I took myself on a date Downtown last Saturday to view the interventionist Economy of Gesture show/performance conceptualized by Tijuana-based artist Felipe Zuñiga and curated by Owen Driggs as part of the ongoing “Performing Public Space” initiative. This work included 5 sign spinners (young, energetic, and dynamic young men hired from an advertising company) who spun not ads for clearance sales, but artist-designed slogans and patterns saying things like “we must profile your illegal womb” and “lo que resiste, persiste.”
This is certainly not a new idea - artists have begun appropriating this format more frequently in the past few years for precisely the same reasons why advertisers use it. It is a cheap, flashy, dynamic intervention into public space, yet with a human being present to perform and chat with curious publics. Though for me, this performance really was just an excuse to venture to parts of downtown I had not explored on foot before, and the strange, rhythmic acupuncture of the sign spinners served to throw into relief just how fraught and fragmented our downtown really is. Within a couple of blocks, I saw a sign spinner on a lonely freeway bridge, one by the intimidating CalTrans fortress being watched only by a single laughing homeless man, and one in a swirl of at least a thousand people dancing and eating and shopping around El Pueblo. This fractured experience struck me with far more force than the politically-inflected slogans printed on the signs.
“Saturday’s not a great day to do this,” said one shrugging spinner to a curious passerby. “There’s no one around downtown on the weekend. But we’re trying to get the word out anyway.”
It wasn’t quite true that no one was around - there were lots of people downtown actually, but they were sequestered into zones of street life and commerce. Little Tokyo’s Japanese Village, for example, Olvera Street, Broadway, and the bustling little upcoming neighborhood on Spring Street between 3rd and 8th (dubbed the Old Bank District). This last neighborhood looks like a tiny section of uptown Manhattan, with swank little street-level cafes and gorgeous renovated loft buildings in historic Beaux-Arts buildings. The street was closed for a promotional block party: “OBD!” and “DTLA - be a resident!” There were city booths promoting the historic core, booklets with tips on how to stay safe on the streets, and a booth campaigning for the return of LA’s famous 1200-mile narrow-gauge street car system.
This little modest street fair was attempting to nurture a new Los Angeles imaginary - one of walkable communities of young couples, artists, and businesspeople. A place where you know your neighbors, walk your dog in the new parks that will cover street level parking lots, enjoy your rooftop pool and a swinging nightlife, where you are no longer chained to your automobile. A place with a deep and rich history, and a brilliant new future.
According to Norman Klein, downtown Los Angeles is constantly in this cycle of unsustainable boosterism, development, decline, and then frantic revitalization, redevelopment, and re-gentrification - driven essentially by developers and planners. The Tom Gilmore-driven renaissance of Spring & Main is just the latest in this cycle of re-imagining the city. In the first half of the century, Los Angeles was advertised as a garden city, with sunshine and good climate its main attraction. However, as land speculation pushed ever outward due to magnates like Huntington - who owned the expansive trolley system and hocked land further and further away from the center, creating a city of suburbs - cars took the place of climate as a symbol of liberation. The resulting freeway system hacked the neighborhoods of downtown into pieces, and left in its wake swaths of perceived “blight.” New boosters like Gilmore are trying to revive the youthful dynamism of the old neighborhoods, but with a wealthier stratum of society.
There is a science of “neurolinguistics” and “neuroimaging” which is a form of psychotherapy that shifts language and visual perception in the hopes that it will change an individual’s experience (of pain, of fear, of depression). This is the fundamental, yet dangerous power of representation. The way city spaces were represented in the LA imaginary changed how they were experienced, and shifted the way urban planning was thought about. Expansion, decentralization, the automobile, and increased security fit into the “garden city” ideal, whereas tightly packed, thriving communities of non-whites were seen as “blight” to be removed, like tooth decay. Or worse, unwanted “Manhattanization.”
Downtown must still overcome the way the city experience of the average Angeleno is fragmented and shattered. The “old” downtown is being revived, but the new boosters are searching for a history that has been wiped from memory, extracted and guarded like the gaping wound of an old abcessed tooth. Though new neighborhoods try to emerge, they are still fractured from the whole, little splinters trying to find a way to fit together again. They are pieces of thriving street life surrounded by industrialized fortresses. Perhaps with enough time, effort, and urban acupuncture, the mistakes of the past can be mitigated and a flow of pedestrians and street level life once again restored - the promise of the Grand Avenue Civic Park, for example, aims to improve street level circulation to the vital cultural center of downtown - but developments that intend to shift the underlying character of the city have yet to reach wholistic success.
**Ideas in this piece (especially with regards to the history of urban planning and development in Los Angeles) were inspired by the work of Mike Davis and Norman Klein. For more, please see:
Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, 1997.
Mike Davis, “Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space,” in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, 1998.