As pundits debate whether the police were too passive in handling last week’s “riot” outside Staples Center, some more profound questions have arisen about how downtown’s shining new arena fits in with the fabric of Los Angeles.
Perhaps one of L.A.’s greatest shortcomings as a city has been its lack of a community focus or identity. The various movements to break away in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and other communities reflect the fact that people identify more with smaller, more homogenous segments than they do with the megalopolis as a whole.
After less than a year in existence, however, Staples Center has already emerged as the closest L.A. equivalent to New York’s Times Square. It has hosted phenomenally successful sporting contests, the Grammy Awards, major musical concerts, and in two months will host one of the nation’s biggest parties of the year, the Democratic National Convention. It is a focus, in a city without a center, for celebrations, groundbreaking events and other major gatherings.
It is also rapidly emerging as a national symbol of Los Angeles. When the media look for a symbol of New York, they focus on the Statue of Liberty or Times Square; in Chicago, it’s Wrigley Field; in San Francisco, it’s the Golden Gate Bridge or the Transamerica Pyramid. Los Angeles has long had to make do with the Hollywood sign, or images of people rollerblading in Santa Monica. By continually appearing in nationally televised events, Staples Center is coming to be identified with Los Angeles and vice versa.
Yet Staples, as the events of last week made clear, is not for everybody. While Jack, Dyan, Salma and Steven were boogeying with Shaq and Kobe inside the arena following the Lakers’ championship victory over the Indiana Pacers, an unruly crowd outside the arena was breaking store windows and setting cars on fire.
It’s a terrific shame, as well as a sobering reality, that the closest thing L.A. has to a community centerpiece is not an open public gathering spot like Times Square, but an exclusive arena.
But that situation may change as downtown continues its evolution away from being a Fortune 500 high-rise forest and into a cultural/entertainment/residential hub.
Several projects now in the works hold the potential for bringing people together, rather than walling them off.
The coming Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is one such project. Though its religious foundation could be considered somewhat exclusionary, its vast open areas for congregating and artistic distinctiveness promise to draw crowds of every conceivable faith.
The proposal by the developers of Staples Center to build a gigantic entertainment/retail center surrounding the arena is another good step; if the developers are wise, the design will include large open spaces for public gatherings. Its architectural design should also be oriented outward to the surrounding area, like TrizecHahn’s Hollywood & Highland project, rather than insular. The belief that an inward-oriented project will maximize profits by capturing patrons inside is ill-suited to downtown’s future.
The Lakers’ victory and the subsequent parade not only proved L.A.’s ability to hold large, mostly peaceful gatherings, it pointed up downtown’s potential as focal point for public events. Despite the stereotype that Angelenos just want to stay within their walled-off communities or fenced-in backyards, plenty of people in Los Angeles are longing to come together to celebrate, congregate and socialize in safety. And that can happen in downtown if care is taken in designing and operating the area’s future projects.