CalArts recently hosted a panel discussion at REDCAT in Downtown Los Angeles to debate the question, Does L.A. need a downtown? In order to highlight the importance of the diverse cultural milieu offered by Downtown, TPR presents the following excerpts from that event, including the introduction by CalArts President Steve Lavine and a thorough discussion of current opportunities to improve Downtown by CRA/LA CEO Cecilia Estolano.
Steve Lavine: For CalArts, building REDCAT Downtown-not on our campus 40 miles from here-was a real decision to tie our fate to the fate of Downtown Los Angeles. This is in part a political decision, saying that despite all the centrifugal forces that have pulled L.A. into a multi-centered place, and despite the wired world that now ties those multi-centers to other centers everywhere, we still believe that there were political, social, and artistic reasons to generate counter-pull toward some sort of centrality.
Artistically, we believe that much of the most interesting art comes from the meeting of different cultures and communities. Socially, we believe that sharing space and performance can help create a sense of shared community, and under the right circumstances, that sense of shared community can lead to shared political action. In my experience, art matters most when there is a political social correlate-not that the art necessarily has political and social content, but that there is a political and social correlate to the art. But that's for another discussion...
...We begin tonight's forum with the question, Does L.A. need a downtown? As a way of asking whether the vision I just articulated is a kind of act of empty nostalgia for shared political and social action or whether something like this could still be applicable and be a part of the fate of our city.
Cecilia Estolano: The question of whether we need a downtown is irrelevant, because we have a downtown. When I define Downtown, it's not the corporate headquarters-the soulless Bunker Hill, which my agency built in the last 60 years. I define Downtown as the immigrant entrepreneurial spirit that has created social and cultural pluralism within districts-Broadway, the Toy District, the Produce District, the Flower Market. If you think of all of the diverse districts that represent Downtown, it's just as diverse and as strong as Los Angeles itself. That is Downtown.
Thus, the question is not whether we need a downtown-we have a downtown-it's what is the downtown that we want? We're trying to rebuild a downtown of angels, not of demons, a downtown that is economically diverse, that is not just about the corporate elite, and that is about the aspirations of the immigrants and entrepreneurial spirit that made this a great city and has always made it a great city...
I want to talk a little bit about where we are going with Downtown. I agree that a downtown has to play several roles. It needs to be a place where people get out. It's a place where we celebrate great victories, like the Lakers, but it also needs to be a place where we gather for protests and dissent. It's a place where we mourn together. It's a place where we express what we need. In a place that has multiple nuclei, like Los Angeles does, we need a downtown more than any other city. We need it psychically. We have appropriated public space into our back yards or into the balconies of our little apartments in Palms or Van Nuys or wherever we live. We need a place to gather and flow and express an outpouring of emotions because we are, by nature, a gregarious species.
We also, by nature, love to have serendipitous experiences. We need a place where we can gather in moments of great emotional energy. We also need a place of surprise. In a place that is as economically, racially, and culturally segregated as Los Angeles, we need a place like Downtown to walk down a street like Broadway, then turn up 6th Street, and then walk down Hill Street, and experience all the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles. And we can do that here. We also need a place where we can experiment. Because Downtown is old (for Los Angeles it is old) we have a place that reinvents itself continually. What we did here in Bunker Hill was we took beautiful Victorian homes and mowed them down to create the soulless corporate center that is Bunker Hill-where I used to work as a land use and environmental lawyer. We created the kind of space that represented the '50s and '60s version of a downtown. At the same time we also maintained a historic core-we didn't mow down all those districts.
Now what you see is a new residential population in Downtown. That is the difference between where we are now and where we were 15 years ago in the '90s, when we had the last Downtown. We are here; we're not just about people working during the daytime hours in corporate jobs at corporate headquarters. The good news and the bad news is that Los Angeles is no longer a corporate headquarters. When all of the corporate mergers occurred, there were no corporate headquarters-they merged out of existence.
Also good news and bad news: we did have industrialization. We do have those industrial places that could be reinvented for whole industries, which is what we are going to do in Downtown. We are going to take the beautiful industrial areas that are underutilized-the pallet yards and recycling centers-and create the center for cleantech manufacturing of this country. Why would we do this? Because we already have it dispersed throughout the region. It is looking for a place to congregate, where people with great ideas and great vision and inventiveness and risk taking will gather together and grow together.
The CRA/LA has a 20-acre site called the Cleantech Manufacturing Center. We are going to make that the hub of a cleantech manufacturing district-a cleantech corridor along the Los Angeles River. We are going to take that corridor-ranging from the Cornfields in the North all the way to our cleantech manufacturing site on 16th site along the L.A. River-and make the best of what we have, reinventing ourselves. We are going to have an R&D facility up in the northern part of the cornfields. We are going to use that artist loft district, which is a really hot location for artists and designers and architects, and tell engineers and designers that want to build the new cleantech inventions of the future to come here: here is where you want to congregate-where you can live, work, design, and share ideas. A little bit further down you will have the light manufacturing and incubator stage, where you can implement ideas. You'll have interesting ideas for office space for venture capitalists that want to be near where the ideas are generated. A little further south, there is plenty of space to build the technology that will power the future of this country and the world.
Los Angeles doesn't just have cultural capital. We have three of the top universities in the country: UCLA, USC, and CalTech. We have some of the best commercialization and inventions of any place in the world. We have the entertainment capital, which isn't just about movies. It's also about new media, about gaming-I don't get gaming, but I know it is important. We have all of that happening in Los Angeles. What a place to locate-and it's not just the Westside.
If we want to reinvent Downtown, we must have public space. The most important thing that is happening, other than the cleantech corridor, is the Los Angeles River revitalization. If we revitalize the L.A. River to be a mix of beautiful, green open space, soccer fields, and also campus-like R&D and light manufacturing facilities, we would transform this region and the country. We've turned our back on the river in the past, and we have de-industrialized along the river in the last 20 years. The good news about that is that we can reinvent ourselves along the river; it can become the spine of a regenerated Los Angeles.
What we must do is take advantage of our natural advantages: the brain power of the folks that come here, not just from other parts of the United States, but from all over the world. We have the best weather that there is anyplace in the world. We have leadership that gets how catastrophic this downturn is and how we need to do something new about this-fundamentally reinvest in our urban core. We also have great manufacturing areas. We also have a great workforce-and potential for a great skilled workforce. All of this is in Los Angeles, so what we can do is make Los Angeles and Downtown the center for a new industry that will be in the 21st century what aerospace in the 20th century.
Aerospace sent my siblings and me to UCLA, USC, Stanford, Harvard, and UC Santa Cruz. It did that for a Mexican-American family whose father was an aerospace worker that worked his way up. We have kids that are now going to the L.A. Unified School District-God help them, because 50 percent of them will not graduate and of those that do graduate most will barely be able to read. We also have the L.A. Community College District, which understands that to prepare workers for the new economy is the central mission of what they are doing. What we have is the potential to create a highly skilled workforce of manufacturing folks who, just as they can be garment workers or work at auto body shops, furniture manufacturing facilities, or bio med facilities, they can also become cleantech and greentech workers. These folks can become the center of the new economy in Los Angeles.
How does this relate to Downtown? Spatially, it's located here. When we were reviewing the city's industrial zones, myself and Gail Goldberg, the director of City Planning, only a year ago, we were pulled into a debate about whether we ought to retain industrial and manufacturing zoning in the city of Los Angeles or whether we ought to allow all residential. Supporters of the latter argued that we don't have any manufacturing in L.A., so why retain industrial zones? Not true-Los Angeles is the largest manufacturing center in the country. What we need to do is repurpose that manufacturing, preserve those job zones at all costs, and, if we can, expand them and increase the value of those jobs by creating green zones near them and integrating mixed use development near those job zones to make them attractive to the creative class. We can bring the creative to Downtown Los Angeles by making it a beautiful, attractive, livable, walkable place, and we will have a new economy that is going to drive this city for another 30 or 40 years. But it will take an intentional, strategic, and bold approach.
The other thing I want to say about Downtown is we also need to worry about the space itself. We've overly master-planned it. There is not a single spontaneous site along Grand Avenue. We need to focus now away from the mega projects into spontaneity. What are the interesting little places we can create-the little bookstores, the little funky houses, the little cool retail spaces? One of my jobs is to keep those retailers in business. All those cool retailers keep people living Downtown, wanting to stay in Downtown.
All the people in Downtown want to be together. There is a reason they don't just go their lofts and sit at a computer all night. They want to go to a café; they want to go to REDCAT; they want to go to MOCA. They want to be together. The creative class needs stimulus. We are a gregarious species, and though we can do this online, we'd much rather actually be together. That is what a downtown is in every other part of the world.
We in L.A. have designed away public space. So what do we have to do? We have to design it back in. Even if we design tiny pocket parks, people will find and occupy and make them their own. People appropriate any scrap of private space they can find. Public space cannot be controlled. There is already public space: it's called Broadway. Broadway is not dead on the weekends. Broadway creates the greatest amount of per capita sales of any place in the city. Why? It's pro-Latino, but every spare inch of that place is covered in retail sales. There are countless other spaces like that in Downtown.
The question is not whether L.A. has a downtown, it's what kind of downtown we have. A downtown should be filled with experimentation, public spaces, opportunities for new industries, places where creative classes come together, and cultural and entertainment venues that aren't exclusively corporate. As much as I am appreciative of the jobs created by L.A. Live and the tremendous spirit and energy that comes out of having the brands there, I still think it would be wonderful to have more serendipitous and authentic spaces for Downtown.
The CRA/LA is going to spend the next three to five years working on those authentic spaces. Capital is not going to flow to major projects for the next two or three years, but it might flow, with a little bit of public support, to the kind of smaller retail spaces that those of you who live Downtown really want to experience...
...When you say you're from Los Angeles, you are proud of the fact that it is the most diverse city in America. You wish you could experience it more. The place you experience it more than other place in Los Angeles is in Downtown. That's the Downtown we are creating: public space, experimentation, a place for dissent, a place for celebration, a place to rebuild our economy. It can all happen Downtown, but we have to actually plan, and we have to actually invest, and we have to not be afraid to be strategic and intentional.