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How the Evolution of L.A.'s Broadway Traces the Life of the City

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In the 1930s, an Angeleno looking for a night of entertainment could roll out of his rented room in a rambling old Victorian manse (which had long ago been converted into a boarding house), hand the landlord a sawbuck for his rent and amble over to the upper station of Angel's Flight, his long shadow preceding him as the sun began its lazy, languorous descent into twilight.

He could drop a nickel in the fare box and take a slow funicular car ride from the fading, increasingly thread-bare neighborhood at the top of Bunker Hill to the bustling commercial district at its foot, where the Third Street tunnel emptied a never-ending stream of black sedans onto avenues presided over by watchful beat cops.

Joining the crowds thronging the sidewalks headed east, sidling along with dapper men and women walking jauntily beneath their hats, trailing small talk and cigarette smoke behind them, he could take one final glance at the show times in his creased copy of the L.A. Examiner, and shove it back in his jacket pocket as he reached Broadway.

Broadway: the clanging of Pacific Electric Red Cars and sun-faded yellow Los Angeles Railway trolleys, the tang in the back of the throat from the exhaust of hundreds of belching automobiles, and the lights—neon lights, incandescent lights, searchlights, all gaudily reflected against the underside of the low clouds pushed into place by the cold breath of the sea—that announced the presence of the largest collection of movie theaters on one street in the United States.

From here, his entertainment options were boundless. Chaplin at the Los Angeles Theater, newsreels at the Tower, or even a live theater performance at the Orpheum—all were in walking distance at the six-block theater district. But first a quick bite at the Clifton's Cafeteria on the corner of 7th, and then a double feature (and maybe a nightcap), before heading back to the Murphy bed in his room on Bunker Hill.

To be sure, this is a romanticized version of the Broadway of the 1930s, a version simultaneously colored by nostalgia (for what we have lost) and guilt (for allowing it to be lost on the first place). It plays into the notion of L.A. as a lost Eden, a place that was unquestionably better in some unspecified time before; before the streetcars were taken away, before the Valley became the Valley, before L.A.'s boulevards saw their roadside lemon groves replaced by beige stucco strip malls.

(Of course, it's important to be weary of this very human tendency to romanticize the past, because before was also legal racial discrimination in housing loans, before was the union-busting fervor of the Los Angeles Times, before was a reactionary Los Angeles Police Department that for decades operated outside the law with the implicit consent of the city establishment, all of which contributed to the creation of the L.A. of the early-to-mid Twentieth Century, a place and time that is celebrated as something of a Golden Age. Only by keeping the past in perspective can we be responsible stewards of it, without losing sight of the importance of the present moment.)

In the 80 years since the archetypal night above would have taken place, Broadway has been at the epicenter of the immense economic shifts that have shaped postwar urban America, though a time-traveling Angeleno from that era would instantly recognize the place, as the built environment remains remarkably intact.

Of course, the streetcars have gone, but the theater marquees remain, as do most of the buildings, the beneficiaries of an unforeseen side-effect of economic dislocation, essentially "preservation" by neglect. As the gravitational center of Los Angeles began shifting westward with the widespread postwar development of automobile-centric suburbs and shopping centers, downtown L.A. began a slow decline which led businesses to pull up stakes and move from the historic core in order to retrench themselves in a new district of corporate towers built upon the bulldozed remains of the Victorian neighborhoods of Bunker Hill.

And while the "slum-clearance" and subsequent "redevelopment" of downtown's western edge had a devastating effect, the focus on Bunker Hill and the Figueroa Street corridor left Broadway and the rest of the Historic Core free from the development pressures that were elsewhere leading to the destruction of irreplaceable downtown landmarks like the Atlantic Richfield Building and the Melrose Hotel.

The movement of established businesses also led to falling rents, as building after building was vacated by companies fleeing westward toward burgeoning edge cities like the Mid-Wilshire District, and later, Century City and the far West Side. These lower rents ensured that Broadway would not sit empty, becoming a ghost town of deserted streets and boarded up storefronts, a Detroit in the sun.

Businesses follow their customers. Neighborhoods must adapt as populations change, or those neighborhoods will die. In the case of Broadway, many businesses followed the white, affluent leaders of the post-World War II exodus, trailing them down freeways to the Westside and the Valley.

Businesses that remained on Broadway began to cater to a new customer base: Boyle Heights, Westlake, Pico-Union, Echo Park, and other close in neighborhoods had large Latino populations, which found in downtown L.A. a convenient, affordable, and transit-friendly place to shop. And downtown L.A. found in them a crucial driver of economic activity, without which it's hard to imagine Broadway today.

In the wonderfully eclectic retail offerings in storefronts from 2nd Street to 9th, there can be had something of every type of almost every salable object known to human kind: flat screen T.V.'s, books, musical instruments, bicycles, quinceañera dresses jewelry, and uncountable items beyond. For over 40 years, the economic lifeblood of Broadway has been the customers of these retailers. They literally kept the street alive.

As for the twelve remaining theaters – still the largest collection of historic theaters on one American street - many remain dark, though some of them have been converted to churches and others to swap meets. Those theaters, and the past glory and future promise they represent, have been the catalyst for many attempts at revitalization over the years, which after many false starts has finally resulted in what looks to be a sustainable Downtown Renaissance.

Revitalization, in the context of Broadway, is an interesting word. Many people visiting or shopping on Broadway would probably view it as already vital—with some empty storefronts, true, but what Post-Recession mall or shopping district does not have vacancies? Yes, some capital improvements are needed, and who doesn't want to see the movie theaters return to a central role in the city's cultural life? And revitalization efforts that address these problems are certainly called for.

But there is a suspicion that "revitalization" here actually means "gentrification," a process which is well under way and seems aimed at (as noted at top) returning Broadway to some sort of prelapsarian state, to the before of its pre-1950 peak. Bringing with, perhaps, lofts and an Ace Hotel and an Urban Outfitters.

The rents that are sure to rise in their wake are another thing all together. If government sanctioned revitalization means displacement of one set of existing businesses and residents in favor of a set of more upscale businesses and residents, then it becomes problematic. As noted before, all neighborhoods must change, and Broadway is changing once again. The challenge will be to ensure that the change benefits everyone.

· Broadway Historic Theatre and Commercial District [The L.A. Conservancy]
· Bringing Back Broadway [official site]