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Downtown L.A.: A nightmare on Every Street

Op-Ed

Downtown Los Angeles boasts some big-city perks like spacious lofts and trendy restaurants, but living there is a different kind of beast.

July 17, 2011|By Mike Armstrong

"Look, Daddy, that man's going to the bathroom!"

No, not the words any daddy wants to hear from his 10-year-old daughter, especially during a stroll through their brand-new neighborhood.

Moving my wife and kids into a downtown Los Angeles loft may not win me "Dumbest Dad of the Year" honors, but it should at least get me into the quarterfinals. The loft itself was great. More like a movie set than an apartment. High ceilings, new appliances, breathtaking views and a deck with a Jacuzzi that was used at least once every six months during our year there. It wasn't what was inside the building that broke the deal; it was what was out there on the mean and strange streets of downtown Los Angeles.

Why we moved there is academic. More space for less money, a new environment, cool restaurants and various other meaningless enticements. I got sucked in; I was wrong, and I admit it. I've apologized to everybody involved, and I will continue to do so until I am either dead or forgiven. In the meantime, let me tell you about my downtown L.A.

Within a week or so after our arrival, there were ominous signs that the neighborhood was still working out its kinks. There were two murders in two hotels within three blocks of our new home. What I thought were firecrackers at 4 a.m. on the Fourth of July were in fact gunshots in front of our building. And there must have been something about me that made me a target for every heroin dealer on the block, like the fact that I was breathing.

I've lived in big cities before: Boston, New York, Toronto. I've been mugged, and I've seen things on subway platforms at night that I'm still trying to forget. But downtown Los Angeles exists in its own separate category. It's the low-grade horror movie of American cities.

At night it's an odyssey of sirens, police helicopters and, if you're unfortunate enough to find yourself out on the sidewalk, a particular class of zombie-like human being seemingly so devastated by drugs or mental illness or both that he or she can't even form the words to ask for money.

Within the safety of the loft I would often lie awake at night and listen to the occasional terrified scream or mysterious explosion. It was as though the outside was haunted.

A few months ago I arrived home to find a body on the pavement a few feet from the front door of our building. According to one of the cops on the scene, he was a jumper from the hotel across the street.

The next day, a shopkeeper on the block was furious that the police had closed him down for two hours during their investigation and cleanup. "Why couldn't he have jumped into the alley like all the rest of them?" he asked me. It's a valuable lesson for us all: Just because you kill yourself doesn't mean you have to be disruptive.

About a month later, a gunman was stabbed by a shopkeeper during an unsuccessful jewelry heist a block away. Bleeding onto the sidewalk, he fled north, took a right turn and, like a homing pigeon, somehow found his way into this same hotel. I wonder if the police had trouble distinguishing him from all the other bleeding felons milling about the lobby.

But it wasn't just nocturnal horror. One of our neighbors who became a good friend (she moved out last month) was groped for several minutes on a street corner in broad daylight by something resembling a human being. As she was trying to fend off this gentleman, a group of men employed by some jewelry stores near Broadway and 7th stood watching with amusement, never offering to help.

It was around this time that "For Rent" signs in other neighborhoods started to catch my eye. I also took the subtle hints from my daughters. "Daddy, I hate living downtown. Why did you bring us here? I thought you loved us."

But honestly, not everything was terrible.

I'll miss the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the Central Library and the surprisingly wonderful Indian food from a restaurant located on the ground floor of a seedy hotel. I'll miss the view and having an empty Jacuzzi in which to store things. I'll especially miss Ricky the Pirate, a beloved fixture who can be found in and around Spring and 6th. His "Arrrgghh" will frighten you the first time you hear it at 1 in the morning from the shadows of a doorway, but after a while, you won't feel safe without it. Goodbye, Matey. Ahoy and arrrgghh back at you.

As I put my daughters to bed in our new, somewhat safer and more boring neighborhood, I tell them to "Sleep tight," "Don't let the bed bugs bite," and "Not everybody who reads the Bible screams it at the top of his lungs."

It may take awhile, but I'm determined to drop that last part.

Mike Armstrong writes screenplays and television scripts in Los Angeles.

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