Downtown Los Angeles was the classic post-war downtown — office towers, imposing government buildings and criss-crossing highways so the gray flannel suits could get in their cars and sit in traffic before going bonkers and getting in road rage incidents. The relatively few residents gave it a spooky feel on weekends and evenings, made worse by the actual — not metaphorical — Skid Row, the massive homeless encampment.
Although not exactly the same, it’s easy to see some similarities to our own Downtown.
About a decade ago, downtown LA went on the upswing. The city passed a smart ordinance in 1999 that made it easier and cheaper to turn old commercial and manufacturing buildings into residential, mixed-use developments. In the decade after, 27 downtown buildings were converted, according to an urban planning paper by Imani Brown. The Staples Center and the surrounding entertainment district, LA Live, brought still more energy. You knew things were going well when a full-fledged grocery store opened in 2007.
So when a pal and I planned a recent trip to Dodger Stadium — a first for both of us — he found a hotel in downtown LA, and I figured we had all the makings of a great day.
The hotel, called Stay, turned out to be less than promised, though it had a unique charm. Apparently, the building is locally famous for its historic role as a residential hotel for serial killers and rapists. It had a Charles Bukowski feel. Downtown L.A., meanwhile, is alive and well, with plenty of people out and about on a Saturday afternoon. We went into a café that doubled as a market and ordered Anchor Steam on tap. We asked the bartender about getting to the game. In retrospect, when he assumed we were driving, that should have served as a red flag. It’s only a three-mile walk, we said, and asked if there would be places to eat and drink on the way.
Sure, he said, and off we went. The walk that followed was so debilitating that it was comic. Almost entirely uphill, past empty government buildings and, of course, lots of parking, over a highway, under a couple underpasses, the sun beating down, other pedestrians rare except for the occasional homeless person. Even the great Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall loses some of its allure in an empty cityscape. Halfway there, we decided to catch a cab, but there were none, let alone a bar or restaurant.
Finally, we entered the emerging hipster neighborhood of Echo Park, where they apparently care more about vintage T-shirts and other street fashions than food and drink. We found a darkened bar with a decent jukebox and learned that it was the closest food and drink establishment to the stadium, which is up another steep hill. The stadium itself, unlike ballparks as varied as Wrigley Field in Chicago and AT&T Park in San Francisco, is not ensconced in a neighborhood full of sports bars and apartment dwellers. Instead, Dodger Stadium sits at the top of said hill, surrounded by vast acres of parking lots that would make a Wal-Mart executive salivate, with not a chicken wing to be found for miles.
The way the stadium is designed, the late afternoon sun beats down on right field, which is where our seats were. We left in the early innings and vowed never to return.
I tell this story because, as I read recently in the Las Vegas Sun about proposals for stadiums and arenas, all I could think was, do the opposite of what they did with Dodger Stadium. (This makes me very skeptical of a proposed project in Henderson — arenas and stadiums should be in the urban core, not the suburbs.) Even though downtown L.A. has undergone a revival, the three-mile walk to its baseball stadium shows how difficult it can be to undo the mistakes of failed planning and a general failure to understand that cities require people. The architect and urban planner Robert Fielden once told me about Las Vegas, “Now we have to go un-f*ck everything.” As LA demonstrates, that’s no easy task.