02.11.09 Does Los Angeles Need a Downtown?

Ed Soja has a theatricality about him when he speaks that could make virtually anyone with a pulse get interested in urban redevelopment. So, for urbanism geeks, hearing Professor Soja talk about L.A. – and downtown in particular – is a true treat. He likened L.A.’s present situation (in terms of demographics, immigrant poor, economic consequences and manufacturing possibilities) as equal to Manchester, UK in 1850. Almost with glee, he added, “Engels isn’t dead after all” (Hey, he’s a critical theory guy writing a book on the recent resurgence of the labor movement in L.A – he’s got a reason to be excited about Marxism again.)

He wasn’t the only giddy one. The positivity and anticipation were buzzing at the REDCAT, despite the gloomy-doomy economic prospects and downer comments that opened up the panel discussion. The panel was rounded out by the California Redevelopment Agency’s CEO and all-around practitioner of spatial, environmental and legal affairs, Cecilia Estolano, and Manual Castells, USC professor of Technology, Society and Regional Affairs and author of La Question Urbaine and The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture among many other titles. The panel was moderated by Steven Levine of CalArts.

So it was a good mix. Estolano threw out the question of the evening and made her own: What Kind of Downtown Does L.A. Want? She proceeded to propose a downtown that could build on its already well-established manufacturing core and expand it further to bring “clean technology” engineering, research and design firms, light industrial companies, bio-medical research companies, and more manufacturing downtown (and along the banks on the L.A. River) from downtown, through the old Goodyear complex in South L.A., to the port (again, already established for future development to build upon).

Estolano’s was a re-occurring theme: Soja and Castells spoke to labor and workforce and manufacturing as the forefront of development downtown as well. It’s the first time I can remember an urban design forum or panel unanimously suggesting neither a mall (L.A. LIVE and Nokia), nor a park or shopping district (Grand Avenue and the Civic Park by Related Group), nor a transportation project (Light rail to the Westside) could remedy our civic woes. Imagine that: instead of giving people jobs at a Pinkberry outside the Staples center, providing them a career at a manufacturing plant, where they can transform themselves into a member of the middle class.

It’s been a tragic fall for real estate in L.A. and it’ll continue to hurt everyone for a long while. But it slowly dawned on everyone in CalArt’s theater Wednesday night – now that civic leaders have finally been forced to let go their death grip on the concept that loft living will save downtown (and, on a broader level, the city in general), the crash of 2008 could make room for a new concept – the city as a backdrop for a hard-working population. As Soja explained, the question in the past hasn’t really been “How can we make downtown better?” It’s been more like “How can we get white, upper class Westsiders to live in a high-rise tower in downtown L.A. and make believe they’re living in New York.” That’s all behind us now with 2008. Bring on the next industrial revolution.

No comments:

Post a Comment