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Los Angeles helps the wealthy but not the little guy

Columnist's tour of L.A. Live area and nearby neighborhoods shows the increasing contrast between Los Angeles' haves and have-nots.

August 12, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • The Ritz-Carlton can be seen behind low-income housing along 10th Place in Los Angeles.
The Ritz-Carlton can be seen behind low-income housing along 10th Place… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

About a five-minute walk separates the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown L.A. from the old brick tenements on West 10th Place.

At the Ritz-Carlton, $449 plus tax will get you a room with a king-size bed and a bathroom with Italian marble vanities. Pleasant clerks at the front desk promise "beautiful views" of the L.A. cityscape from a room on the 22nd floor or higher.

On West 10th Place, $550 will get you a one-room apartment for a month. The view includes rusty fire escapes on the building across the street, discarded mattresses and the back door of a garment factory.

Approaching one of the residents, I informed him of the room rates over at the nearby Ritz-Carlton, which loomed over us in blue and gray glass.

"Well, I guess it really is cheap here," said Oscar Montiel, a 50-year-old scrap-metal collector and native of the Mexican state of Guerrero.

Talking to Montiel there on 10th Place, amid the still-occupied relics of low-cost housing built in the first half of the last century, I arrived at the sad realization that L.A. is indeed becoming a Third World city.

But it's not the presence of so many people from tropical climes that makes L.A. resemble the underdeveloped regions to the south. It's our increasingly brazen contrasts between wealth and poverty.

In L.A., as in Caracas or Rio de Janeiro, the rich can enjoy views of the poor, puttering safely in the distance.

And we have our elected officials to thank for it.

The Ritz-Carlton is part of a gleaming new entertainment center of Los Angeles that was built thanks to city tax breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars, as my colleague David Zahniser reported in May.

This week, the L.A. City Council voted to add another expensive jewel to that complex by issuing $275 million in tax-exempt bonds to help make way for a new football stadium.

"Finally: Farmers' Field," several screens proclaimed all at once Wednesday afternoon at L.A. Live.

I made L.A. Live the starting point for my own private walking tour of L.A.'s class divide.

L.A. Live oozes celebrity. Kobe Bryant loomed over me, several stories tall, making a pitch for a Turkish airline. Money can fly out of your wallet at L.A. Live. The more you spend, the more special you feel.

In the lobby of the JW Marriott, bellmen in their smart uniforms reminded me of my father, who funded my college education with a job at a Beverly Hills hotel.

That, of course, is the main argument in favor of public largesse for private interests: It creates jobs. But there was something perverse about seeing our city leaders fall over themselves this week to issue public debt in favor of what is, after all, a profit-making venture. Especially when bulging deficits and economic stagnation are eating away at public education and other services.

I wondered: Will the next generation of hotel workers be able to send their children to the University of California, where my family sent me?

On the other hand, it certainly didn't feel like lean times as I walked through the Marriott's front lot. I admired a parked Aston Martin, and weaved around a couple of purring German luxury vehicles. Then I stepped onto Olympic and headed west.

Half a block later, underneath a bridge for the 110 Freeway, I was greeted by the stench of urine. A human being was passed out on a mattress.

Walking a bit further, I came upon an ice cream vendor. I wanted to buy something, but he didn't have change for a 20.

A block later, I was on West 10th Place. A sign announced rooms for rent in one building — property records show it was erected in 1901, and it looked its age. But when I called the number listed, I was told, "Sorry, there's no more available."

There weren't any units free in Montiel's building, either. He's the manager there but makes most of his income — about $500 a week — collecting scrap metal.

Montiel said he worked for more than 20 years in L.A. garment factories, until he got too old. "You can't work if your eyes can't focus on the needle," he told me. Most of the residents of West 10th Place, he said, work in construction or in garment factories.

"I used to make $300 to $500 a week" in the garment trade, he said. "Now some of these young guys make $180 or $200. You can't support a family on that."

Montiel told me West 10th isn't a bad place to live. For Christmas and New Year's, he said, the locals barbecue in the garment factory's parking lot.

Continuing my walk, I encountered Cristobal, a fruit vendor. For $5, he chopped up a salad of mango, watermelon, cucumber, and other fruits and vegetables, serving it to me in a plastic bag. I sat on the sidewalk and ate as he talked on his cellphone in Quiche, a Mayan Indian language.

"Sometimes they chase me away from here," Cristobal told me when I was nearly done. "The city comes. So I have to hide the cart."

Isn't it funny how we can bend the laws, and issue public debt, for billionaires but not for street vendors? In that way too, L.A. is starting to resemble those countries to the south where the wealthy can buy a government favor or an exemption from the rules that apply to everyone else.

I walked for quite a bit longer, then circled back via Metro and automobile to the Ritz-Carlton.

The 24th-story lounge of the WP24 restaurant was my last stop.

A couple of drinks and sushi for one added up, rather quickly, to $70. But the view was, indeed, spectacular. Cars inched slowly through rush-hour traffic on the freeway below me.

From such a height, I noted, you feel omnipotent. As if the whole world below were a huge toy set up for your entertainment.

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