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Los Angeles

One Man's Urgent Struggle to Keep L.A. From Demolishing Its Past

Preservation: A self-taught urban planner fears that redevelopment will wipe away the history of the city he loves.

July 15, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was just a carefree kid having fun, back when he scampered along the streets of downtown Los Angeles, sneaking rides on the Bradbury Building's ornate iron elevators and exploring the fading clapboard neighborhood of Bunker Hill.

There is a sense of urgency when Brady Westwater prowls the city's streets these days, though. The 53-year-old feels he has plenty to say about the evolution of the city he loves--and not a lot of time in which to say it.

Bulldozers, in fact, were closing in on one of the city's oldest commercial buildings when Westwater stopped the other day at 1st and Main streets to watch.

Built in 1885, the cast-iron-accented structure bearing the sign Glasser Bros. Pioneer Bail Bondsmen was being torn down to make way for a $171-million regional headquarters for the state Department of Transportation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 16, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Downtown church--A photo caption in Monday's California section mischaracterized a downtown development plan. It does not include the demolition of St. Vibiana's Roman Catholic Church. The church is being turned into a performing arts center but will maintain its interior and exterior.
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"This building was constructed during the last year that L.A. was still a village. The second railroad came to L.A. right after this building was built, sparking a fare war--tickets dropped as low as $1 a head. After that, L.A. had its first great real estate boom and began turning into a real city," Westwater shouted over the roar of demolition equipment.

"So this is our last link with our pre-city era. They are going to have a plaza here anyway. Why not keep this old building and turn it into something that would draw people, instead of having a dead, empty plaza that at nights and weekends is going to be vacant?"

Westwater is a self-taught historian and urban planner. And over the last decade he has turned into a self-styled conscience of Los Angeles, struggling to protect it from what he views as bad redevelopment and bum raps.

His real name is Ross Shockley. He was born in Silver Lake and spent his boyhood hanging out around his father's law office at 3rd and Spring streets. He took to using the Westwater name when he was at UCLA studying to be a screenwriter. For years, he made a living writing for Hollywood. More recently, he worked as a Malibu real estate agent until health problems forced him to quit.

He now works out of borrowed Pasadena office space, writing treatises on such Los Angeles planning issues as redevelopment of the Ambassador Hotel site, development of a Little Tokyo gymnasium, redesign of the county art museum and use of the Los Angeles River's banks.

Dismissed at first by some as a gadfly, he has changed minds with his proposal for a Los Angeles think tank that would unite planners from various governmental agencies with private-sector architects, sociologists, historians, artists and intellectuals. Together, they could take a much-needed big-picture look at what the next L.A. should be like, Westwater said.

"The real problem with Los Angeles, and downtown in particular, is no one talks to each other," he said. "People work on projects where things a half block away are totally off their radar."

Westwater's views on specific projects are well known to those involved in downtown planning. But he is best known as the person who blew the whistle on author Mike Davis' 1998 book, "Ecology of Fear." The bestseller was a catalog of natural disasters that seemed to suggest Los Angeles is the world's most dangerous place to live.

When no one else pointed out that many of the examples of L.A. apocalypse cited by the book were false, Westwater peppered the media with a 23-page retort that prompted a blizzard of newspaper, magazine and Internet stories.

"No one had noticed it was a work of fiction," riddled not only with errors but "out and out lies," Westwater said. In subsequent interviews with The Times, Davis admitted mistakes but stood behind the book's theme.

Westwater's historical perspectives are shaped in part by a personal library that he estimates once totaled 25,000 books and magazines. Since quitting work, he said, he has begun selling pieces from the storied collection to live on.

There seems to be wide individual support for Westwater's think-tank proposal among planning experts.

"The idea of circulating ideas in a setting that breaks down the walls that separate agencies and institutions always have is a good one," said John Peterson, a specialist on downtown issues for the city Community Redevelopment Agency.

"Brady grinds out a report or a memo on one issue or another almost weekly. He kind of comes out of nowhere and presents some dynamic proposal, and everyone blinks and tries to decide what to do with it."

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents much of the downtown area and is one of those who is regularly peppered by Westwater's e-mails, characterized the think tank as "a great idea."

But she disputed the contention that downtown planning excludes outside ideas. "I don't think people are marching in different directions," she said. "There are a lot of places to go to participate in a public process for design and input."

Westwater, meanwhile, presses on, walking downtown's sidewalks by day and cranking out his engagingly written manifestoes at night.

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