An Unexpected Garden

Gar 01 Walk

Today I went down to the Department of City Planning to file an appeal. It didn’t take as long as I expected, so after I was through I decided to wander around and check the place out.

The building itself is a pretty drab example of institutional architecture. I walked across the lobby to the little cafe and thought about getting some coffee. Decided against it. Then I thought I’d check out the patio at the back of the building. The most interesting thing about that space is it’s just a couple hundred feet from the Harbor Freeway. I wondered if the few people scattered around were bothered by the traffic noise. But I guess you can get used to anything.

I decided to move on, so I walked around the side of the building, on my way back to the plaza. And I came across a beautiful little garden.

When I was younger I paid no attention to gardens. The older I get, the more I love them. This was so unexpected I had to stop and take some photos. This little garden, tucked away on one side of a couple of drab office towers, made the whole trip worthwhile.

 

Protesting Immigrant Detentions

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If you’ve been following the news for the past few weeks, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s been a nationwide uproar over the separation of immigrant children from their parents. Today demonstrations were held across the US to protest this practice, and to demand that children still in detention be reunited with their families.

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Thousands of people gathered in Downtown to hear a range of speakers. Numerous organizations were represented, including CHIRLA, Black Lives Matter, ACCE, and the Korean Resource Center.

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Participants marched from Broadway down First street to Alameda, and then to the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC). Just to be clear, the children being detained are not at the MDC. Those in California are being held at smaller facilites throughout the state.

CP 07Cruelty

While this country was built by immigrants, the criminalization of people crossing US borders is nothing new. Waves of hysteria regularly sweep across the nation, inciting fear and hatred of people who come here to escape persecution or build a better life. This most recent chapter is frightening, but it is just one more chapter in a long history of demonizing immigrants.

I didn’t get a shot of it, but there was one poster that I thought summed things up well. It said….

“France Wants Their Statue Back”

CP 10 Fake News

Where Is this Bridge Going?

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The old Sixth Street Bridge is gone. It was torn down early in 2016. The demolition was necessary because the concrete in the original structure was decaying. Work has begun on constructing a new Sixth Street Bridge, and right now it looks like it will be finished in 2020. (For the record, the formal project title is the Sixth Street Viaduct Replacement Project.)

Bridges are about making connections. The original structure was built in 1932, and was one of a series of bridges that spans the LA River. This ambitious infrastructure project started in the 20s and continued through the 30s, eventually allowing numerous crossings between Downtown and East LA. Here are a few photos of the old Sixth Street Bridge.

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A shot from the base of the bridge.

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A truck coming down the west side.

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A view of the bridge facing west.

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Downtown in the distance.

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A view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the old bridge.

The renderings of the new bridge are striking. It was designed by architect Michael Maltzan, but the project is a team effort, and the goal is to produce something much more than a bridge. Here’s a quote from Maltzan’s web site.

The design team including Michael Maltzan Architecture (Design Architect), HNTB (Engineer and Executive Architect), Hargreaves Associates (Landscape Architect), and AC Martin (Urban Planning) began with the fundamental understanding that the Viaduct is more than a simple replacement thoroughfare crossing the Los Angeles River. The project instead foresees a multimodal future for the City, one that accommodates cars, incorporates significant new bicycle connections. It also increases connectivity for pedestrians to access the Viaduct, not only at its endpoints, but along the entirety of the span, linking the bridge, the Los Angeles River, and future urban landscapes in a more meaningful relationship.

The project also includes a park and an arts center. You can see some images here.

Sixth Street Viaduct/PARC from LA Bureau of Engineering

Here are some shots of the project site from March 2017, when work on the new bridge was just beginning.

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For the time being, this is where Sixth St. ends.

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Lots of machinery on the project site.

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Looking across the river toward East LA.

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A shot of the riverbed when construction was just starting.

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Another angle.

And here are some shots from August 2017.

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A little more progress has been made.

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A closer view.

For the team involved with the design, this project is all about bringing things together, creating connections and offering new ways for people to experience this space. One of the chief goals is to link the Arts District with Boyle Heights and the LA River. That sounds pretty cool in the abstract, but in actual fact there are a lot of reasons to worry about the downside. I’m sure Maltzan and his team see this project as a positive thing, but that’s not surprising. They’re architects and engineers engaged in creating a spectacular new piece of infrastructure. And of course the City’s website  is all about the upside.  But really, the City’s glib promo materials don’t begin to describe what’s happening here. By itself, the new bridge may sound great, but if you look at it in the larger context of the area’s culture and economy, you start to realize that this project could have serious negative impacts.

Any large scale infrastructure project, any attempt to remake the landscape, is going to affect the surrounding communities. These impacts can be good or bad, and often it’s a mix of the two. In this case, the biggest issue is one that never gets mentioned on the City’s web site. It’s the same issue that communities all over LA are dealing with. Displacement. Downtown LA has been going through a massive construction boom, with high-end housing and high-end retail largely transforming that community into an upscale enclave. Now developers are eyeing neighborhoods on the other side of the river.

The residents of Boyle Heights are already feeling the effects of gentrification, as real estate investors looking for cheap land and big profits have been buying up parcels in the area. Evictions are already happening, and many people who live in this largely Latino community are afraid they’ll be next. You may have read about the protests that have taken place in recent years. Here are some shots from an action staged by East LA residents in September 2016.  Protesters met at the intersection of Whittier and Boyle, where the old bridge touched down on the East Side.

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“Boyle Heights Is Not for Sale.”

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Families are worried about losing their homes.

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Many people on this side of the river see gentrification as violence.

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New art galleries are seen as harbingers of displacement.

The protest movement in Boyle Heights has gotten a fair amount of media attention, partly because in some cases the protesters have used aggressive tactics in trying to shut down a new coffee house and some local galleries. They see these businesses as the first outposts of coming gentrification. There are people who have questioned the protesters’ methods, complaining that they’ve gone too far. But let me ask you this. If you were in danger of losing your home and being driven out of your neighborhood, how far do you think you’d be willing to go?

It’s no accident that communities like Boyle Heights have been targeted by real estate investors. Land is cheaper there than in Downtown, and they know that the completion of the bridge and the accompanying amenities will make the area more desirable to upscale residents. We’ve already seen something similar happen in the Arts District. A largely low-income community has been rapidly transformed by a massive influx of developer dollars, and the people who had lived there for years, in fact, the people who actually built the community, have been driven out.  A similar scenario has been unfolding in Hollywood, and with the construction of the Crenshaw/LAX line you can see the same thing happening in communities like Leimert Park.

Investment in a community can be a good thing, but not when it drives out the people who have spent their lives there. And these days it’s not a gradual evolution. City Hall works with developers to target areas for rapid growth, almost all of it geared toward affluent new residents. When the City or County lays plans for new infrastructure, like light rail or parks or, in this case, a bridge, real estate investors move in quickly.  Often these investors are well connected at City Hall and already have possible projects in mind.  In other cases they’re speculators just snapping up parcels that they know will rise in value. They don’t plan to build anything, since they know they can make a profit just by sitting on the property until new infrastructure is in place.  And Mayor Garcetti gleefully promotes the aggressive transformation of these communities, apparently without giving a thought to the real suffering that displacement is causing for thousands of Angelenos. It seems he feels he was elected just to serve the affluent.

These days I hear so much talk about making LA a “world class city”, and I’m really sick of it. Garcetti’s idea of creating a “world class city” is about pouring billions into new infrastructure so that developers can cash in by building upscale enclaves for the affluent. Personally, I don’t care what class LA is in. If we can’t help hardworking people stay in their homes, if we can’t support communities that people have invested their lives in building, then this city is a failure.

You can spend all the money you want on bridges and parks and rivers and rail lines. All that stuff is meaningless if at the same time we’re dismantling our communities, the human infrastructure that really holds this city together.

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I Remember When Artists Used to Live There

AE 800 Traction

800 Traction

Back in November I posted about a protest by Downtown artists facing eviction. I’d been wanting to follow-up, so earlier this month I went to a gathering at 800 Traction to check in with the folks there. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to report. The artists who’ve been living and working in this building for years, in some cases for decades, still don’t know what the future holds for them. They’ve hired a lawyer, and negotiations with the developer are currently underway. No one had any current news about The Artists’ Loft Museum Los Angeles (ALMLA), which is a short walk away, at 454 Seaton. This is another group of creative people who have called the area home for years. They were served with eviction papers in 2017, and have been wrangling with lawyers since then.

AE ALMLA

454 Seaton

But I wanted to write a post anyway, if only to keep this situation in peoples’ minds. As gentrification continues to spread across LA, the pace of evictions is accelerating. Evictions from apartments covered by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) have been increasing for years, with 1,824 units taken off the market in 2017 alone. Over 23,000 RSO units have been lost since 2001. But this only tells part of the story, since there’s no mechanism in place to track the number of tenants who are forced out of non-RSO units. It’s commonplace these days for people living in a building not covered by rent control to find that the landlord has suddenly hit them with an exorbitant increase. If they can’t pay, they have to leave, and no one has been keeping track of how often that’s happened in recent years. If you’re not covered by the RSO, you have no protection. Unfortunately, that’s the case for the artists at 800 Traction.

So many people have highlighted the irony of an Arts District that’s forcing artists out, it seems redundant to bring it up again. The folks at City Hall certainly don’t care. They’ve been actively assisting real estate investors in a massive overhaul of the area. The change in the neighborhood’s vibe is both striking and depressing. Even going back just 10 years, I can remember aging warehouse spaces filled with struggling artists who didn’t have much money, but who had still managed to create a lively community. Most of those people are gone now. And where there used to be cheap dive bars and funky little stores, now the streets are being taken over by clothing shops and chain restaurants. More and more these days the neighborhood seems like a giant outdoor shopping mall.

AE Umami

The people at City Hall keep talking about how they want to create vibrant communities, and insist that the onslaught of high-priced apartments and upscale retail is helping to achieve that goal Downtown. In reality, what they’re doing is creating enclaves for the affluent that automatically exclude anyone making less than $70,000 a year.

If these artists are eventually forced out of their homes, it’ll be one more win for the developers. And a huge loss for LA.

AE Live Work

 

What Does this Building Mean?

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What does a building mean?

It’s an interesting question, and there’s no easy answer. Any building is going to have different meanings to different people. But the question is crucial when you start talking about preservation. Maybe we want to save a structure because it’s beautifully designed. Or maybe it held a special place in the community. Sometimes we want to hang on to a structure because of the role it played in the city’s history. Then again, there may be reasons why people want to see a building go away….

Back in 2016 I was at a City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing when Parker Center was on the agenda. The former home of the LAPD, the building has been closed for years. It was built in the mid-50s, and was orginally called the Police Administration Building (also the Police Facilities Building).* It was renamed Parker Center after the death of Chief William Parker in 1966. But it’s been empty since the LAPD moved into its new headquarters almost a decade ago. And since then the City has been trying to figure out what to do with it.

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The marker at the entrance bearing the dedication to Chief Parker.

Actually, it doesn’t seem like there was much debate at City Hall over the building’s fate. A new master plan has been proposed for the Civic Center, and there seems to be general agreement that Parker Center needs to be demolished. But the LA Conservancy argued that the structure should be preserved, both because of its design and the role it played in LA history.

So on the day I was at the CPC hearing there were two speakers on different sides of the issue. One was Jeremy Irvine, who argued for saving Parker Center. He pointed out that it was designed by Welton Becket & Associates, an innovative architectural firm that played a crucial role in shaping the look of mid-century LA. Irvine went on to talk about the building’s place in the life of the city, arguing that it was an important piece of LA history.

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A side view of Parker Center

The other speaker agreed that the building had played a role in LA history, but from her perspective it represented pain, loss and prejudice. Ellen Endo is a journalist with deep roots in Japanese community. She talked about how at the beginning of the 20th century Little Tokyo’s boundaries extended far beyond where they lie now, and how over the years LA power brokers have carved out large chunks of the neighborhood. The site where Parker Center stands now used to be a part of Little Tokyo. Endo said that for many in the Japanese community the building represented prejudice and opression.

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A view of Parker Center from First Street

So at the hearing in 2016 the CPC heard two very different versions of what Parker Center means. And really, I think the discussion was moot. The Conservancy’s efforts delayed the process, but I believe it was decided long ago that the building’s coming down. The Board of Public Works will be reeciving bids for demolition through February 21. It will probably be gone by the end of the year.

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The main entrance to the building.  The sculpture, by Tony Rosenthal, is meant to depict a policeman protecting a family.

As to what’s going to replace it, I think that’s still an open question. While the City has an ambitious master plan for Civic Center, nobody knows where they’ll get the money to build it. The plan lays out a long-term vision with multiple phases, and it could be years before any real decisions are made. If you want to learn more, check out this article from the Downtown News.

New Civic Center Master Plan

(* Sam Fuller fans may remember that Parker Center is featured in The Crimson Kimono. Shot in Downtown during the late 50s, the film spends a good deal of time documenting life in Little Tokyo. It’s an amazing view of the community at that time.)

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To Have and Have Not

Bilt Where Will

I was so bummed. I desperately wanted to go to UCLA’s 32nd Annual Land Use Law & Planning Conference. Unfortunately, the $535 registration fee was a little too pricey for me. But just the thrill of being close to all the movers and shakers who were attending the conference drew me to Downtown. Even though I couldn’t afford to go in I just stood on the sidewalk across from the Biltmore, gazing up at the windows where I knew the attendees were debating lots of heavy issues.

Bilt Angle

The conference brochure definitely made it sound cool. They had a bunch of high-powered attorneys and consultants on hand to talk about CEQA reform, the housing crisis, infrastructure and other important stuff. And beyond all those big, heavy issues, they even found time for a session entitled Community, Health, and Planning for Environmental Justice. I mean, okay, they kind of jammed that into a half hour slot along with about half a dozen other topics, but I’m sure they covered everything they needed to.

Unfortunately, my reverie was interrupted by a bunch of noisy protesters who were standing nearby, holding signs and chanting slogans. What were they complaining about? Well, they were angry because one of the speakers was Sacramento superstar Scott Wiener, the Senator from San Francisco. The protesters had a problem with a bill the Senator just introduced, SB 827, which takes zoning authority away from cities. Wiener says if we override local zoning to allow developers to build housing up to eight stories along transit corridors, we can solve both our housing problems and fight climate change. Doesn’t that sound great? According to Wiener, his bill will let developers build tons of new units so housing prices will definitely go down. And because the new units are close to transit, everybody will dump their car and jump on the train.

I wonder if anybody at the conference asked Wiener about a recent report from UCLA that shows transit ridership is way down in Southern California, even though local officials have been approving pretty much any crazy project developers propose as long as it’s near transit. If so, I really would’ve liked to hear his response. I’m sure Wiener had a ready answer for the cynics who point out that in New York housing is still outrageously expensive even though the city has been building tens of thousands of new units every year. And so what if cities like Vancouver and Toronto have thousands of units sitting empty while middle-income and low-income families struggle to pay the rent? Foreign investors need homes, too, although, okay, maybe they don’t always really need them.

Bilt Speaker

At lunch all the power players adjourned to the Gold Room, where they heard the keynote address from Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Rothstein apparently talked about how federal, state, and local governments have implemented and upheld racist policies to create and maintain segregated communities since this country’s inception. Of course, he’s absolutely right. I wonder if he spoke about the fact that many of these policies were formed as a result of intense lobbying by development and real estate interests that wanted to protect their investments? Kind of like the development and real estate interests that are pouring money into Sacramento right now. It would’ve been nice to hear what he had to say about research from the Urban Displacement Project, which shows that current government policies promoting transit-oriented development have resulted in gentrification, pushing low-income people of color away from transit hubs in LA and the Bay Area.

Bilt Hand

Even though I was standing across the street, I could feel the soothing vibrations emanating from the collective wealth and wisdom gathered inside the Biltmore. So what if most of these people make six figures, live in single-family homes, and drive nice cars? So what if most of them rarely ride transit and never had to worry about getting evicted? They’ve got college degrees and lots of money and they go to a lot of conferences. They’re well qualified to tell the rest of us what to do about housing and transit.

But the protesters kept disrupting all the good vibes I was getting from the Biltmore. I guess some of them are facing eviction, or they’ve already been evicted, and they’re ticked off because they’re losing their homes. Yeah, okay, that’s a bummer. But they need to trust the folks inside the Bltmore. All we need to do is listen to people like Scott Wiener and let developers build tons of new housing around transit. Just because the median income for people living around rail lines in LA is mostly between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, and they could never afford the new units, which usually start around $2,000 a month, is no reason to keep the developers at bay. I’m sure at some point we’ll have such a housing glut that these new units will lose 50% of their value, and then the families that were kicked out could return to their neighborhoods.

So, okay, it could take decades. And yeah, it might never actually happen. But that’s no reason to rethink policies that are displacing the poor and destroying communities.

Is it?

Bilt No Nos

 

Going Gray in LA

Going Gray in LA

Today I was down at the Central Library and stumbled across a very cool show about growing old in Los Angeles. Journalist Ruxandra Guidi and photographer Bear Guerra spent time with seniors living in four communities along Broadway: Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Downtown and South LA. The show is called Going Gray in LA: Stories of Aging Along Broadway, and it documents a side of the city that most of us pay little attention to. The images the media presents of LA are generally focussed on the young and beautiful. Senior citizens, unless they’re rich and famous, are usually ignored.

You can see the show like I did, in two small galleries on the first floor of the Central Library.

Going Gray in LA at Los Angeles Central Library

If you do make the trip Downtown, you can pick up a free print version of the material, with text in English, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese.

You also have the option of viewing the images and stories on KCRW’s web site.

Going Gray in LA at KCRW

Either way, you should check it out. The images are beautiful and the stories open a window on a world most of us don’t pay enough attention to.