For Part 1: “Pershing Square, Not-so-public Parks, and the Fight over Public Places”
For Part 2: “Black Panther Part Headquarters and Other Invisible Places”
For Part 3: "We Built This City: A Personal History"
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES has its fair share of monumental buildings — the Bradbury Building, the public library, Staples Center, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, to name a few (not to mention the latest in-progress addition: Eli Broad’s Broad Museum). For many people these structures invoke a unifying sense of place and history, no matter what they personally think about the architecture, communicating that this is a “world class city” rather than a loose affiliation of suburbs. Buildings like these inspire a range of feelings, from awe and pride to sheer indifference. Architecture and commercial function are always at issue with landmark properties, creating marginalized positions in the metropolis.
The L.A. Live complex, one of the newest additions to the downtown Los Angeles skyline, magnifies these complex and contentious politics of place. When I attended USC, and after I graduated, I often took the bus down Figueroa to see friends or professors on campus, passing the L.A. Live project on my way. It functions as a kind of oversized playground for those not playing inside the adjacent Staples Center — a “mixed use” complex filled with restaurants, theaters, and shops. For an idea of the overwhelming volume of “live content” offered by such a massive entertainment destination, it’s hard to beat the description from the L.A. Live website:
The 4 million square foot / $2.5 billion downtown Los Angeles sports, residential & entertainment district featuring venues such as Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE, Club Nokia and The Conga Room; the GRAMMY Museum, saluting the history of music and the genre's best known awards show; a 54-story, 1001-room convention "headquarters" destination (featuring The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels and 224 luxury condominiums — The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton — all in a single tower), Regal Cinemas L.A. LIVE Stadium 14 movie theatre, "broadcast" facilities for ESPN, along with entertainment, restaurant and office space making it the region's most active 'live content and event campus.'
I’m not a sports fan (the Staples Center across the street is home to several professional franchises, including one of the most profitable in all of sports, the Lakers, as well as the Clippers, Kings, and Sparks) nor can I really afford to eat or shop on this particular “campus,” so it might not be a major newsflash if I say that L.A. Live, from the moment I laid eyes on it, rubbed me the wrong way. To an exaggerated degree, it seemed like yet another urban development strategy that prioritized wealthy professionals at the expense of other people living and working in downtown. I chafed when media pundits or associates enthusiastically proclaimed that L.A. Live was bringing “life back to downtown” — as if the people who live, work, and socialize downtown weren’t alive before its construction.
But when we began working on A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, I learned about another, much less well-known history of this massive building — one that changed the way I feel about it, and signaled the potentially complex meanings of urban development projects. L.A. Live, as it turns out, is the locus of a Community Benefits Agreement, negotiated by members of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice — a collective of 30 labor, community, and environmental justice organizations. FCCEJ’s member organizations partnered with residents to make sure the plan included a preferential-parking district for low-income tenants; guarantees that 20 percent of the new housing units would be reserved for low-income people; one million dollars for parks; and a commitment to hiring local residents to fill half of the 5,500 permanent jobs. The CBA is now considered a national model. I still don’t go to Lakers games or bowl at L.A. Live’s alley, but I now smile when passing by, thinking about the unconventional history that happened there. Sometimes, the unconventional history turns out to be a very powerful story indeed.
The L.A. Live project represents a major issue that we faced when we first began work on A People’s Guide to Los Angeles: whether to include well-known sites that are already frequently visited by tourists. We felt torn between two major commitments. On the one hand, the book aims to publicize little-known places where struggle and resistance have occurred, so highlighting famous places seemed counterproductive. On the other hand, the book seeks to develop more sophisticated understandings of how power works; from this perspective, it seemed crucial to include “mainstream” sites, which often represent histories of oppression, as well. We settled on a strategy of including some of these well documented tourist attractions in the Guide, but reinterpreting their oft-narrated conventional histories with attention to the power dynamics through which they have been produced. In this way we hoped readers could and would interrogate all the landscapes they pass through — both famous and mundane — with a more critical lens. Along with this debate came a related question: should we include the web address and contact information for famous tourist sites, just as we do with marginalized or little-known places? Ultimately, we decided that we should provide contact information so that readers could do further research and exploration on their own terms. After all, readers might just use that information in subversive ways, such as contacting a hotel manager to protest unfair labor practices or asking USC to reopen its Olympic pool to the local community as it had originally promised.
Excerpt from A People’s Guide to Los Angeles:
The original plan for L.A. Live paid little attention to the new project’s social and environmental costs to the local neighborhood. It would have led to significant displacement, a major issue given Los Angeles’ perpetual housing crisis, and the remaining residents would have been adversely affected by increased traffic, parking, and crime. But in response to organizing work by the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice (FCCEJ), L.A. Live’s owners agreed to an unprecedented set of community benefits in 2001. Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (saje) led the effort to create FCCEJ, which was formed to advocate on behalf of and with inner-city residents for an improved quality of life and economic development in the face of severe displacement and gentrification.
More than 300 residents and 30 labor, community, and environmental justice organizations joined FCCEJ, which won a historic set of concessions in exchange for its support of the project. These concessions included a preferential-parking district for low-income tenants; guarantees that 20 percent of the new housing units would be reserved for low-income people; $1 million for parks; and a commitment to hiring local residents to fill half of the 5,500 permanent jobs. This community benefits agreement was the first of its kind in the United States and is considered a prototype for resistance to models of downtown development and gentrification that offer little to existing residents, or that threaten to force them out.
FCCEJ’s lead organization, saje, is also a founding member of a national organization called the Right to the City Alliance. The alliance was created in 2007 “out of […] an idea of a new kind of urban politics that asserts that everyone, particularly the disenfranchised, not only has a right to the city, but as inhabitants, have a right to shape it, design it, and operationalize an urban human rights agenda.” Five other organizations in Los Angeles are also members of the alliance: the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, South Asian Network, and El Unión de Vecinos.
3335 W. 8th St., Los Angeles 90005 (213) 784-0943
Mexican juice bar serving raspados, licuados, and ice cream.
Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, 152 W. 32nd St., Los Angeles 90007 (213) 745-9961 (www.saje.net)
Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), 464 Lucas Ave., Suite 202, Los Angeles 90017 (213) 977-9400 (www.laane.org)
Right to the City Alliance (www.righttothecity.org)
Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (Routledge, 1996)
USC McDonald’s Olympic Swim Stadium was built in 1983 with a $3-million donation from the McDonald’s Corporation and was used for competitive swimming and diving events during the 1984 Olympics. It was one of the first athletic facilities in Olympic history to be built entirely with private funds. However, a widely publicized agreement required that the pool be available for use by members of both the university and the community after the Olympics. According to the McDonald Corporation’s spokesperson, Reggie Webb, “We actually paid to have the swim stadium built on the campus of USC, and it is something that will remain on that campus and be available to the community, as well as the university, for years to come.” This sentiment was confirmed by then mayor Tom Bradley and the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. As the committee explained, “The facility proved fully satisfactory for Olympic use and will be well used by area residents and USC students for years to come.”
Unfortunately, when USC completed construction of its fitness center (the Lyon Center) in 1988, it physically blocked public access to the pool. Community member Suleiman Edmondson, who regularly used the pool after running with his group, the Trojan Master Track Program (no relation to USC), reported that he found the gate locked and access denied. In order to access the pool, a person was now required to possess a student or faculty ID and to enter through the Lyon Center. Edmondson, who was alarmed by these changes, insisted that a subsidiary agreement obligated USC to open the pool to summer use by local youth. James Dennis, then vice president of student affairs, responded, “I don’t know of any subsidiary agreement.” When asked about the initial agreement signed by USC and the McDonald’s Corporation, both parties claimed not to have copies. In addition, USC insisted that the pool was never intended for “recreational use,” as it conforms to the requirements of the International Swimming Federation for competitive use, and argued that the pool does not comply with the California Health and Safety Code and is unsuitable for recreation. While recreational and competitive swim pools are indeed different, questions remain: Why were these issues not clarified earlier? Why did representatives claim that community members would be able to use the pool indefinitely? Why did USC not protest the media blitz, from which its community-relations image benefited greatly, when McDonald’s donated the money and broke ground? Why was access suddenly denied? These questions remain unanswered.
Currently, the pool is not available for general recreational use, but it is available to organizations such as Universal Diving, the Youth Diving Club, and a water polo team. On an individual basis, people older than 15 who do not have a university ID may apply for access to the pool, but they must do so in writing, pass a swimming test, and consent that they understand the pool is not for recreation but for competition and training.
“Blacklist” Monument and Garden
Harris Hall Sculpture Park, USC Campus (in front of Fisher Art Gallery)
A moving monument honoring those artists who were blacklisted in the McCarthy era.
2414 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles 90007 (323) 735-6567
Excellent Mexican food, affordably priced. Attracts a real cross-section of South Los Angeles residents.