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A Los Angeles Primer: Spring Street

Walking the length of Spring Street one morning, I counted 22 surface parking lots. I do this not out of a "Rain Man"-style numerical compulsion, but a no less distracting desire to feel out the progress of a city's urbanism. The surface parking lot test gives you a sense of density, for one thing -- obviously, the denser a neighborhood, the less of itself it can devote to idle cars -- but it also lets you gauge its state of flux. "This'll be a great town," New Yorkers have for over a century said of their home and its constant construction, "as soon as they get it finished." Manhattan's perpetual unfinishedness, of course, defines it as a "great town," and its developers know they can always and everywhere put up or tear down something more ambitious than a square of paint-lined concrete. Spring Street, which still boasts a formidable collection of architectural monuments to Los Angeles' grandly aspirant early twentieth century, now offers a window onto downtown's modern revival, and the view from it often looks exciting indeed.

Still, enthusiast though I am, a snarkier sentiment roils within me: if your downtown still has surface parking lots, then you, my friend, do not have a downtown. Yet they have nowhere to go but away. I make bets with downtown-dwelling friends about when the last surface parking lot will have vanished. Twenty years from now, certainly. Ten years, maybe. Five years -- dare we hope? Out-of-downtowners, or at least those who live far enough away from downtown, tend to respond with an interestingly point-missing question: "But then where will people park?" An absence of parking indicates not just a demand for actual buildings but no need to stash vehicles in the first place: you'll either live downtown already, or in a place connected by rapid transit. Granted, this all sounds a tad implausible to Angelenos of thirty, forty, fifty years' standing who came to know downtown Los Angeles as the locus classicus of the sad postwar fate of the American inner city. Recall "A Note on Downtown", Reyner Banham's brief chapter in "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies", which opens with the words, " ...because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves."

Though Banham may have let his enthusiasm for the city's break from nineteenth century urban forms get the better of him, this dismissal no doubt seemed warranted in 1971. Not every European turns up looking so aggressively forward. Visiting 34 years later, French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy dubbed Los Angeles "the Anti-City," in large part because of what struck him as its lack of a downtown meriting the name. "What must be true for a city to be legible?" Lévy asks in his book "American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville". "First, it has to have a center. But Los Angeles has no center. It has districts, neighborhoods, even cities within the city, each of which has a center of some sort. But one center, one unique site as a point of reference for that law of isonomy the Athenians believed was the principle behind every city, a hub or focus with which the inhabitants of Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Venice, Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Saigon and Little Tokyo, Malibu, Inglewood, Pico Union [ ... ] could have a relationship at once distinct and regular -- nothing like that exists in Los Angeles."

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Lévy makes a fair, if dramatic, point, though one that seems truer of the city's recent decades than its first 150 years, or, for that matter, of its near future. Downtown did indeed function as the center of Los Angeles up through the thirties, back in the years that earned the then-finance-heavy Spring Street the label "the Wall Street of the West." That era leaves us a legacy in the form of a surprising number of distinguished old Beaux Arts buildings along Spring's mile and a half, many of which fell into disuse before 1999's Adaptive Reuse Ordinance allowed their conversion into retail spaces, apartments, and condominiums. (See also Jeremy Rosenberg's "Laws that Shaped L.A." piece on the ARO.) Downtown now looks well on its way to becoming a kind of center again -- a population center, in any case, especially of the young -- but we would do well not to forget the question that Lévy and countless critics before him have implicitly put to us: is Los Angeles a city? Less bluntly, do we benefit from seeing it as a city as we've known cities throughout most of the history of human civilization?

Thinking about Los Angeles sui generis, as Banham did, makes for a revealing intellectual exercise, though you probably won't do it while walking down Spring Street. Its blocks feel like those of a city in the classic sense, and signs everywhere remind you, lest you forget, that you stand in a city, where city people live in city ways: Citygrill, City Lofts, City Loft Square, Spring Lofts. Not for nothing do some write off downtown Los Angeles as an insecure pretend New York, but when I ignore all the branding, each walk along Spring Street does reveal to me new and promising signs of life: a farmer's market here, smooching couples there; sizable parks in the works here, newly opened sidewalk "parklets" there; a late-night eatery just through a creaking lobby here, a patch of new bike lane there. Not, mind you, that the bike lane's design called for it to appear in patches, but the neon-green stretch of asphalt paint began fading almost immediately after crews laid it down, and struggles with the film and television production industry, which prefers to keep the likes of Spring street as generic an urban backdrop as possible, has held back a repaint.

Such a disappointment tempts any observer of Los Angeles, myself included, to frame Spring Street's bike lane a symbol of the fate of all the town's hopes for improvement, no matter how modest: seemingly easy to accomplish, yet compromised from the start and sooner or later ground to a halt by the endless bickering of fragmented interests. Reality, however, vindicates neither the optimists nor the pessimists, especially in Los Angeles. The very existence on the corner of Spring and Fifth of The Last Bookstore, a two-story, 10,000-square-foot cavern of not just new and used volumes but vinyl bins and small-scale art spaces as well, makes me believe we live in at least one of the better possible worlds. Old-fashioned though it may sound, I check for the presence of a vast destination of a bookstore -- compare the Strand in Manhattan, or Powell's in Portland -- as another test of urban viability. Angelenos disagree about such an operation's long-term prospects amid the accelerating process that few dare call gentrification, but if The Last Bookstore has them, downtown Los Angeles has them.

By the same token, I watch closely whether Spring Street's existing independent coffee shops can thrive alongside newly arrived branches of national coffee chains, a coexistence that signals a healthily diverse urban ecosystem. That said, I spent another morning looking forward to a cappuccino from CoffeeBar, near the corner of Sixth, only to find it had shut down permanently just the day before. "This is why we can't have nice things, Los Angeles," I muttered, sitting bitterly at the window of the Starbucks recently opened across the street. Still, having heard complaints about CoffeeBar's prices and strangely limited hours, I didn't take its demise as that of the canary in downtown's coal mine. I could, after all, just as easily have gone to Spring for Coffee up the street, but other customers had, at the middle of a weekday, already filled all of their seats. And one of the customers' shoes had a disturbing amount of broguing.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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