The shadow of the City of Angels

It is always nice to return to the ‘old rubbish’, i.e. to places to which one has become attached, to which one has a weakness, which evoke fond memories. Almost always during such returns one finds: “how things have changed here!”. Often, but not always. Returning to downtown Los Angeles provides an opportunity for a classic déjà vu. The city is not changing as quickly and radically as one might expect. As a result, in order to write this article, I was able to quietly revisit the notes I took almost 10 years ago.

Los Angeles is not an ordinary city, but a huge, endless, urban sprawl. It is so sprawling that the idea of walking from one shop to another seems downright ridiculous. You’re guaranteed to get bogged down in traffic and spend at least half an hour in the car, whether you’re trying to take the motorway or the local streets.

The move of residents to the distant suburbs has completely changed the face of the city centre. This change has not been a change for the better. Downtown became a place you didn’t go to very often, and left as quickly as possible. Downtown Los Angeles is a relatively small area that, by its size, proportionally reflects the size of the city in the 1930s. In this historic area, a GPS is no longer necessary. All you need is a standard tourist guide and some good advice given by locals. The gentlemen who are part of the legendary institution of American urban culture

Turn left, left and left again

For some, ‘valet parking’ is one of the most convenient, for others the most annoying thing to do when pulling up outside a hotel or restaurant. Resolute gentlemen politely, but firmly, try to snatch the car keys from the hands of approaching guests. For a mere $50-$60 they are able to quickly park your car, somewhere in the deep depths of the underground car park belonging to the place you are visiting. If you fail to defend yourself against them, you are guaranteed a salty bill and a long wait for your own car, which they are “just looking for” and which “will be substituted in a moment”, in a few hours or the following morning. And it is this moment, usually about 20 minutes, that is the perfect time to exchange valuable information with locals about what, where and how to see in the city centre without wasting time unnecessarily. It may come as a surprise that the whole of downtown Los Angeles can be explored in two hours. If you were staying in one of the downtown hotels, the advice from the locals would probably be very simple and would boil down to the following tips: Walk down towards Pershing Square (by “down” they would mean down really steep streets comparable to those in San Francisco), from Pershing Square continue walking through the jewellers, theatres and banks districts, at Spring Street turn left, turn left again and you will reach the cultural centre with its concert halls, Disney hall and new museums; after a few hundred metres, take the traditional left turn towards the high-rise district, which is the largest concentration of high-rise buildings west of Chicago. After two hours of walking, you are back at your hotel with a clear conscience of having seen the highlights of downtown Los Angeles. All you have to do is follow the indicated line and keep turning left, left and left again.

Central Park?

Even the first kilometre of the walk promises extraordinary experiences and views. In Pershing Square, it is worth taking a look at a hotel that has been a symbol of the city for decades – the Biltmore Hotel. It is an 11-storey building intended to be a synthesis of Spanish colonial architecture and French Beaux Arts style. This mix of styles has been tacked onto a solid steel structure, the kind commonly used in the construction of American skyscrapers in the early 20th century. The hotel, which is easily accessible to any passer-by from street level, features an extraordinary accumulation of impressive frescoes, marble fountains, wooden coffers, crystal chandeliers, bronze doors and staircases, draperies, and other opulent details. These decorate both the hotel itself and the numerous ballrooms, banquet halls and shopping mall. This is where the mighty of this world have stayed for almost a century. In 1929, the German Graf Zeppelin and the crew of his airship stopped for a short rest during an around-the-world voyage. This is where the Hollywood Oscars were presented in the 1930s. It was here that the Democratic Party Congress elected John Kennedy as its candidate for President of the USA. It is still a tradition for the hotel to host receptions for the guests of the annual Grammy music awards.

Interior of Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles
The edifice that has been a symbol of the city for decades - the Biltmore Hotel ©Stalmar Publikation

From this fairy-tale palace, you can walk right out onto the small Pershing Square, which used to be uber-named Central Park. The square is still small, but it is certainly no longer a ‘park’ of any kind. There is not much greenery here, in contrast to the number of parking spaces in the underground car park built under the ‘park’ in the mid-20th century. However, at the beginning of the last century it was a green oasis with exotic trees and shrubs growing in the heart of a rapidly expanding city. It was a favourite place for strolls and meetings. Rows of shaded benches were surrounded by impressive flowerbeds. The square has been redeveloped several times according to what was considered fashionable and progressive in the past decades.

After the last redevelopment in the 1990s, almost all the trees providing soothing shade disappeared and the lawns were replaced by walking paths. The modest presence of greenery, combined with the purple and yellow colour scheme of the small architecture, has made Pershing Square, without discussion, one of the ugliest squares in downtown Los Angeles. Those who visit the place, however, are not regular city dwellers. Most of them sleep on the lawns, with all their belongings under their heads, i.e. a backpack, bag or suitcase. They are often people who have come to the city to look around. Unable to pay for even the cheapest hostel, they are camping out here, taking advantage of the fact that the square is one of the best-attended places in the city centre and gives a relative sense of security.

Pershing Square in Los Angeles
Pershing Square is, without debate, one of the ugliest squares in downtown Los Angeles. In the back - a classic - the Biltmore Hotel ©S. Borisov, Shutterstock

Don't lift your eyes above the shop window

From the square it’s only a few steps to Hill Street, once one of the main shopping streets of the inner city. Today, the street is fondly referred to as the Jewelry District. The number of advertisements for businesses trading and processing jewellery, precious stones and bullion can indeed be impressive, but only if you don’t lift your gaze above the shop window or first floor. The offices, commercial premises and flats on the upper floors stand empty, camouflaged by the crumbling shutters. Tenants disappeared definitively from these magnificent buildings as early as the 1980s. Business moved to high-rise buildings in the new financial centre along Figueroa Street and Wilshire Boulevard. Residents moved to the suburbs, and those who came here on business followed a drive-in and drive-out practice. It meant that newcomers did their work here and then promptly left the area, which looked less and less like the busy centre of a large American city.

Jewlry District, Hill Street, Los Angeles
Jewlry District, Hill Street, Los Angeles ©Stalmar Publikation

After walking one block from Hill Street, one reaches Broadway Street, which in the first half of the 20th century was the city’s main street with its many nightclubs, theatres, and cinemas. This is where wealthy residents came to shop at the city’s top department stores such as: Hamburger & Sons, May Company, JW Robinson’s and Bullock’s. Here, too, there has been a radical change. Anonymous George, in a comment on an article in Los Angeles Magazine, quite aptly pointed out the difference between Broadway in the 1940s and Broadway today: Broadway has always been an important walking street. The difference, however, is that it used to be filled with beautiful shops, great theatres, huge department stores and a crowded shopping middle class. Today, the same street is a place of cheap shops, dirty mobile phone ‘salons’, closed theatres and crammed with immigrants too poor to buy anything here.

Broadway Strepet in Los Angeles, in the first half of the 20th centur
Broadway Strepet, in the first half of the 20th century was the main street of the city. This is where wealthy residents came to shop at the city's best department stores ©Lee, Russell, Library of Congress

Credit: NASS

Most of the surviving monumental buildings stand empty, and their ground floors are home to shops, kiosks, church halls, bars and other establishments where often everyone – owners and customers alike – speaks only Spanish. The upper floors are occasionally used as natural settings for Hollywood films, even those of the action genre, where a small fire or minor detonation has to be set for the sake of the plot. You can see what this looks like on screen by watching the popular Rush Hour picture starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.

Broadway Street, Los Angeles
Today Broadway Street is a place of cheap shops and dirty mobile phone 'salons' ©Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress

“Wall Street of the West”

 After walking another few hundred metres, we come to Spring Street or, as it used to be called, the “Wall Street of the West”. This is where banks and financial institutions had their headquarters. To this day, the headquarters of major banks are located here, in excellent condition: Bank of America, Barclays Bank, California Canadian Bank, Lloyds Bank California, Pacific Southwest Bank, United California Bank, Los Angeles Stock Exchange. The buildings bravely hold up for decades to come without systematic maintenance. The audience visiting the site has changed. In the early 1980s, the Los Angeles Times described Spring Street as a place where visitors live in the gates and pee on the pavements. Big business moved six blocks away, to the new ‘Wall Street of the West’, and Spring Street was left to the hooligans, the homeless and the local drunks.

Over the past 30-40 years, the inner city, with its magnificent streets and edifices, has gradually declined. However, better new times are on the horizon. After 2013, a great deal of interest in the area was noticed among young, well-off people, the so-called hipsters. They began to change the character of the neighbourhood with their presence, resulting in new places and phenomena previously unknown in the area, such as cycle paths, tiny parks, dog runs, nightclubs, and coffee bars. However, it is still an atypical inner city, even for the USA. As many as 42% of central Los Angeles residents were born outside the States.

Strange tarpaulin cardboard structures

On reaching Spring Street, as previously advised, one would need to turn left to reach the new town hall. Most tourists do this, but not all. After all, how can one change the direction of a tour when there are still streets such as Wall Street or Main Street ahead? In every American city, you have to visit Main. In any downtown, Wall Street is a kind of curiosity. If one continues walking just in the direction of these streets, after walking a few hundred metres one notices an unusual sight on either side of 5th Street and the streets parallel to it. Along the walls of the buildings, strange constructions of cardboard or blue tarpaulins begin to appear. On the pavement, on patches of greenery, there are pitched tents and shacks. Parked trolleys from shopping centres serving as handy storage facilities can be seen next to many of them. There is no doubt that we have arrived at Los Angeles’ most famous address (perhaps excluding Sunset or Hollywood Boulevard). Everyone has heard of this address, but only a handful of people have the courage and inclination to visit this famous place.

Los Angeles homelessness
A global metropolis of people whose home is the city's pavements ©Stalmar Publikation

The notorious and dreaded Skid Row, the largest homeless district in the western world, presents itself in all its glory. Almost 50 quarters of streets lying from Main to Alameda and between 3rd Street and 7th Street form a global metropolis of people whose home is the city’s pavements. This unfortunate home to thousands of homeless people is part of the city’s painful history.

Skid Row, Los Angeles
Skid Row - everyone has heard of this address, but only a handful of people have the courage and inclination to visit this famous place ©Russ Allison Loar, Wikipedia Commons

The beginnings were idyllic

In the 19th century, magnificent vineyards stretched here employing thousands of seasonal workers. After the transcontinental railway was brought to the city, this place became the first stop for workers arriving here. Temporary low-cost housing, hotels and bars were built here. It was on Skid Row that poor immigrants from other parts of the United States flocked to Skid Row, especially in the 1930s, during the Great Depression and the disastrous Dust Bowl storms raging across the South and Midwest. Here lived those who appeared each morning in the fields, in the orchards and under the factory gates. Hundreds of thousands of poor immigrants were called ‘Okies’ or ‘Arkies’ (from Oklahoma and Arkansas) no matter where they came from. What they had in common was not their geographical origin, but their shared poverty and will to survive the greatest crisis in American history. After the Second World War, despite growing prosperity, Skid Row continued to be overrun with the poor – customers of cheap hotels, numerous liquor shops, pawn shops and squalid entertainment theatres.

 The real shock to the neighbourhood came with the systematic implementation of strict fire regulations that required the rebuilding and strengthening of brick houses to withstand even violent earthquakes. Across California, 70% of the 26,000 buildings were reinforced or demolished. If the owners did not have the money to rebuild their houses or hotels, the buildings were demolished and people were put on the pavement. This was what happened most often in the Skid Row area.

In January 2015, it was counted exactly how many homeless people live in Los Angeles, and counted 44,390 people living primarily on the streets, but also in their cars, tents or shelters. It is the second largest concentration of homeless people in the US, after New York. What differs between New York and Los Angeles is that in California, most of the homeless do not find a place in shelters, which are widely available in New York. A large proportion of the 44,390 homeless people live on the streets, especially in the Skid Row area. As many as 50% of all homeless people are African-American, 33% are Hispanic and 14% are white citizens. It is rare for the homeless to be Asian.

Homeless community lures new members

The reasons for homelessness are quite obvious: high rents, low wages and constant unemployment. Proximity to Mexico and easy access to drugs also play a big part. But these are not the only reasons for homelessness. Homeless people from all over the country, and partly from abroad, are attracted by the ‘Californian dream’. A similar ‘magnet’ acts on much better-off immigrant groups. The fantastic climate, the tolerant atmosphere of California and the large homeless community that already exists here lure new members of this tragic collective.

 Each economic crisis has increased the number of homeless people. In 2015, there were at least 26,000 of them living in this small area, of which almost 40% were women. Two-thirds of them were victims of violence and rape. There is a growing number of homeless people who suffer from mental and physical disabilities and therefore require specialised care. Homeless men, women, the sick and disabled often become a tool in the hands of criminals who store and distribute weapons and drugs in Skid Row.

The people of Los Angeles react to this unfortunate place and the population of people camped here with indifference. This situation has been going on for so long that they have had time to get used to it and consider it almost natural. It is believed to be a matter for the police, who should take appropriate action. By ‘appropriate action’, residents understand the elimination of this community, as the presence of homeless people reduces the value of surrounding properties. For most Los Angeles citizens, solving the problem is tantamount to police and social action to curb drug abuse, begging and petty crime.

Some residents, especially those who do not live in close proximity to Skid Row, are more forgiving. They believe that even the homeless have their rights, which must be guaranteed. This solidarity with people living on the streets has also found formal confirmation. A court decision in 2007 acknowledged that, because pavements are public property and not private property, no one can be prevented from using them.  In other words, homeless people can sleep on pavements, but only between 9pm and 6am. However, you cannot sleep in gates or on pavements belonging to the property and you cannot block pedestrian crossings either. Although the pavements are partly free of homeless encampments, there are not many people willing to walk along those streets. Tourist offices and hotels explicitly advise people not to venture into these areas during the day, and especially not after nightfall.

Credit: Arthur Moore

From Death Valley to the Land of the Dormant

It might have seemed that life in the mansions of Newerly Hills and the streets of Skid Row would fill the full scale of the possibilities of existence in this special place whose name is Los Angeles. It turns out that even death is not the definitive end. If you’re from L.A. and you have money, you should die and be buried with a cut.

The rich have a hard time accepting blackness, sadness and crosses as attributes of an earthly life that has ended. Here there is no place for ugly, depressing, stone cemeteries. California’s eternal sunshine offers a better way of honouring the dead than gloomy necropolises – now cemeteries were meant to be not a place of farewells, but a gathering of the living with those who have passed on. Instead of macabre symbols of death, the beautiful was to be exposed: trees, sprawling lawns, small streams, trickling fountains, sculptures and magnificent architecture. People, even after death, were to be surrounded by beauty and the serene love of loved ones. A man who decided to show death as something that was full of peace, beauty and sublimity created the cemetery of the future. His name was Dr Hubert Eaton. Back in 1917, he set up his first Memorial Park in Glendale, where separate cemetery plots and massive headstones were removed. A few years later he built a similar site at Hollywood Hill. To guarantee peace of mind and respite to the suffering families of the deceased, his company also offered a complete service over the phone even ‘before the actual need’. His beautiful funerals in the morning, meticulously manicured meadows where, instead of headstones, name badges of the deceased were laid almost invisibly in the grass, gained extraordinary fame and popularity. Instead of soulless plot numbers, the graves of loved ones were searched for in places with romantic names: the Valley of Remembrance, Whispering Pines or Land of the Dormant. The name ‘cemetery’ was dropped from use, replaced by romantic terms such as: Forest Lawn, Memorial Park or Home of Peace. These were to be places of contemplation, where ongoing life was enriched with beauty, energy and optimism.

Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Los Angeles
Forest Lawn Memorial Park - people were meant to be surrounded by beauty even after death ©Abi Skipp, Wikipedia Commons

This idea was accepted by the wealthy people of the time, and the idea of places of contemplation had an instant career and spread throughout the country. The new cemeteries became memorial parks, romantic places that even film stars took a liking to. It was in one of the chapels in Glendale that Ronald Reagan, later President of the USA, was married. Tragic events such as funerals began to take on fairy-tale forms. People liked it, the best evidence of which was the recognition from one of Hollywood’s legends, the fabulous Walt Disney, who became a true friend of Eaton’s undertaker. A few years after the death of the father of memorial parks, Walt Disney, the greatest creator of fairy tales of the 20th century, himself chose a final stop and a final address in Los Angeles as the place of his eternal rest. That place, of course, was one of the memorial parks created by his friend, a true visionary of his final resting place. Disney was buried “over there, on the other side of the stream of life”, namely at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.


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