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Is a Phoenix Rising in Los Angeles?

An Editor's Note

April 02, 2006|Rick Wartzman

Boosters of downtown L.A. have proclaimed the urban core to be in the midst of a renaissance, and recently they trotted out a raft of numbers to back it up.

The data are dazzling: Since 1999, according to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, 6,994 residential units and 32 commercial structures and public facilities have been rehabilitated or put up from scratch. One hundred more projects are being built or are on the drawing board. Tally it all up, and you've got more than $12 billion of investment pouring into downtown.

Nevertheless, like many who live in Los Angeles, I can't help but wonder: Is the comeback for real?

I noodled this question anew after reading Rebecca Solnit's insightful piece on the upcoming centennial of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake--and mulling what it says about the propensity of cities to fall apart, sometimes spectacularly, "and then put everything back together" ("Celebrating the End That Never Came," page 26).

"San Francisco, whose emblem since the Gold Rush has been a phoenix, the immortal bird that rises from the ashes of its own pyre, is good at resurrection," she writes.

Downtown L.A., of course, is trying to resurrect itself not from a quake or other such catastrophe but from long-standing forces that are much more insidious: sprawl, fear, flight, neglect, poverty and past promises broken.

And so I am a bit skeptical. But I am not cynical. My guess is that, this time, the much-heralded reawakening of downtown is genuine. Two factors sway me.

The first is that construction is now well underway for a Ralphs supermarket in the South Park district, near Staples Center. More than Disney Hall or the trendy condos that are popping up everywhere, the grocery company's commitment to downtown suggests that it is becoming a true neighborhood.

The other thing that's persuasive is Norman Klein believes it.

Klein, the author of "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory," has thought as much about the pulse of the inner city as anyone I know. And he sees not just one renaissance here, but two.

There's the revival reflected in the figures cited above, though that's not the one that impresses him. City leaders are "not bringing downtown back," Klein says somewhat dismissively. "They're suburbanizing downtown" with latte places and trendy shops.

What does excite Klein is that neighborhoods not far from downtown are beginning to flourish in their own right, as L.A.'s immigrant communities become more established. "That's what we used to think of as a city," says Klein, who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. He has started noticing, for instance, that dozens of galleries have opened east of Western Avenue, along with cafes and music bars and other up-from-the-streets cultural venues.

Although they won't show up in the statistics, as Klein notes, "that's where the real life will come from."

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