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Ghosts Of Downtown

How You Get From $1.75 Lunches to $2,000-a-Month Lofts Depends on Many Things, Such as the Death of Urban Self-Loathing By Carol Lynn Mithers

September 22, 2002|Carol Lynn Mithers is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her last piece for the magazine was a profile of former Occidental College President John Brooks Slaughter.

The windows are the same, though I never realized how grand they are, how high and wide. Maybe that's because back then they were masked by cheesy drapes. I probably never saw them this clean either. When no one in the tour group was looking, I rested my hand on one, for connection. Each night when my father and I left the office, we'd open these windows for fresh air; in the morning, I'd flip on the AC and pull them down to shut out the street's noise and stink. Even so, a smell lingered, stale and depressing. The walls were dirty beige, the carpet oatmeal, the furniture a utilitarian mix of file cabinets, water cooler, battered wood desks. All gone now. Everything from those days is gone, everything but the windows.

From 1970 to 1984, the northwest corner of the seventh floor of the Continental Building at 4th and Spring was my late father's bankruptcy law office. It was the epitome of old downtown, a bleak two-room suite in a seedy building just a block from the skid row missions.

Today it's one of three buildings re-imagined by maverick developer Tom Gilmore, and at the epicenter of L.A.'s "downtown renaissance." This is why, on a recent sunny morning, I found myself on an apartment leasing tour of a place I never expected to see again. In the Continental's lobby, a low '60s-era ceiling had been torn away, revealing carved gold moldings. Hall floors were lined with scuffed mosaic tile. My father's suite, 703, had been enlarged to become loft apartment 702. Where his desk had been was a bedroom area; where a bookcase held his legal texts was a small modern kitchen with black granite counters. Exposed ducts and funky concrete floors completed the upscale industrial look. There are 56 lofts for rent in the Continental. No. 702, with 1,085 square feet, was going for $2,000 a month.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 13, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 2 inches; 85 words Type of Material: Correction
Tallest building -- In the essay "Ghosts of Downtown" in the Sept. 22 Los Angeles Times Magazine, the 1904 Continental Building, at 12 stories, was called "the tallest building in town for 50 years." In fact, Los Angeles City Hall, at 28 stories, became the city's tallest building when it opened in 1928.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 20, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 19 inches; 695 words Type of Material: Correction
In the essay "Ghosts of Downtown" (Sept. 22), it was incorrectly stated that the 1904 Continental Building, at 12 stories, was "the tallest building in town for 50 years." Los Angeles City Hall, at 28 stories, became the city's tallest building when it opened in 1928.

In 1963, when my father, at 48, left a mid-Wilshire law firm to open his own practice, most attorneys with upper-middle-class aspirations had offices in Beverly Hills or brand-new Century City. He picked Spring Street because, he said, he liked being able to walk to court. The truth was that he'd grown up poor, still lived in perpetual fear of poverty, was terrified about starting over while supporting a family, and space on Spring was cheap. (Not having to pay for courthouse parking added to the savings.) Aesthetics weren't on the radar.

His first office was above Eagleson's Big & Tall Shop, just off 3rd, a building so old it still had elevator operators. Seven years later, he upgraded to the Continental. In 1904, when it was new and known as the Braly Building, it had been grand. It was L.A.'s first skyscraper, 12 stories, and the tallest building in town for 50 years. Spring Street was prosperous then, thick with banks and dubbed "the Wall Street of the West." But when World War II defense plants drew workers and, later, returning GIs to the city's edges, the neighborhood began to collapse. The redevelopment of Bunker Hill finished the job. By the '70s, the Continental was an outpost in a ghost town.

I spent some of the longest hours of my life in that building. One of the ways my father economized was by not hiring a secretary, and on Saturdays I went downtown with him to file and type. Later, when I was 21, unemployed, directionless and reeling from the loss of a boyfriend to a cult, he gave me a job. To a suburban beach kid, Spring Street at first seemed a terrifying netherworld of grime and garbage, stumbling, reeking winos and shrieking street-corner preachers--things that you didn't yet see on the Westside.

Next to the Continental was a fleabag hotel with a coffee shop called Jeffrey's that my father favored because it, too, was cheap--maybe $1.75 for a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of weak coffee. Every time we went in, I wanted to run. The gray-faced patrons who slumped around the tables--like the street people, Eagleson's elevator operators and the shiny-suited businessmen who kept offices at the Continental--were characters straight out of a Nathanael West novel, men and women so clearly beaten by life that not even a budding poet like me could romanticize them.

I think my father pitied these people, but his main feeling toward downtown was frank contempt. He was there only for reasons of economy; to him, the beauty of L.A. was its scrubbed suburban space, not the kind of aged, urban landscape he'd left behind in New York.

He retired in 1984. Just before he cleared out of the Continental, I took pictures; in my favorite, he's looking pensively out of one of the tall windows over Spring Street. Shortly after, a developer with renovation plans bought the building, gutted it, then ran out of money. For years it just sat there, trash-strewn, boarded up. One of the few times we happened to be downtown together, I drove my father past it. He nodded with grim satisfaction. "What a piece of crap," he said.

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