"The underlying, hidden question has been, 'Can we entice non-immigrant, non-minority, mostly white, upper middle class people to live in tall buildings and pretend it's New York?' I think the answer is in most ways no." That was UCLA urban planning professor Edward Soja, speaking at last night's CalArts panel discussion "Does Los Angeles Need a Downtown?" Despite the big, uncomfortable laughs that followed Soja's comment, the answer to the larger question of downtown's necessity was a resounding YES! And after recent concerns that downtownmight not live up to expectations, it was refreshing to hear some positive thinking about the district. The distinguished panel--composed of Soja, communication theorist Manuel Castells, and CEO of CRA/LA Cecilia Estolano--was in agreement that the area will be critical to the improvement of Los Angeles through the hard times ahead, seeing a re-emergent Downtown as the center of a new clean-tech manufacturing and industrial economy, as well as a crucial "psychic center" for the diverse metropolis, an area packed with meaningful public spaces to draw Los Angeles together. But it will take great imagination. As Castells put it, "We can't just think outside the box, we have to break open the box.. there can be no box!"
Los Angeles, each panelist noted, has since the 1930's been the manufacturing capitol of the US, and the new downtown needs to reflect its position as the center of this industry.
Estolano, assuring the audience that "this is not your Grandfather's CRA," explained how the community redevelopment agency was working to create a clean-tech and green-tech industrial corridor stretching from the cornfields to the 10. Instead of pricey condos, she sees a district full of small "incubation spaces" pumping out the technological innovations that will keep our city relevant, all while providing the skilled jobs that will bring the middle class back to LA.
And in a novel twist, Castells envisioned the Bunker Hill towers, emptied of their corporate financial tenants by the economic downturn, repopulated as public housing for the very people whose "suburban hopes and dreams were raised and shattered in the economic collapse."
Other thoughts tossed out by the panelists: Preserving street vendors, bringing back the river as a ribbon of parks and public spaces, reconfiguring Pershing Square, and reducing parking. In a time of gloom and doom, it's nice to know someone's thinking positively!--Dan Caroselli