Los Angeles: City of Contrasts

June 14, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING, NewsHour Essayist: It is, and has been
since it opened in 2003, the most famous building in Los Angeles: a curvy, seductive siren call to
us natives to come on downtown and partake of its luminous gifts, inside and

I’m talking, of course, about Frank Gehry’s
shimmery-skinned, acoustically sophisticated Disney Hall, complete with a
world-class orchestra and a movie-star-handsome young conductor.

Up the ladder

In one fell swoop, Los Angeles jumped up the sophistication ladder, in itsown eyes and those of the rest of the country and the world.

There were other exciting downtown buildings: the newCathedral of Our Lady of the Angels; and, across Grand Avenue from Disney Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, a svelte, redsandstone building; and down the hill, the smartly spruced-up Central Library.

Pinch me. Is this my city, all grownup and reinventingitself at last as a true artistic Mecca,a city with a true downtown?

City without a center

That downtown was a kind of wasteland for years, tall,earnest bank buildings, streets deserted at night. As a city, Los Angeles displayed a kind ofinferiority-superiority complex: Yes, we may be lacking in true urban culture,but we've got it all over the rest of you when it comes to lifestyle andweather.

When friends came to visit, we took them to Venice Beach,and Rodeo Drive,and Hollywood Boulevard,not downtown. This is such an odd place. I am of L.A. to the marrow, and I have always lovedits unsentimental centerlessness.

One day not so long ago, there were hundreds of thousands ofpro-immigration demonstrators at one end of Wilshire Boulevard, while at the otherwestern end, people strolled with dogs and children past expensive restaurantsand stores.

My city, a city of contradictions, a city without a center,save that thoroughfare.

Transformation begins

Now that's being challenged. Developers are pouring billionsof dollars into projects, like L.A. Live!, that will remake downtown. FrankGehry and his developer cohorts are envisioning a $1.8 billion transformationof a nine-acre area that they see as the new city center.

Gehry has proposed two glass high-rises to anchor the Grand Avenueproject, a kind of sleek, towering counterpoint to his signature swooping hall.Ironically, it is Gehry himself who has always said such a center is impossiblein such an unwieldy sprawl of suburbs, that, in fact, it is the thoroughfare ofWilshire Boulevard,running from Ocean to download, that it the city's real center, a kind ofautomotive artery connecting us all.

So, is he reversing himself? Will it work?

A center closer to home

I think Gehry was right the first time, even though a lot ofus here root to him to go on working his magic downtown. We just don't think itwill be our center, because we have one of those a lot closer to home.

We have our own pods, our own streets, and markets, andshops, and restaurants, and places to work. And because to get downtown ismurderous from many parts of the city due to the traffic, it will never becomethe city's true center.

Yes, people will move there and live there in their trendynew condos and lofts, and, yes, we will probably take out-of-towners there, butit will just be another center in a stay of many centers, another attempt tomake civically coherent a place that, by geography and temperament, will nodoubt once again defy that effort.

I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.