May 11, 2013

Downtown LA's Upwards Build into the Open Air

One of my biggest complaints with New York right before I left (and now, whenever I go back) was the claustrophobia I felt, both underground on crowded subway trains, and above ground on tourist- and stroller-infested sidewalks, under the ever-present shadow cast by the looming buildings that you were never supposed to look up at.

There are many days I never saw the sun, even during daylight.

So I escaped from the vertical build of New York City to the horizontal, suburban sprawl of Los Angeles.

For all of the wide open spaces of LA's ranches and canyons and flat freeways, people sometimes forget that LA is more than Hollywood Boulevard and Route 66 and beaches and the Sunset Strip. For a long time, LA's center city was Downtown, an area of town where density once ruled.

LA's Downtown, however, wasn't like other cities' downtowns. And it still isn't.

For decades, a city ordinance prevented developers from building higher than 12 stories, in order to preserve the city's open air landscape. Even when a workaround was figured out for City Hall - and that municipal building towered above all others - for years, no one could build anything higher than City Hall.

But in the mid-20th century, when urban renewal became a thing and the once-affluent Bunker Hill, with its once-spectacular Victorian houses, became a blight overlooking old Downtown, LA city planners had an idea: demolish (or move) all the ramshackle houses that had become an eyesore and cost the city more money to maintain than the city made in tax revenue, flatten the hill, and build a "New Downtown."

This New Downtown would be tall. And this New Downtown would be spacious, not crowded like Broadway and Spring Street, full of pandhandlers. The new, modern skyline would rise high above the streets and the cars below, but yet still allow you to see the sky.

Each skyscraper was planned with its own public space - gardens, plazas, and, in the case of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building, a moat - that would create a fortress-like isolation for the new buildings.

They would be self-contained and self-sufficient...

...leaving the incandescent lights on to warm up on chilly nights...

...and firing up the water features to cool down when it's hot.

At night, the city sparkles like any metropolis might...

...but you can be right in the middle of it, and still gaze at it from afar.

In aggregate, depending on where you're standing (like beneath the Central Library, or on the Oviatt Penthouse roof deck), the structures that comprise the New Downtown create a crowded skyline.

But individually, each on their own, they tower in solitude.

And walking or driving beneath them, I don't feel claustrophobic anymore. I can relate to them. I need my space, too.

Related Post:
Looking Up from the Streets of Downtown LA
Wide Open Spaces
Up and Down Bunker Hill on Angels Flight

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