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Walking in L.A.: Downtown Is a Big, Expensive Urban Experiment

Part four in Walking in L.A., a GOOD miniseries by Ryan Bradley on transportation in Los Angeles and what it's like to get across the entire city on foot.

Sunday arrives warm and glorious and I wake up feeling terrible. I've walked myself into a hangover.

What happened yesterday was this: After heading east on Jefferson Boulevard for an hour, past barber shops adorned with beautiful murals and tiny taquerías with bars over the windows and a frail woman who squatted in the middle of the street and barked at traffic, I was tired. Most pedestrians—even slow ones—can cover three miles in 60 minutes, but after walking 13-plus miles from LAX, my pace really dropped off. The problem was either my shoes (boots, actually) or my socks (the heavy wool kind). I thought hiking gear would work in the urban jungle.

Between the sun and the boots and the wool my feet were tenderized, and by the time I reached USC I ached like I had traveled for days and could feel one big toe turning into a single mega-blister. I sat down on a lawn, took off my boots and socks and let my feet have a rest, and took in the sudden strangeness of the USC campus. In 2008, USC introduced the "University Park Campus Master Plan" which, among its guiding principles, seeks to "encourage and participate in neighborhood development." But the real changes—the narrowing of Jefferson to make it pedestrian friendly, the rail line stations— all happen within a few blocks of the school's campus. For a university that is the largest employer in town other than the city itself, which claims to add $4 billion a year to the local economy and boasts an endowment larger than the GDP of Gambia, this seems like a weak effort. The "Master Plan" feels more like an attempt to create a nice buffer around campus for students to live and shop in, and the contrast between the red-brick-and-ivy university and its surroundings is still dramatic.

From USC I marched north on Figueroa Street, east on Adams, then north again up Grand, passing by warehouses and parking structures, Los Angeles Trade and Technical College, and the immense Glory Church of Jesus Christ and its building-sized mural of Jesus, hand extended, bursting through aquamarine waves. After another hour I reached downtown, and eventually found my friend's apartment on South 8th Street and Grand.

I showered and we headed out for the evening. The first stop was Cole's, the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles, for French dip sandwiches. Afterwards, we stopped in at the Varnish Room, a semi-secret wood-paneled cocktail bar hidden within Cole's. We ended the night at Seven Grand, a bar that's styled after the old places like Cole's but has only been open a few years, where I had whisky and played a bad game of pool. The whole evening, going from crowded restaurant to speakeasy to bar, I was thinking: This is like some Los Angeles of the past, from The Big Sleep maybe, only instead of Bogart and Bacall there are a bunch of yuppies. I mulled over my generation's—hell, every generation's—nostalgia for a Los Angeles past. One whiskey led to another and, well, here it is 9 a.m. on a Sunday and I need coffee and Advil for my feet and head both.

I splash some water on my face and go outside. Based on last night's downtown performance I suppose that in a few blocks I will find a nice cafe owned by a French ex-pat. Maybe there will be fresh croissants. How wrong I am.

On a bright and sunny Sunday morning downtown Los Angeles is like a western before the big shootout—everything's still except for the wind. I hobble past the Trinity Auditorium Building, the first home of the L.A. Philharmonic, now boarded up and abandoned, then west on South 9th Street past new construction (glass and steel, condos mostly). A ragged-looking gentleman hobbles towards me spouting menacing crazytalk. I walk on, past what feels like miles upon miles of empty parking lots.

If you took all of the parking spaces in Los Angeles's central business district and spread them horizontally in a surface lot, they would cover 81 percent of downtown. I know this because of a paper called "People, Parking, and Cities" by Michael Manville and Donald Shoup at UCLA's Department of Urban Planning. This “parking coverage rate,” they write, is "higher in downtown L.A. than in any other downtown on earth. In San Francisco, for instance, the coverage rate is 31 percent, and in New York it is only 18 percent." Their paper goes on to show how this glut of parking keeps downtown from having a vibrant city center, because downtowns in general "thrive on high density ... the prime advantage they offer over other parts of a metropolitan area is proximity—the immediate availability of a wide variety of activities.... So long as its zoning assumes that almost every new person will also bring a car—and requires parking for that car," they conclude "[downtown Los Angeles] will never develop the sort of vital core we associate with older urban centers."

I walk south on Figueroa and into L.A. Live, one of the biggest private developments in Los Angeles history, and the city's latest attempt to establish some kind of center among the empty lots. In her ur-text for urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs describes the city as "an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success..." If the city is a laboratory, then L.A. Live is a $2.5-billion, 4-million-square-foot experiment that I do not understand. Flanked by the Staples Center arena and a newly completed 54-story hotel and condo tower (the city's tallest residential building), L.A. Live boasts an ESPN Zone restaurant and bar, a Nokia Theater, and a Trader Vics. The Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne says it best, writing that L.A. Live is "fundamentally not really architecture at all but an extensive series of armatures on which the developer and its tenants can hang logos, video screens and a sophisticated range of lighting effects." Let me tell you: At 10:30 on a Sunday morning, no one wants to see giant video screens. Also, the ESPN Zone sucks as a substitute coffee shop.

Despite my Sunday morning pre-coffee angst, something must be going right here in downtown Los Angeles, where there's been a nearly 40 percent increase in the population for the past two years, back to back. Even here, against the glint of the sun off the steel and the annoying video screens, people are out in, well, maybe not in great numbers. But there are about a dozen pedestrians in sight. And my friend's loft apartment? It used to be a parking lot. To hear him tell it, the downtown of just three years ago was even emptier on weekends. "We used to stand on our balcony and yell 'Is anybody out there?' and nobody was. A car driving by was like an event."

From Figueroa I take Flower to Grand to Olive to Hill and suddenly, I'm at Angels Flight, "The World's Shortest Railway," and it's running. When the tiny funicular railway opened on New Year's Eve in 1901, running a short way up 3rd Street and Hill to the top of Bunker Hill, passengers got a free ride and a shot of fruit punch. I hop aboard and the car fills up with passengers. We pay a quarter at the top and it feels like a steal. The two brown-trimmed orange carriages were dismantled in 1969, and the rest of this historic urban neighborhood, Victorian houses and all, got bulldozed and rebuilt in the 1970s. After it was moved and opened and shut down again in 2001, the railway started running once more just weeks ago.

But the new Bunker Hill is nothing like the old Bunker Hill—it's like L.A. Live. The railway opens up to an empty plaza with a strange stage filled with water, buttressed by tall pillars of fancy lighting for effects. A German man approaches me. "Excuse me," he says, "Do you have any idea what's around here?" I don't. Not really. The cityscape Angels Flight empties into could stand in for a downtown anywhere. It's built up but says nothing, asks nothing, demands nothing. If people are going to engage with a city by walking or biking or taking Segway tours through it, there's got to be something to engage with. Lighting effects and video screens, no matter how fancy, don't cut it.

I walk from Bunker Hill to Broadway, which is now packed with the beginnings of a Mexican street festival. I hear music in the distance and smell that artificially sweet tang of cotton candy in the air. In a sense, downtown Los Angeles is a microcosm of the rest of the city. There are vibrant, bustling pockets just a stone's throw from seemingly empty corridors.

Los Angeles's conspicuous lack of a single, dense center hides an interesting fact though. Believe it or not, greater Los Angeles is actually the most densely populated "urbanized area" (a city plus its suburbs) in the United States. The authors of "People, Parking, and Cities" explain:

Without doubt, the cities of New York and San Francisco are denser than the city of L.A. But sprawl is a regional attribute, and Los Angeles has much denser suburbs than New York or San Francisco. Indeed, the L.A. region’s distinguishing characteristic may be the uniformity of its density; its suburbs have 82 percent of the density of its central city. In contrast, New York’s suburban density is a mere 12 percent...New York and San Francisco look like Hong Kong surrounded by Phoenix, while Los Angeles looks like Los Angeles surrounded by ... well, Los Angeles.

Still, it's not always welcoming for the pedestrian. If not for all the attempts to allow its citizens to live in their own domestic bubbles, to drive cars everywhere and always find parking, Los Angeles might just force some life into its downtown streets. It might no longer look like itself, but from where I'm standing, right now, that isn't such a bad thing.

By 2014, these three pieces of urban L.A.—Broadway, Bunker Hill, and L.A. Live—will all be connected by streetcar. The project will cost is an estimated $95 million. I wonder if, for $95 million, the city can buy back the personality it bulldozed out of downtown. The city is a lab and the experiment continues. I walk on.

Next up: When you talk about transportation in Los Angeles you're also talking about race in Los Angeles, and that gets dicey real quick.

Photos by Ryan Bradley.

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