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Death and life downtown

November 17, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

On the day last month that Tim Cowell moved into his new loft in an old downtown office building, a friend warned him about the jumpers.

Every month, or so it seemed, someone jumped to his or her death from one of the old towers near the corner of 6th and Spring streets. A few weeks earlier the friend had witnessed the suicide of a man whose body landed on the pavement less than half a block behind him.

This was disturbing news, to be sure, but Cowell, a 49-year-old architect, was not dissuaded. There are, after all, so many enticing things about living in those resurrected "concrete canyons" of L.A.'s past.

Then, last Tuesday about 5 p.m., he heard a scream followed by a loud crash. When he looked out his 10th-floor window, he saw the body of a woman in the narrow parking lot between the two tall buildings across the street.

"I thought what I heard was a gunshot" before realizing it was the sound of her body hitting the concrete, he told me. Many other people in the other tall buildings around Cowell's heard it too. They rushed to their windows and to the street. Some later recounted what they had seen on blogdowntown.com.

"She wasn't breathing, had no pulse," wrote a passerby who rushed to the victim less than a minute after her fall. The writer, a former paramedic, checked for other vital signs and found none. "She died upon impact."

Another poster described coming upon the woman's body, "a vision I wish I could remove from my mind." Some commented on the victim's beauty and youth and on the other apparent suicides nearby. They wondered why the media and local officials hadn't taken notice.

"So is it the recession?" one poster asked. "Mass depression?"

Seven people have jumped to their deaths in downtown Los Angeles this year, according to Lt. Paul Vernon of the LAPD's Central Division. An eighth survived. Three of those deaths occurred within half a block of the intersection of 6th and Spring streets, near the site of the old Pacific Stock Exchange building and the heart of the city's Old Bank District. That stretch of Spring was once known "the Wall Street of the West."

There are usually about half a dozen such suicides or falling deaths each year downtown, Vernon said. The list of recent victims includes an artist, a transient, a Midwestern transplant with a history of drug abuse and a 27-year-old man who lamented his inability to find a girlfriend. The seven victims this year were white, Asian, Latino and black, and ranged in age from 22 to 74.

"Not one ever cited a money or financial reason" for their suicide, Vernon said.

What's causing downtown's suicides appears to be depression, a force that's almost always present, in good times and bad. It's an illness that's suddenly become more visible downtown, thanks to the dramatic changes taking place there.

For decades the beaux-arts jewels of the Old Bank District were largely empty. Most of the financial and other businesses based there moved west to nearby Bunker Hill and other places in the 1960s.

All that's changed in the last decade. According to Vernon, the number of lofts in the area has tripled since 2000. The blocks around 6th and Spring are now among the most densely populated corners of the city.

"Downtown has become a small town with big buildings," said Eric Richardson, publisher of blogdowntown.com. "You walk down the street and you know the people you see."

Richardson, 27, lives in the old California-Canadian Bank headquarters on Spring Street. It's the same building from which last Tuesday's victim leapt to her death.

Like others, Richardson was drawn to the neighborhood by its history, that feel of the L.A. noir of old you get from standing below the skeletal fire escapes, the stone cornices and glazed brick facades.

"The buildings are what bring people here," Richardson told me. "They're the fabric of downtown."

Unlike modern skyscrapers', the windows in those buildings still open to views of the street below.

After a pair of suicides in April, Richardson delved into The Times' archive and found similar reports of "death leaps" from the late 1950s, a period of rapid economic growth when the old downtown buildings were still filled with people.

That's the paradox of today's downtown. The suicides are a grim reflection of the community's renaissance: More people are taking their lives there simply because more people have filled its buildings.

What's probably caused those people to jump is what novelist William Styron once described as a "storm" of the mind and "a toxic and unnameable tide" that obliterates joy.

Styron said depression is an illness that can be as life-threatening as cancer. He chronicled his own suffering and near suicide in his memoir "Darkness Visible."

I read Styron's book when I was in my late 20s and battling my own demons.

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