a Brentwood hillside 2 1/2 years ago. "But that energy has not yet been pulled together. When it is, the ball that's now poised at the top of the wall could be kicked along and become real, kinetic energy."

The Centrifugal City

In that often-winning Olympic summer, thousands of young people flocked to the one place to take a bicycle rickshaw ride, line up en masse to see movies like "Amadeus" in a huge, single-screen theater or pogo dance the night away at a club called Dillon's.

It was Westwood Village.

More important than any single attraction, the Village had the allure of the rare L.A. locale where people strolled and lingered, just to be with each other. The world's athletes thronged there from the Olympic Village at UCLA--recognizing at least one urbane niche amid the confounding sprawl.

But Westwood faded badly, saw storefronts go empty, only to rally a bit. Other suburban "downtowns" stood dormant even during that Olympic high--their customers siphoned off by giant, indoor malls.

Today, revivals styled on the old Westwood have become the rage. The prototypes are Santa Monica's teeming Third Street Promenade and the hopping Old Pasadena.

Other cities soon recognized just what movie theaters, sidewalk cafes, storefront awnings and a few street performers did for those two tired downtowns, known mostly in 1984 as havens for the homeless.

Now the return to the sidewalks has re-created a sense of community in places as far flung as Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park, Pine Avenue in Long Beach and Myrtle Avenue in Monrovia. The trend reaches its faux-urban culmination along the crowded "streets" of Universal CityWalk.

For Angelenos who can't get enough of one another, farmers markets have flourished as well. The street fairs promote fresh produce and amiable lingering at 60 locations today, five times the number that were in operation in the early 1980s.

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