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Despite decades of flagrant political and fiscal mismanagement, the cities along California’s coast have flourished. Even with the looming threat of unpaid liabilities to civil servants’ unions, an unrelenting drought, and a wave of homelessness that has swept down upon San Francisco and Los Angeles like the zombie apocalypse, nothing seemed to stop the push to develop more and more. The jeremiads against gentrification have grown louder and more desperate every year as, in L.A., more formerly poor and minority-dominated neighborhoods saw craft beer shops and vegan bakeries open among the 99¢ stores and check-cashing outlets. Nowhere was more symbolic of the success that Downtown L.A. itself: At the start of the millennium, the city’s historic and financial core was a ghost town after 6 P.M. and on weekends, its streets becoming eerie canyon of shuttered storefronts devoid even of the homeless.
By 2010, the area had begun roaring to life with trendy bars and restaurants, and retailers looking to project a certain bleeding-edge cool began locating there. By the start of 2020, Vans and Nike’s Jumpman brand had built flagship stores on the historic Broadway corridor, while Apple was underway transforming the Tower Theater into one of its new lifestyle concept destinations.
And by mid-2020? What do things look like after CoronaPanic and the Black Lives Matter lootings? Unfortunately, it seems Mark Twain never uttered that great line, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” And that’s a shame since there are signs in L.A. that, despite saying all the right things about how black lives matter and such, the good Liberals of Los Angeles might be practicing something that happened sixty years ago in the same areas – namely, another wave of White Flight.
Even now, four weeks after the destructive “peaceful protests” that saw many people angry at the police violence against George Floyd get brand new $300 sneakers, many businesses’ windows remain boarded up. Those storefronts with the largest windows were conspicuously targeted, even if they have nothing at all behind them – literally. (One building had just been finished being built; the peaceful protesters simply wanted to smash things.)
The previous weekend, after returning from three placid weeks in Louisiana away from the chaos, I went to Little Tokyo, walking past the Civic Center first. The encampments of homeless tents were on the sidewalks as always, somehow immune from the draconian CoronaMadness laws to which everyone else is subject. I could see that the lower walls of City Hall looked off as if they had recently been discolored. Judging from the graffiti that remained on the monument to Frank Putnam Flint (a former California senator who was instrumental in securing water for Los Angeles in the early twentieth century), I’m pretty sure the building had previously been defaced. All manner of anti-police epithets ranging from the profane to the downright stupid – and usually both – were still scrawled all over the Flint monument, which faces LAPD headquarters.
In Little Tokyo, many of the storefronts that were targeted had one thing in common: They sold rare, hard-to-find, collectible sneakers. Cell phone stores and marijuana dispensaries were also similarly targeted. Apparently higher-end shops like Acne Studios, A.P.C., Mykita, and Theory were mostly spared in favor of looting the nearby Urban Outfitters and Foot Locker. Activists were busy painting brightly colored inspirational pictures on the plywood of the broken windows – because portraits of Nina Simone and calls for education will somehow make all those stolen cell phones and Yeezy Boosts okay.
On the Broadway corridor, many stores are open again to some degree– for now. COS, Vans, and the large Australian BNKR womenswear are still boarded up. A store employee told me that, weeks earlier, the entirety of Broadway had been boarded up, then I was shown photos. It looked as if the place was preparing for a category five hurricane. Before I reached that area, though, I saw the first sign that things were not well: Chica’s Tacos, a popular gourmet taco shop on Olive Street, had closed and moved to the Miracle Mile – a neighborhood about six miles west that is upper middle class, more generally white, and much safer.
When I reached the hippest of the hip areas – the Arts District on the eastern fringe of Downtown – that is where I noticed the most closures: Malin+Goetz, a high-end skincare line from New York; Shinola, a luxury accessories brand; a high-end women’s clothing boutique; a store selling crystals and incense other hippie objects; a comics and pop culture store; and one other store I couldn’t remember have all closed permanently. Is 3.1 Phillip Lim going to reopen? Will that new Le Labo that’s also boarded up reopen?
So many stores are just shut right now. And that’s the big question: Which ones will reopen? The longer the CoronaHysteria shut down drags out, the hard that will be. Even though many places could reopen, they are opting not to do so because of the onerous measure the state and city are placing on businesses. For what they would be earning against the costs they would incur to open, they would just lose less money remaining closed. But with the looming threats of street violence, lootings, increased crime, and a reduction in policing added to this, will business owners lose their appetites to locate in “edgy” areas? Will L.A. return how it was in the 1990s when Angelenos had to go north of the 10 and west of La Brea if they wanted to have a nice dinner, see a movie, and shop in a brand name store?
On one page of their marketing website, the developers behind At Mateo – one of the many upscale developments in the aforementioned Arts District – write:
Amid the glittering towers and crumbly Art Deco facades, a new generation of adventurous chefs, bartenders, loft dwellers, artists, and developers are creating a neighborhood as electrifying and gritty as New York in the ‘70s.
Does anyone really want that? To live someplace “as … gritty as New York in the ‘70s”? That was the New York victimized by Son of Sam. The New York where porn theaters lined Time Square. The New York where Central Park was a patch of bare earth and subway cars completely were covered in graffiti. The New York where entire city blocks were occupied by squatters. The New York that saw television production flee to the West Coast. The New York that was the subject of that infamous headline, “Ford to City – Drop Dead.”
Ironically, those developers’ promotional blather may be more true than they realize. What made people willing to venture into neighborhoods like Echo Park, Chinatown, Boyle Heights, Koreatown, and Downtown was that they felt safe there – something they did not feel about those areas two decades ago. But the massive wave of lootings has the potential of bringing the bunker mentality that gripped Angelenos after the 1992 riots back, seeing businesses that are already stretched to the max by the unfavorable business conditions imposed by the cities and state pull up stakes and move to a more secure location in state (San Diego, Orange County) or just out of state entirely. One restaurateur told me in late May that, if he had it all to do again, he would have opened his business in Huntington Beach, not Downtown L.A.
Only time will tell, but this may very well be the start of L.A.’s great urban un-renewal. After months of an economy under government-mandated lock-and-key, will a few rocks through the windows followed by shameless pandering by the city’s politicians to the mob reverse decades of growth as the well-heeled retreat to the suburbs again?Published in