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.