Fragrant California sages and other native plants were still babies when… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
There is a scene in the movie “Falling Down” -- released almost exactly 20 years ago -- in which laid-off aerospace engineer William Foster tangles with a couple of gang members on a vacant hill just west of downtown Los Angeles. The film is a gold mine for anyone who wants to delve into the rich genre of stories about L.A. as paradise lost, or explore the standard menu of racial stereotypes. The hard-working white guy is the victim, and he’s finally had enough. This is one of those movies.
But forget for a moment the zeitgeist of post-riot, pre-earthquake Los Angeles, forget Michael Douglas as angry, mentally crumbling Foster (known as “D-FENS,” after his vanity license plate), forget the cartoonish gangbangers, the surly Korean grocer and the lazy street services workers he encounters on his crazed walk from the freeway to the Pacific. Let’s focus on the hill, and what it meant then, and what it means now.
It was the 1990s, Los Angeles had been through numerous real estate booms and busts, corporate towers loomed in the background and there was still, close to the high-rent district of downtown, this hill bereft of anything but weeds and bits of graffitied concrete rubble: the remnants of oil wells from a bygone era. Why wasn't this place occupied by a big glass and steel high-rise, or a blocky stucco apartment building? How could it still be empty?
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That undeveloped hill, and others like it nearby, puzzled me every day as I drove the two miles from my apartment at 4th and Hoover to my job in one of those corporate office towers downtown between 1984 (Newsweek called it the “Year of the Yuppie”) and the 1992 riots, and I remember wondering just how a booming megalopolis like Los Angeles could have a downtown with vacant lots. You’d never see such a thing in Manhattan, Washington, even San Francisco.
There were still a couple of pumps operating in the open, a hill or two away, among ramshackle, subdivided bungalows, each jammed with multiple immigrant families. By then, though, this place -- sometimes called Temple-Beaudry in real estate prospectuses, sometimes Central City West -- was L.A.’s old couch, left on the curb and forgotten. The “Falling Down” scene was fitting. If the hill wasn’t downtown, it wasn’t anywhere else, either. It was nothing. It was nowhere. It remained as vacant a decade after the movie as it was when I lived nearby in the ’80s.
It was also the center of a new City Council district, created to settle a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit that claimed Los Angeles leaders had drawn their district lines to disenfranchise Latino voters. Council members bickered over which of them was going to give up territory to create a new Latino district, until a councilman way out in the San Fernando Valley -- Howard Finn -- died unexpectedly. The City Hall vultures eagerly ate up his Valley district and spit out the pieces here, creating a new Council District 1 that stretched southwest from Highland Park to Cypress Park, Mount Washington, Lincoln Heights, Elysian Park, Echo Park, Chinatown, D-FENS’ hill, MacArthur Park and Pico-Union. Voters in the new district elected Gloria Molina to represent them.
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By the time “Falling Down” was in theaters, another districting lawsuit led to another new Latino-oriented seat, this one on the county Board of Supervisors. Molina took the promotion. Almost immediately, she and the four other supervisors found their county near bankruptcy, their hospital system near collapse and their plan for layoffs countered by the county employee union’s fiery young leader, Gil Cedillo.
Down the street in City Hall, Mike Hernandez took Molina’s place on the council, and he hired a young city planner named Ed Reyes. When Hernandez was termed out, Reyes won the seat and took as his chief of staff young organizer Jose Gardea. Now Reyes is nearly termed out and Gardea, running to succeed him, is facing Cedillo and local businessman Jesse Rosas.
And the hill -- well, it’s no longer vacant. Nor does it have a corporate tower or another blocky apartment building. It’s Vista Hermosa Park, an almost magical bit of cultivated wilderness, plus athletic fields, picnic grounds, recreational facilities and an incomparable view of those corporate towers to the west, surrounded by new schools and a dense, mostly immigrant population. Yuppies have been succeeded by hipsters, and a few hang out in the park -- and sometimes so do gang members, just like in the “Falling Down” days -- but so also do countless neighborhood kids and families.