Spotlight on Annual Meeting Location: Los Angeles, the Showplace Global City and its Creative Destructive Impulses

By Jan Lin, Occidental College

CUSS Newsletter Summer 2022, Vol. 35, No. 2

The area of Los Angeles that is made up of the Los Angeles Convention Center, its adjacent Arena (previously Staples Center), and LA Live is a vibrant tourism, sports, and entertainment showplace that exports “showtime” NBA basketball and Hollywood film and music culture to the U.S. and the rest of the world. Culture industries are leading sectors in Los Angeles just as finance/Wall Street is a leading sector in New York City. Luxury hotels and condominium towers have sprouted in the neighborhood in the last 15 years, some involving transnational Chinese investor visas or corporate capital including the JW Marriott hotel, the 4-towered Metropolis complex, and the 3-towered Oceanwide Plaza. Further north on Figueroa Street is the Wilshire Grand Center, which was financed by Hanjin/Korean Airlines and in 2017 took claim as the tallest building (including its spire) west of Chicago. Look at the top at night for the neon red and blue yin-yang Korean Air logo which alternates with the “I” brand logo of the on-site InterContinental Hotel.

Los Angeles History from Pueblo to Global City

Looking back in urban history from the glitz and grandiosity of twenty-first century downtown LA, the metropolis was originally established by Spanish colonialist missionaries as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (“the town of our Lady the Queen of the Angels”) in 1781, northeast of downtown near the Los Angeles River Tongva indigenous settlement of Yaanga. You can visit the El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument across from Union Station Los Angeles, which has a plaque memorializing the founders, the original mixed-race pobladores. Olvera Street is adjacent to El Pueblo, with Mexican markets and eateries as well as Avila Adobe, the first residence in the city. After Anglo conquest in 1848, the development of the city proceeded in a gridiron plan surveyed by Edward Ord and tilting toward the southwest. The coming of steam rail in the late 1880s and electric railways after 1900, however, led to the decentralization of the growing metropolis as it crossed 80 miles of the coastal plain and foothills from Santa Monica to Redlands.

You can visit Angel’s Flight—a short inclined funicular railway that is a preserved artifact of the electric cable car era built in 1901—which is across Hill Street from the Grand Central Market, a colorful emporium of produce vendors and culturally diverse eateries. It rises up Bunker Hill to California Plaza—the site of fountains and an open-air theater and stage where the nonprofit Grand Performances hosts free summer weekend world music, hip hop, jazz and dance events. Continue north along Grand Avenue to visit LA’s Civic Center landmarks including the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the Broad, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, and Grand Park.

Back to the story of decentralization, freeway construction in the mid-twentieth century set the stage for Los Angeles to become the American epitome of the decentralized sprawling postwar automobile-oriented metropolis. In an historical illustration of LA’s “bureaucracies of displacement,” the downtown urban growth machine made use of eminent domain and federal Highway Act funding to bulldoze and eviscerate Boyle Heights and East LA, the heart of the Mexican American community, with monstrous freeway interchanges. The tragic story is dramatically documented in Betsy Kalin’s film, East L.A. Interchange (2015) and the section of Judith Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles mural, The Division of the Barrios. Another infamous episode was the eviction and razing of the Chicanx community at Chavez Ravine before the construction of Dodger Stadium. The intracity freeways helped open up new subdivisions in areas such as the San Fernando Valley and Anaheim in Orange County, where white homogeneity was naturalized amidst the innocent allure of the suburban ideal, as represented in TV shows like Leave it to Beaver and at theme parks like Disneyland. The Watts Riots racial disturbances of 1965 punctured the idyllic facade of suburban prosperity and expressed the rage of a marginalized community that felt criminalized by racialized policing.

In 1965 also came the liberalization of federal immigration policy, fostering rapid growth of immigration, especially from Latin America and Asia in the 1970s and ’80s. Neoliberal policies also fostered more openness to foreign investment, and the increasing mobility of labor and capital facilitated the rise of Los Angeles as a global city. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach expanded infrastructure for world trade through the region and LAX airport handled increasing flows of immigrants and international visitors. African American Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley led the LA growth machine from 1973 to 1993 through a multiracial coalition that triumphally promoted its international image while staging the 1984 Summer Olympics. A booming economy and surplus capital accumulation led Japanese corporate investors to purchase trophy downtown LA skyscrapers in the 1980s.

The Decline and Reemergence of the LA Growth Machine

The 1990s were a darker time for Los Angeles, as it was wracked by the Rodney King racial uprisings, continuing white flight, slow growth interests, suburban secession movements, and urban sprawl that challenged the spirit of regional growth consensus. The Los Angeles School of Urbanism represented the metropolis as an urban symbol of postmodernism and social fragmentation, and Black-Korean conflict emerged as a new arena of interracial disharmony.

But the LA growth machine has resisted its perceived demise and has reemerged through a new phase of urban restructuring in the first two decades of the twenty-first century with a more centralized capitalist growth regime, based upon growing downtown redevelopment, gentrification, and the return of the white middle-class to a variety of central city and inner-ring neighborhoods. These include Westside neighborhoods such as Venice, Crenshaw and Leimert Park, Koreatown, Silver Lake, and Echo Park. And along the LA Metro Gold Line on LA’s Eastside there are a series of neighborhoods experiencing rapid transition near stations, including Highland Park, Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and Boyle Heights.

Gentrification epicenters commonly surround LA Metro transit stations, where transit-oriented development projects including high-density upmarket housing, hotels, and place-branding schemes are promoted by developers in partnership with the neoliberal state. Neoliberal urban capitalism increasingly involves public-private partnerships in the wake of federal retrenchment, from transportation, housing, and social services spending and administrative devolution to the local authorities who increasingly roll-out tax incentives for private investment and place promotion. But the creative impulses of neoliberal capitalism also foment destructive effects, as gentrification has fostered residential displacement, racial conflicts, and new socioeconomic class divides. The strategy of accumulation by dispossession rolls forward through a bureaucracy of displacement.

Working-class and immigrant families in Latinx gentrification epicenters, such as Highland Park and Boyle Heights, have been particularly confronted by shifting fortunes, including foreclosures during the Great Recession, followed by entry of speculator-flippers and then corporate developers to their neighborhoods. Mass evictions of multiple family households from apartment buildings are especially traumatic and socially uprooting as they disrupt social networks built up over the years to provide childcare and confront the challenges of urban life.

Antigentrification movements have emerged to defend threatened communities and assert their right to the city, including the North East Los Angeles AllianceDefend Boyle Heights, and Chinatown Community for Equitable Development. They have held rent strikes, tenants’ workshops, nighttime vigils, and street demonstrations with calls that “Gentrification is the New Colonialism” and “Housing is a Human Right.” They promote public dialogue about the plight of the displaced and the unhoused, the need for affordable housing, and the emancipatory possibilities of a more inclusive and socially just city.

Los Angeles, the showplace global city, is a shining prism of redevelopment and gentrification for a reemergent urban growth machine. But these creative impulses also foment displacement and social destructiveness, putting a spotlight on neighborhood activism and the cause of urban justice.

Previously published in ASA Contexts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.