For those who love navigating cities by foot, New York will always be America's main option. Los Angeles, despite being the densest urban area, never achieved this walkability, thanks to government efforts to socially engineer sprawl. But one Los Angeles neighborhood, at least, offers something more colorful--and arguably better--than anything else in the U.S. It is the city's downtown area, better known here to locals as "DTLA."
In some ways, DTLA's evolution into this rarefied air has been circular. During the city's initial pre-WWII growth era, downtown was the business and transit epicenter. It hollowed out substantially in following decades thanks to suburbanization, but since 1999, residential population has tripled to 60,000. DTLA has regained its cultural moxie amid this growth, with GQ calling the neighborhood, unto itself, "America's Next Great City."
The story behind this revival is, first and foremost, one of deregulation. According to Brady Westwater, a renowned local flaneur, the biggest measure was the city-approved adaptive reuse ordinance passed in that crucial year 1999. This enabled many of DTLA's decrepit historic buildings—such as its impressive stock of Beaux Arts towers--to be restored and converted by developers into residential lofts. This accompanied other measures to allow new towers, too, turning parts of DTLA into the condo canyons that are illegal elsewhere in the city. Together, this has accomplished the same thing that deregulation has in other major downtown areas, improving Walk Scores, filling sidewalks with people, and bolstering amenities.
But there is another quality to DTLA that transcends all this; the neighborhood has a quintessentially "Los Angeles" feel that is too ambiguous to describe for readers, but that suggests how more of the city might function if it were ever allowed to urbanize.
One driver of this quirky exceptionalism, said Westwater, is the number of major institutions--formal and de facto--that are clustered within DTLA so closely, yet are so radically different from each other.
“We have more things that are important in an urban sense within walking distance than any city in the world,” he said.
And then, while sitting with me in The Last Bookstore, a world-famous DTLA cultural emporium, he began listing them. Meander through the 8.6-square-mile neighborhood, and one will encounter, in no particular order, the following: a high-rise Financial District; an Arts District loaded with galleries; a Fashion District; a Chinatown; a Little Tokyo; a Korean area; a Mexican Town; a Union Station; a major covered street food collective called Grand Central Market; a Civic Center that has the highest concentration of government employees outside of Washington, DC; an additional arts district along Bunker Hill featuring venues of a more institutional nature, like the Broad Museum; an entertainment district that includes a stadium and convention center; Grand Park LA; and the list goes on.
“I could count 40 different major government, civic and business functions that are all within walking distance here,” said Westwater. In other major cities, meanwhile, it would take days to access a similar number of comparable institutions; just consider that in New York City, Chinatown, Wall Street, Madison Square Garden, the Lincoln Center, and the central bohemian hub (Williamsburg) are all in completely different neighborhoods.
Perhaps more notable, though, are the endless tactical urban features at street level--alt retail stores, coffee shops, old-school diners and taverns, parks and parklets, and the endless unique murals which extend LA's postmodern noir artistic tradition. Beyond even the major institutions, these zillion minor details have a place-making quality that surpasses anything I've found in America. Take, for example, Bottega Louie, an expansive, glamorous, open-view Italian restaurant that blares white light onto the sidewalks from the corner of 7th and Grand.
But DTLA's most interesting quality is its people. The neighborhood has always served elements of the city's business and governing elite. It has also attracted the opposite groups, thanks to its concentration of government services. This latter policy decision could be viewed in two ways: it has lured many homeless people, who live outdoors in the dangerous tent city of Skid Row (another micro-area within DTLA). But there is a humane side as well--because Los Angeles hasn't, like other cities, outlawed its downtown SRO hotels, some people who are mentally ill or disabled still get to enjoy an exciting neighborhood, often with just minor government assistance.
The incoming artistic wave, however, has been DTLA's most notable demographic feature.
“Every structure,” writes GQ’s Brett Martin, “seems to house artists, musicians, designers, tech developers, chefs—the whole Who are the people in your neighborhood of the creative class. After decades of being all but forgotten, Downtown has approached a critical mass of cool.”
And this gets to the heart of DTLA's quinessential "Los Angeles" quality. The city at large has never really been appreciated for its artistic culture; in fact, this seems to fuel stereotypes about it being a land of flaky half-acquaintances and blonde bimbos. But make no mistake—Los Angeles is a cosmopolitan global crossroads for film, fashion, photography, painting, graphic design and music, with more artists per capita than every major metro except New York and San Francisco. The trends that start in Los Angeles get consumed worldwide, from the movies people watch in Madrid to the Top 40 radio heard in Wichita.
At street level, this artistic ecosystem achieves somewhat sterile dimensions in Hollywood and Burbank. But its most unruly aspects have flooded downhill and into DTLA. Go there on a Friday night, and it is a Bacchanalian mixture of drugs, upscale whiskey, music, color and noise. Many of the people here look like artworks unto themselves, with a mixture of tattoos, piercings and wacky hairdos that render them the mini hipster versions of Dennis Rodman. Because of its concentration of models and actresses, Los Angeles is also routinely voted one of America's most attractive cities. The fact that these types, and all the other above-mentioned ones, swarm throughout DTLA, amid an urban design motif that is some combo of opulent, grimy, radical chic and ghetto fabulous, gives the entire neighborhood a surreal quality.
So what, exactly, is DTLA's secret sauce? It is diversity, in the broad sense. Famed urbanist Jane Jacobs argued that such diversity was essential to a city's health.
“There is no way of overcoming the visual boredom of big plans,” she wrote in 1981, critiquing federal urban renewal policy. “It is built right into them because of the fact that big plans are the product of too few minds. Genuine, rich diversity of the built environment is always the product of many, many different minds, and at its richest is also the product of different periods of time with their different aims and fashions.”
Downtown Los Angeles achieves this diversity more than any American neighborhood. It has diversity of building types, with corporate skyscrapers abutting mid-rise historic structures abutting small factories. It has diversity of uses, with grandiose civic institutions next to dingy bars where you'd sooner find a modern-day Bukowski. And it has a diversity of people, from across the world and every income range.
DTLA is unlikely to stay exactly as it is now, and whether it will improve or not depends on one's perspective. The neighborhood is expected to add 125,000 people by 2040, a figure that feels both remarkable, and badly-needed given the regional housing shortage. I'll wager that this new housing enhances things even more. For example, there are vast underused spaces across DTLA's eastern portion, thanks to antiquated industrial zoning laws. Allow new housing and amenities within them, and they will evolve into the diversified urban fabrics now found along Spring Street, Broadway and other parts of DTLA. But either way, the neighborhood has already achieved a shockingly good cultural symbiosis; perhaps the best one in urban America.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanism Report. He is a roving cross-country journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine and HousingOnline.com.
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