Monday, 31 May 2010

CITY OF ANGELS: Downtown, Part 1 - Introduction

Downtown LA is much more than just being LA's excuse for a city centre.

Although it may neither have the cachet nor the tranquillity of Beverly Hills, besides being the oldest part of Los Angeles it is, architecturally speaking, one of the most intriguing. And while Hollywood may be the hub of American movie making, downtown, too, does have some affiliation with the film industry, notably the grand movie palaces the film companies erected during the 1920s, some of which having been beautifully restored. Much like Hollywood, after many years of neglect and disregard, a lot of money has been pumped into the refurbishment and restoration of downtown's awe-inspiring cultural heritage.

Bounded by the Los Angeles River in the east, the 101 Freeway in the north, the 10 Freeway to the south and the Hollywood Freeway to the west, downtown is pivotally located, more or less smack in the middle of the "city of 100 suburbs in search of a centre", as someone once referred to Los Angeles. Using LA's efficient, albeit limited, subway network which allows bicycles off peak times, I got off at Pershing Square to explore LA's downtown, an area as diverse and stimulating as you want it to be.

One of the most striking differences to me between the US and Europe has always been the fact that American cities often change their character from one block to the next, whereas in their European counterparts changes tend to be smoother and more gradual. This is especially true for LA's downtown area which has almost as many facets and faces as the whole of LA itself. Once the city's commercial nucleus, in its heydey during the 1920s, downtown's Broadway rivalled its namesake in the east, with a lively, bustling, theatre scene which only started to slacken after WWII. And even though New York's highrises may be taller - a fact due to LA's perennial earthquake scare - many among them easily make up for the lack in height by their daring, unusual architecture.

The most famous of them is the Bradbury Building, built in 1893 by George Wyman, whose discreet exterior belies its extraordinary interior. It is best known for its cast-iron stairwell, which was prominently featured in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Another architectural gem is the Oviatt Building, an art-deco showcase that has also been in many a film and whose etched glass features were supplied by Rene Lalique. Other buildings of note that went up during downtown's boom years include Schultze & Weaver's Biltmore Hotel and the aforementioned movie palaces, the most beautiful among them being the Orpheum, the Palace, and the United Artists theatres.

The Bradbury Building

The Oviatt

The United Artists Theatre

When Hollywood was still in its infancy and, not yet in full possession of a complete infrastructure, downtown LA functioned as the parent city, living up to its role by providing the fledgling film community with attractions such as hotels, night clubs, restaurants, and theatres. Over the years, however, with Hollywood gradually coming into its own and other neighbourhoods slowly developing and evolving helped by the construction of freeways, the face of downtown began to change. Whole sections of it ended up being neglected and subsequently turned into run-down, no-go areas. Then again others were eventually developed into LA's financial district replete with sleek office buildings and futuristic highrises, making the US Bank Tower the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

Luckily, unlike other parts of LA, downtown survived the years of neglect and disregard more or less unblemished, with almost no major architectural marvel falling prey to mutilation or worse, demolition. And with its resurgence about a decade ago, downtown started to change character once again. Many of the old buildings became registered Cultural Historical landmarks and with spacious, fashionable lofts in increasing demand, a lot of them were converted, turning downtown from a strictly financial into a cutting-edge, partly residential neighbourhood. Impressive cast-iron structures are being restored, hotels revamped and new ones opened, and derelict buildings received costly face-lifts.

One of the most talked about additions in recent years to downtown's blend of architecture is the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Built by Santa Monica-based architect Frank Gehry, it has been an instant crowd pleaser. Sponsored by the company of the same name, it sits amidst other Los Angeles landmarks such as the City Hall or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion which, donated by the wife of former LA-Times owner, Harry Chandler, used to be Oscar's home for many years until the opening of the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

Downtown's revival does have its inevitable downside, though, as in order to convert the buildings previous tenants are being evicted, and with the area increasingly resembling New York's SoHo, rents are soaring, forcing them to relocate to cheaper pockets of town.It remains to be seen, however, if the yuppification of downtown will prove to be as successful and quick as its investors hope it to be. For the time being, it is still quintessentially Los Angeles: A blend of the wacky, the glamorous, the gigantic and the bizarre.