Downtown L.A.: A Geographer’s Perspective

Downtown L.A.  This was the trip I had been waiting to take since I became a geography major and heard about the class called The Urban Scene.  We would get to go to the heart of downtown and see each of the different districts.  I would once again get the chance to be surrounded by tall buildings as I had done all the time in Japan.  So why was I so excited about a trip to downtown L.A.?  Couldn’t I go there and see it for myself whenever I wanted?

Unfortunately, no.  I have an embarrassing secret.  I don’t drive on the freeway.  There is something about freeways, and California freeways in particular that scares me senseless.  It’s bad enough to hear about all the car accidents on the news and just being a passenger while driving on the freeway; watching as cars zip in and out at alarming speeds as cars practically shove at each other to change lanes when the roads are packed.  No thanks.  As someone who occasionally suffers from anxiety, the mere thought of missing an exit and then getting lost can drive me crazy.

I have driven on the freeway twice.  The first time by accident thanks to the fact that all the surface lanes but one merged into the freeway.  I was terrified but luckily had a friend riding with me who was able to guide me back to surface roads.  The second time was by choice because I had to drop off someone at a location that for some insane reason was only accessible by freeway roads.  What is worse was that this freeway is always packed with port trucks, carrying containers from Long Beach and Los Angeles ports.  Even normal people have told me they are scared of driving there because of the massive trucks surrounding them on all sides.

But back to the topic of downtown L.A.  This field trip was part of a group paper where we had to write about the different features that make up a downtown.  Plus we had to examine a particular section of downtown and decide if it lived up to the good qualities all downtowns should have.  My group chose the area along Spring Street for that part.  Our downtown qualifications came from two books assigned for the class, America’s New Downtowns by Larry Ford and Walkable City by Jeff Speck.  (You can see a TED talk by Jeff Speck here).

First off we observed downtown L.A. as a whole and graded it based on its physical site, street morphology, civic space, office/skyline, retail anchors, hotels/convention facilities, major attractions, historic districts/support zones, residential activity and variety, and transit options.

Physical site got a low grade due to lack variety in topography and waters sources.  It doesn’t sit by an ocean or even any rivers and lakes.  The only sign of water my group spotted was the fountain in Pershing Square.  The flatness of the landscape though does make the area good for walking and public transportation.  It does have a bit of a sense of place with the high rise buildings.  Street morphology, as stated above is good for pedestrians, with short blocks and lots of connections to alleyways to help with traffic congestion.  There are also several one-way streets that are supposed to aid in the flow of traffic.

Civic space was rated highly and my group noted that such space can be in many different forms, including the Staples Center, the Grand Central Market, Macy’s at 7th Street and Figueroa Street and even downtown L.A. as a whole.  This is due in part to the great cultural diversity located there and the ability of people from all types of backgrounds to mix and mingle.  The skyline also got a high rating from us as there are several uniquely designed buildings and a variety of style and height.  Our top picks were the U.S. Bank Tower (tallest), the Aon Center (2nd tallest) but somewhat lacking in creative design with its plain black sides, Two California Plaza (3rd tallest) and the Ritz Carlton, which while not as tall as the others has interesting design with multiple shades of blue and with lights running along the sides at night.

Retail space got a high rating but lacked somewhat in variety of store type.  There were both large and small shops, most at ground level with few enclosed malls.  The largest shopping center is L.A. Live, which serves both the local and tourist communities.  Some of the stores include Sport Chalet, H&M and upscale restaurants.  Overall, most stores were apparel outlets, restaurants or coffee shops.  Groceries, household goods and specialty shops were far less.  Hotels and convention facilities were also in abundance.  Many are of course located near the Staples Center and other major attractions.  Most of the hotels are expensive and serve tourists, but there are also less expensive ones that are more affordable for downtown residents.  The convention centers there serve many different types of events from sports to religion with both free and paid events.

Major attractions as stated above include events at the Staples Center.  One of the biggest is the Los Angeles Lakers, who have a huge fan base with a dedicated Lakers culture ingrained there.  With the many convention centers there is plenty to attract people to the downtown area, with sports, bands, shows and even bars and restaurants.  As for historic buildings, there are plenty of those as well with some dating to the 1920s.  My group found historic buildings on almost every block and most were well preserved and still used as office buildings, hotels or tourist destinations.  Two examples are the Bradbury and Roosevelt buildings.  The Bradbury was hands down my favorite as the architectural style and detail was amazing!  There is even a statue of Charlie Chaplin there.  I highly recommend a visit if one is ever in downtown L.A.

Residential activity scored much lower for my group due to the lack of affordable housing.  There were quite a few beautiful sky-rise condos and lofts but not much in the way for an average person to own.  There was a stark contrast with either the very rich or the very poor living in downtown.  The presence of Skid Row means many homeless people live just blocks away from well-off tourist spots.  My group saw one single-room occupancy hotel, but it had a waiting list of several months.  Public transit fared better with the options of the Metro and Dash Buses.  The Metro stops at popular sites such as Pershing Square and Union Station.  Dash stops are all over city making commuting around downtown efficient and easy.  Taxis and private transportation are also there along with public parking lots.  Bike lanes are placed throughout the city too usually painted green.

For Spring Street, we examined it based on three main categories convenience, aesthetics and safety.  Convenience was broken down into other sections, including restaurants, bars, coffee/tea shops, grocery, household goods, public transport, bike lanes, parking, sidewalks and short blocks/alleys.  For aesthetics, we looked at historic buildings, public plazas and parks, trees/vegetation, street furniture and street art/street performers.  Safety included street lighting, police/security personnel, waste management, homelessness and medical facilities.

Because my group examined so many factors relating to Spring Street, I will not talk about each section just some of the highlights.  Under convenience, we found that there were mostly coffee and tea shops along with some bars and restaurants.  Fast food though was not as common.  There were few grocery store, mostly small convenience stores and liquor markets.  There was one large and old (116 years to be precise) furniture store called Dearden’s Home Furnishings, but it lacks competition and thus variety of goods.  It did have the basics though and so could supply residents with what they needed.  Public transportation here like in the rest of downtown L.A. was good with buses and the Metro as well as private vehicle access and bike lanes.  There was both street and garage parking (but pricey), and good, large sidewalks that allowed easy access and even dining patios for restaurants.  The blocks were short and alleys used for getting to residential areas easily.

Under aesthetics, we found many historic buildings, such as the Alexandria Hotel (1906), Cole’s, Originators of the French Dip (1908) and Spring Arcade (1942).  There were no plazas or parks though and vegetation was mostly in the form of some trees and potted plants.  Street furniture was almost nonexistent with not even benches for bus stops.  The same goes for street performers who were nowhere to be seen.  Street art on the other hand was very prominent with many different murals on various buildings, benches and other items.

Under safety, we found adequate street lighting that was evenly spaced along the street and consisted of several types as well as designs.  There was not much in security though as we only saw surveillance cameras at some stores, one patrol car and one bike patrol though my group felt safe as we walked along because of the general atmosphere of the area.  This included the cleanliness as we did not see any trash littering the area and there were plenty of trash cans along the street with none overflowing.  Those that were full were emptied out by city workers.  As for homelessness, my group only saw two homeless people, one who was walking and another who was sitting with a sleeping bag.  There were no medical facilities in the area, which meant a low score for that section.  Overall my group liked Spring Street and decided it would be a good place to live within downtown L.A.

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4 thoughts on “Downtown L.A.: A Geographer’s Perspective

  1. Great post about DTLA. You right, it is a very controversial place with amazing skyscrapers in financial district and the Skid Row very close to them. One of my fave place in LA is The Last Bookstore. Have you been there?

    • Thank you! I’m glad you liked the post. No, I haven’t been to The Last Bookstore though I have heard of it and am planning to see it at some point. There’s nothing quite as fun as wondering around a used bookstore. I have been to the the central library though, which I’m going to write about in a future post.

  2. Pingback: Discourse Analysis in Downtown Los Angeles – GeoMaster

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