Ghosts of Downtown

Essay: Ghosts of Downtown

The windows are the same, though I never realized how grand they are, how high and wide. Maybe that’s because back then they were masked by cheesy drapes. I probably never saw them this clean either. When no one in the tour group was looking, I rested my hand on one, for connection. Each night when my father and I left the office, we’d open these windows for fresh air; in the morning, I’d flip on the AC and pull them down to shut out the street’s noise and stink. Even so, a smell lingered, stale and depressing. The walls were dirty beige, the carpet oatmeal, the furniture a utilitarian mix of file cabinets, water cooler, battered wood desks. All gone now. Everything from those days is gone, everything but the windows.

From 1970 to 1984, the northwest corner of the seventh floor of the Continental Building at 4th and Spring was my late father’s bankruptcy law office. It was the epitome of old downtown, a bleak two-room suite in a seedy building just a block from the skid row missions.

Today it’s one of three buildings re-imagined by maverick developer Tom Gilmore, and at the epicenter of L.A.’s “downtown renaissance.” This is why, on a recent sunny morning, I found myself on an apartment leasing tour of a place I never expected to see again. In the Continental’s lobby, a low ’60s-era ceiling had been torn away, revealing carved gold moldings. Hall floors were lined with scuffed mosaic tile. My father’s suite, 703, had been enlarged to become loft apartment 702. Where his desk had been was a bedroom area; where a bookcase held his legal texts was a small modern kitchen with black granite counters. Exposed ducts and funky concrete floors completed the upscale industrial look. There are 56 lofts for rent in the Continental. No. 702, with 1,085 square feet, was going for $2,000 a month.
In 1963, when my father, at 48, left a mid-Wilshire law firm to open his own practice, most attorneys with upper-middle-class aspirations had offices in Beverly Hills or brand-new Century City. He picked Spring Street because, he said, he liked being able to walk to court. The truth was that he’d grown up poor, still lived in perpetual fear of poverty, was terrified about starting over while supporting a family, and space on Spring was cheap. (Not having to pay for courthouse parking added to the savings.) Aesthetics weren’t on the radar.

His first office was above Eagleson’s Big & Tall Shop, just off 3rd, a building so old it still had elevator operators. Seven years later, he upgraded to the Continental. In 1904, when it was new and known as the Braly Building, it had been grand. It was L.A.’s first skyscraper, 12 stories, and the tallest building in town for 50 years. Spring Street was prosperous then, thick with banks and dubbed “the Wall Street of the West.” But when World War II defense plants drew workers and, later, returning GIs to the city’s edges, the neighborhood began to collapse. The redevelopment of Bunker Hill finished the job. By the ’70s, the Continental was an outpost in a ghost town. I spent some of the longest hours of my life in that building. One of the ways my father economized was by not hiring a secretary, and on Saturdays I went downtown with him to file and type. Later, when I was 21, unemployed, directionless and reeling from the loss of a boyfriend to a cult, he gave me a job. To a suburban beach kid, Spring Street at first seemed a terrifying netherworld of grime and garbage, stumbling, reeking winos and shrieking street-corner preachers–things that you didn’t yet see on the Westside.

Next to the Continental was a fleabag hotel with a coffee shop called Jeffrey’s that my father favored because it, too, was cheap– maybe $1.75 for a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of weak coffee. Every time we went in, I wanted to run. The gray-faced patrons who slumped around the tables–like the street people, Eagleson’s elevator operators and the shiny-suited businessmen who kept offices at the Continental–were characters straight out of a Nathanael West novel, men and women so clearly beaten by life that not even a budding poet like me could romanticize them. I think my father pitied these people, but his main feeling toward downtown was frank contempt. He was there only for reasons of economy; to him, the beauty of L.A. was its scrubbed suburban space, not the kind of aged, urban landscape he’d left behind in New York. He retired in 1984. Just before he cleared out of the Continental, I took pictures; in my favorite, he’s looking pensively out of one of the tall windows over Spring Street. Shortly after, a developer with renovation plans bought the building, gutted it, then ran out of money. For years it just sat there, trash-strewn, boarded up. One of the few times we happened to be downtown together, I drove my father past it. He nodded with grim satisfaction. “What a piece of crap,” he said.

My father never knew that during the later years I worked with him I’d gone out for lunch one day, actually looked around and up, and had been staggered by the beauty of the buildings around me. How had I missed this? After that, whenever I could, I’d take walks to stare and marvel. I discovered Grand Central Market, Angels Flight, strange nooks and crannies–somewhere on 7th, I think, a hidden outdoor espresso bar where I would sit, drink cups of strong coffee and pretend I was overseas. I saw L.A.’s urban heart and fell in love, and for years I came back: to the selfconscious artiness of Gorky’s, the frenetic clatter of Vickman’s, Broadway’s blaring music and the crowded butcher shops on North Spring, where I could buy freshly slaughtered chickens from Chinese men fluent in Spanish. Today, middle-aged and encumbered with husband, child, large dog and truckloads of possessions, I’m hardly a candidate for tenancy in the Continental or its sister buildings, the Hellman and San Fernando. The occupied units I was allowed to see during the leasing tour were spaces crammed with lurid art and neon, overseen by profoundly young, hip men and women, all black glasses, faux leopard and tattoos. Later, when I met with Trish Keefer, general manager of Gilmore Associates’ Old Bank District (and wife of Tom), the demographics she read from rental applications sounded like an advertiser’s fantasy: Here were students from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (also newly based downtown) and USC, and grown-ups who worked as chefs and Web consultants, or in the clothing, music, entertainment and fiber-optic industries. Average age: 25 to 35.

But I get why these people are here–why, as Keefer puts it, they think living downtown is “so cool.” Art galleries, a clothing and general store, and restaurants are in the works nearby. There are 230 lofts in the three Gilmore buildings, with more soon to come– including in the hotel that once housed Jeffrey’s. I imagine the promise of downtown loft life is like the chance to inhabit some ultra-groovy TV drama: Young people meet in corridors and coffee shops, share ambitions, affairs, tragedies, triumphs– all set against a colorful urban backdrop and given added intensity by the sense of being on the cutting edge.
I’m not convinced that the new downtown will last, if the Continental’s tenants will stay once the novelty wears off. But the fact that it might also fills me with ambivalence. I hate that places and neighborhoods don’t exist until the well-off discover them. I worry what continued upscaling will mean to the poor and working-class people who already call downtown home. I wonder how much this new juxtaposition of wealth and desperation will raise L.A.’s heartlessness quotient–really, doesn’t the ability to enjoy dining at a ground-floor 4th Street bistro require one to see right through the homeless outside the plate-glass windows? And on a basic level, $2,000 seems a lot to pay for concrete floors and a bathroom without windows. (As I looked over the Continental’s rental prices, which ran as high as $6,000 for a 2,750- square-foot penthouse with private terrace, I could hear my father gasping and whipping out his asthma inhaler. “They want what?” he wheezed.)

But it probably doesn’t matter what I think. The San Fernando, Hellman and Continental, which opened last September, are all fully rented. In No. 702, an entertainment industry couple, who moved from the mid-city with their dog, are now opening and closing those tall windows. I wonder if they think about their apartment’s history or sense the presence of those who came before. Even if they do, I’m certain they’ll never see one ghost–that of the tall, thin lawyer who spent so many hours there: Even in death, he’d choose another place to be. And for that reason alone, they’ll belong downtown in a way he never did.

I cared for my dying parents. How is caring for my dying dog just as bad?



I thought it would be easier to care for an old dog than an old human — or maybe harder. But almost a decade after my husband and I cared for and lost three parents and an aunt, tragedy has repeated itself as farce in the form of our aging dog.

Casey, the handsome, thickly furred red dog we brought home as a puppy, is 15 — in canine years, what gerontologists would call “the old-old.” Suddenly, we’re back in the place we named Elder World, as managers of his decline.

The bulging disc in Casey’s back has outpaced the medication we’ve given him since he was 12, and he struggles to sit and lie down. His tail won’t wag; his gait stutters. His hearing is shot, and cataracts have left him nearly blind. The past six months brought “canine cognitive dysfunction,” a.k.a. doggy dementia. He gets stuck behind furniture, paces at night, has forgotten there’s a backyard and will only pee in front.


I never imagined that senior dog care would prove a weird resurrection of something I already knew. Instead of the shower chair, water bowls set atop risers, to make drinking easy; instead of the walker, a sling. A trail of absorbent puppy pads leading to the front door to catch the inevitable accidents takes the place of adult diapers. The mental changes hold echoes, too. Casey, part chow, ornery and snappish, has forgotten that he hates the dog down the street and strangers who presume to pat his head.

The newly agreeable Casey evokes my once sharply critical aunt transformed into a matron who marveled, “Look at the size of it!” in reference to a ShopRite. When Casey starts his evening shuffle, to the door, outside, back in again, his endless search for something that eludes him, I hear my father-in-law’s voice: “What day is it? Where’s my checkbook?”

As we did then, we ask ourselves the same questions: “What does he want?” Who knows? “Does he suffer?” We don’t think so. “Is he happy?” We don’t think that, either. “Does he want to die?” Our old people held fiercely to life, and to their habits of living — endless cups of weak coffee, coupon-cutting, a daily vanilla ice cream cone. In August, Casey fought his way back from a facial abscess we thought would kill him. Every single day, around sunset, his old walk time, he staggers to his feet and demands to go out.


We move through the weeks, trapped at home because we’re afraid to leave Casey alone; sleep-deprived from listening for the sound of him trying to get up in the night. We are driven to rage by the click-clicking of his nails as he turns in endless circles. In Elder World, we told each other, “If they were dogs, we could be merciful and end this.” Now it is a dog, and we can’t pull the plug. Which makes me think of the old people again, and how insistently the will to hang on demands respect. And another thing they taught me: that although caregiving feels endless, it always ends, though the empty space after doesn’t.

When Casey disappeared a few nights ago, I searched the house, then the yards with a flashlight, increasingly panicked, calling his name, though I knew he couldn’t hear me. Finally, after 20 minutes, I found him hidden behind a plant, frozen in place at the very edge of our back deck. He sensed the drop before him but couldn’t figure out what to do next.

“This can’t go on,” we tell each other; it goes on. When Casey doesn’t make it outside, we wipe up the mess. We help him to his feet in the morning, feed him by hand. We walk him, coax him to the end of the block — 30 minutes for what used to take five. We watch him sleep, looking for movement to signal he’s still alive. Think “how much longer will he last?” — and “It would be better if it wasn’t too long.”

Then we carefully turn away from those thoughts and get out his dinner, because the old man will probably be hungry when he wakes.








Opinion: U.S. cities are overrun with feral cats, and magical thinking isn’t the solution

Los Angeles Times


The alleys, parks and vacant lots of this country are alive with so many stray and feral cats that we don’t even know the precise number. Thirty-two million, says one estimate; triple that, another. The felines are the offspring of pets we didn’t bother to “fix,” the animals we adopted then dumped or left behind.

In the past, we called them pests and tried — brutally, unsuccessfully — to wipe them out. Today, the accepted strategy is to catch and sterilize them, then send them back outside, where they were. “Trap-neuter-release,” as the approach is called, has been hailed by the no-kill movement, which opposes routine euthanasia by animal shelters. And it has been adopted by animal control departments in more than 400 cities and counties. (Los Angeles has its own plan in the works.)

In theory, the tactic seems like an easy solution that lets us all sleep well: We don’t want these animals, but we also don’t want their blood on our hands. In reality, and as emphasized by a recent flare-up over the practices of Orange County’s public animal shelter system, it’s not that simple.

Originally, the promise of trap-neuter-release was to reduce stray and feral populations by curbing their prolific breeding — cats are fertile by six months of age and can give birth multiple times a year. But for cat populations to fall, more than 50% of the females in a given “colony,” or living group, need to be sterilized. That’s not easy, given cats’ ability to hide — and the fact that known colonies become dumping grounds for more unwanted, often unfixed, pets. As a result, herd sterilization hasn’t ever been achieved on a mass scale.

The approach has skeptics for other reasons, too. Many scientists, birders and wildlife managers oppose trap-neuter-release programs in general, noting that free-ranging cats are destructive predators, annually killing billions of birds and mammals, while also spreading diseases like toxoplasmosis.

The programs have been successful in one way, however. They have enabled shelters to sharply reduce the number of feral cats they impound, then euthanize, at a time when public shelters face immense pressure to reach a no-kill ideal, usually defined as not euthanizing any healthy or adoptable animals. An added bonus is reduced taxpayer cost: sterilizing and releasing cats costs less than housing, feeding and then killing them.

How well the cats themselves fare is less clear than you might imagine. Contrary to popular belief, cats are not self-sustaining. That means colonies under the watchful eye of caretakers willing to devote considerable time and money to their welfare may thrive. Those without human guardians may suffer from malnutrition, infection and parasites. Some of the cats get hit by cars or eaten by coyotes. Even the authors of a paper lauding trap-neuter-release programs acknowledged that “the welfare outcome for cats returned to location of origin were not tracked … [and] little research on this topic could be found.”

Some shelters run neuter-and-return programs in which individual strays that are brought in by concerned residents aren’t put up for adoption, but rather are neutered and returned to where they were initially found. In October, a lawyer representing a group of animal rescues and individuals sent Orange County Animal Care, the county’s government-run shelter network, a demand that it stop its practice of “abandoning” these cats.

According to signatory Sharon Logan, some of the more than 1,000 cats Orange County released between September 2018 and June 2019 weren’t feral, but roaming, lost or abandoned pets, or kittens still young enough to be socialized and made adoptable. Some were sick, she said, and in many cases, communities where the cats were returned weren’t told the felines were coming. There was often “no obvious presence of a feeder or caretaker.” As a result, she said, the animals suffered. Carol Barnes, another signatory to the letter, shared photos of one cat she said was released by Orange County and later found malnourished, with broken ribs, an upper respiratory infection and an injured eye crawling with maggots.

An Orange County Animal Care representative declined to comment, but a research and policy analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, which runs similar programs, has called some of the critics’ claims “misinformation and scaremongering.”

The answer? No one who’s ever loved a house cat or felt moved to feed a hungry feral (that includes me) wants to return to mass killing. And well-run trap-neuter-release programs may be an important part of dealing with our national cat problem. But increased and organized efforts to educate humans about their responsibilities to their animals are also crucial. So is more rigorous enforcement of existing spay/neuter laws and far more access to affordable services.

Maybe most of all, we need to abandon what one cat lover described to me as “magical thinking” — pretending that the only thing that matters is keeping stray cats alive; believing that any one effort holds a simple, painless solution. These fictions serve mostly to comfort those responsible for our cat problem in the first place. That is, us.