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L.A.'s Core Already Has a 'There' There

Instead of creating an upscale arts district, build on what downtown currently offers.

October 26, 2003|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. He is writing a history of cities for Modern Library.

The opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall has been widely -- and justifiably -- hailed as a cultural coming of age for both Los Angeles and its long-disdained central core. Yet, the new hall should not be expected to save a downtown that, in many ways, already has a lot going for it.

During the last decade, many urban developers, social theorists and city officials nationwide embraced the arts as a driving force to revitalize urban cores. Culture as an engine of renewal is the prime idea behind a much-discussed proposal, put forth by Eli Broad and other prominent downtown boosters, to spend more than $1 billion to create a Grand Avenue arts corridor connecting the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on the north to the Museum of Contemporary Art on the south. Advocates of this plan want the public to kick in $250 million to $300 million, a hefty contribution at a time when the city faces an increasing budget shortfall.

But there's another reason to be skeptical about the latest "solution" -- remember pedestrian malls, convention centers and sports arenas? -- to what's considered an ailing central city. Downtown is anything but dead. It already boasts a number of vibrant, job-producing districts -- garment, flower, toy and jewelry, to name some. These industrial and retail hubs, where more than 6,000 businesses employ about 50,000 trade and manufacturing workers, have been revitalizing formerly destitute parts of the central core while all eyes were watching Frank Gehry's idea for Disney Hall bloom. Along with a strong business-service and government base, they have helped create an elaborate and diverse downtown economy that has boosted its share of regional employment over the last decade from 10.5% to 12.5%.

Most of this economy probably wouldn't benefit much from the injection of public and private money to build new offices, apartments, restaurants and shops along and near Grand Avenue. Worse, government-inspired speculation might prohibitively raise the costs of doing business or living downtown, forcing employers and residents to leave. Ironically, new development might price out arts-producing colonies that thrive on low-cost space and its gritty environment.

At the heart of the issue are conflicting views of urban development. The one now popular with planners, developers and theorists hinges a downtown's survivability to its ability to attract upper-middle-class residents to live there or to frequent "hip" restaurants, clubs, arts and entertainment palaces, and sports and cultural facilities. In essence, a city's future depends on outsiders.

The other view links a downtown's fortunes to productive people already living or working in it: immigrants, small-scale entrepreneurs and producing artists. It echoes the ideas of urbanist Jane Jacobs, who contended: "A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people ... greenhorns into competent citizens.... Cities don't lure the middle class, they create it."

Downtown Los Angeles, perhaps more than any major U.S. city core, is a test for Jacobs' idea of "metropolitan functions." The fashion center already has everything that urban patrons claim to want -- a large inventory of businesses, a visible daytime and weekend street presence and a small but growing residential base. The jewelry, toy, food and flower districts offer some of the best shopping opportunities for all classes in the region. The Latino-dominated shopping area encompassing Broadway, Chinatown and Little Tokyo is home to an authentic urban culture, complete with ethnic festivals and arts and entertainment venues enjoyed by a wide range of Angelenos and visitors. In short, these districts offer a proven and less expensive way to create a more dynamic downtown.

Boosters of flashy, pricey, arts-related projects frequently point to the "Bilbao effect," named after the Spanish city where Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum, as proof of the arts' potential to revitalize languishing cities. But the comparison is misleading. Bilbao is a relatively small, provincial, postindustrial city, not a megalopolis like L.A. Furthermore, Bilbao's resurgence owes as much to huge public investments in mass transit and the local port as to the museum.

But one doesn't have to go to Europe to witness the limits of culture as an engine of urban renewal. The Music Center, now almost 40 years old, was an attempt to use culture to revive downtown. Despite its many contributions to the fine arts, it has coexisted indifferently with downtown as that area revived in the 1980s, declined in the 1990s and has since improved.

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