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Farewell, my lovely old hotels

In a once-seedy little corner of downtown, mystery writers and tenants rights groups tackle gentrification.

May 31, 2008|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

It looked like trouble. Or maybe it looked like the stuff that dreams were made of.

The street was dark and the lighting was eerie as the hard-boiled book publishers from New York gathered outside an old factory building in downtown Los Angeles.

They eyed the crowd that had massed inside. Some of the dames looked like femme fatales; some of the guys looked like saps.

Finally, one of the New Yorkers spoke:

"To see this many people turn out for a literary event and then to combine it with a gentrification event, which is even harder to get people to come to. . . ." Johnny Temple, editor of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, shook his head and smiled. "It's phenomenal."

Temple was one of about 200 people who jammed into the newly gentrified, snazzily decorated g727 Gallery downtown Thursday night.

They came for a genre-bending literary salon that teamed some well-known mystery and noir writers -- Sara Paretsky and Denise Hamilton -- with local tenant organizers. The goal was to raise awareness about the effects of gentrification.

Gilda Haas, executive director of the L.A.-based tenants' group Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, said the pairing was a natural. Tenant organizers from her group and others are fighting to preserve housing for the poor, who they say have been displaced by the massive wave of gentrification that has swept through parts of the city in recent years.

Meanwhile, the forces of redevelopment also push at noir writers: Without the gritty city that is the setting for their fiction, what would they write about?

Or, as the tenants' group put it: "Can you imagine Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe hanging out at a gastro-pub? Or Dashiell Hammett writing 'The Maltese Falcon' from a luxury loft?"

Haas, who is married to noir-novelist Gary Phillips, conceived the event, she said, after reading one detective novel after another in which gentrification served as a major plot point. Though the economy has slowed and the housing market is in chaos, her group's organizers say gentrification continues to push at poor people living in the city's core.

A hip, urban crowd streamed into the Spring Street gallery, which salon organizers described as being "on a block full of contradictions . . . in the shadow of lofts and skid row." After buying drinks from the "Noir Bar," the crowd settled in for hours of readings.

Even a patsy wouldn't have had a problem picking the novelists in the lineup.

Hamilton, creator of the best-selling Eve Diamond mystery series, described L.A.'s "ruined river." Sara Paretsky, whose V I Warshawski roams the streets of Chicago and sells tens of thousands of books at airport shops, read a passage that depicted the transformation of the Windy City's once-poor neighborhoods.

But the body count was far higher in the readings contributed by the tenant organizers, many of whom gave tributes to people they said had died as an indirect result of being forced from their homes to make way for redevelopment.

Davan Corona, lead organizer for Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, read a narrative about Markie, whose troubles would have given even Philip Marlowe pause. He lived in the Morrison, a downtown residential hotel that is now vacant. He lost his left leg to an infection that Corona said could have been prevented if he had not lived in such horrible conditions. Then Markie was evicted. Out on the streets, he died, Corona said.

In the audience, Santa Monica resident Elisabeth Ladowicz took a breath. Ladowicz, an architect, said she had watched the rebirth of downtown and the redevelopment of so many beautiful old buildings with approval.

"I see the good side of it," she said. But the night's readings had given her a glimpse of the dark side too.

"There is the question and the problem of what to do with the people that live here."

Novelist Nina Revoyr, who read a selection from her book "Southland," said the evening "brings a human face to an issue like gentrification. The discussion can be very dry. . . . This brings to life people's stories that might get lost."

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jessica.garrison@latimes.com

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Murders in La La Land

For a noirish experience, try reading one of these five novels set in Southern California:

"Birds of Paradise," by Los Angeles Times readers

"Angels Flight," by Michael Connelly

"The Drowning Pool," by Ross MacDonald

"The Long Goodbye," by Raymond Chandler

"Sugar Skull," by Denise Hamilton

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