Discourse Analysis in Downtown Los Angeles

Our next Field Methods class took us to downtown Los Angeles (DTLA).  Thanks to a previous geography class called Urban Scene, I was already familiar with DTLA.  You can see the post I did on that trip here: Downtown L.A.: A Geographer’s Perspective.  For this class, instead of examining the physical and architectural aspects of the landscape, we examined the social constructs that define DTLA.  There are several districts within DTLA, such as the Historic District, Fashion District, Arts District, Civic Center, Bunker Hill, Chinatown, Financial District, Gallery Row, Historic Core, Jewelry District, Toy District, Little Tokyo, Flower District, Skid Row and so on.  My group attempted to walk through each of these areas and analyze the social-spatial construction of each one: what kind of people and business were found in each one, and what kind of socially constructed rules were found there as well.

All in all this trip was much like the one done in downtown Long Beach (see post here: Drifting Through Downtown Long Beach).  We wandered around each area taking note of what we saw and how we felt about each of these areas.  We took great caution passing through Skid Row and admired the beauty of the older buildings in the Historic District and Historic Core.  We saw the vitality and importance of the Jewelry, Toy and Fashion Districts, which provide wholesale merchandise to many businesses elsewhere in L.A.  What caught my attention above all else is how all of these very different areas are all packed together in such a continuous flow.  The tall, expensive business, condo and hotel buildings are only a few blocks or even just a few streets away from sections of poverty and the homeless population.   This shows just how diverse and large a downtown can be.

If you want to know more about what we saw and did in each of these areas as well as view a few some photos, you can read the following report my group and I wrote for the research assignment for November 2014.

Discourse analysis can be used as a technique for deconstructing status quo frameworks. This is a method for reading texts, including landscapes, for social and cultural information. “Discourses are thus sets of ideas ‘and’ practices that give statements, texts, rhetorics, and narratives particular kinds of meanings” (Waitt 2010, p. 215). Social theorist, Michel Foucault, rejected labels and developed Foucauldian discourse analysis in order to view the relationship of power and knowledge. Foucault “focused his analysis on the way a dominant identity that is self-defined as ‘normal’ is usually structured in opposition to some external Other defined (by members of the dominant group) in contradistinction to the dominant identity as ‘abnormal’” (Waitt 2010, p. 217). People tend to develop attitudes and practices around perceived meanings of “themed statements that have a unifying and powerful effect on what counts as knowledge” (Waitt 2010, p. 218).

Skyscrapers in DTLA. Photo by Rachel Vann-Foster.

Skyscrapers in DTLA. Photo by Rachel Vann-Foster.

Much like Foucault, many human geographers are reluctant to catalogue their methodological discourse analysis practices with two notable exceptions: Gordon Waitt and Gillian Rose. Berg (2009: 219-220) summarizes their advice into seven key elements. A researcher using discourse analysis should seek to: suspend normative categories (employ a ‘beginner’s mind’); become familiar with the study texts; code thematic aspects of texts; look for ‘truth’; identify discursive inconsistencies; acknowledge silences; and attend to social contexts. We sought to explore Downtown Los Angeles utilizing this sort of discourse analysis methodology. We will be focusing on the Central City East District, better known as Skid Row, in comparison to other districts in Downtown Los Angeles. Some of the questions we attempt to answer are: what discursive frameworks are at work in the socio-spatial constitution of Downtown LA? Through what ‘texts’ in this landscape are particular discourse visible? How do these texts intersect to make sense of the (a) social and spatial scene, or to hide or complicate certain ‘truths’? Do your and other’s responses serve to confirm or deny certain discourses? How so? Which one(s)? We incorporated reflexivity in our observations in order to consider our own place in Downtown Los Angeles.

Study Site
During the late nineteenth century the Los Angeles population soared for 11,000 to 97,000. At that time businesses began to migrate into the area of Los Angeles now referred to as the Historical District, however the area did not become a true urban hub until the early twentieth century (see Figure 1) (Downtown Center Business Improvement District 2014). The other districts in Downtown are: the Arts District, Bunker Hill, Civic Center, Chinatown, El Pueblo, the Fashion District, the Financial District, Gallery Row, Historic Core, the Jewelry District, Little Tokyo, South Park, the Toy District, and Skid Row (Central City East District). Ironically, Skid Row does not appear on most maps of Downtown Los Angeles (see Figure 2 and 3).

Downtown Los Angeles has seen multiple revitalizations; the most recent can be attributed to the 1998 formation of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District (DCBID). The DCBID is a coalition of approximately 1,200 property owners. “Bounded by the Harbor Freeway to west, First Street to the north, Main and Hill streets to the east, and Olympic Boulevard and 9th Street to the South, the organization helps the 65-block Central Business District achieve its full potential as a great place to live, work and play” (Downtown Center Business Improvement District 2014).

In his 1992 book “City of Quartz” Mike Davis devoted an entire chapter to critically discuss the way in which the architecture and design of Downtown became exclusionary to many residents. Davis (1992) discusses the use of subsidies for “white collar colonization” of Downtown Los Angeles in contract to the active policy making focused on making the area “as unlivable as possible for the homeless and the poor” (Davis 1992, p. 160). A variety of tactics have been employed to corral the homeless population into the ‘Skid Row’ area by modifying structures, such as park benches and entryways, to be unwelcoming and uncomfortable. One of the cruelest modifications employed was the removal of public toilets. “Los Angeles, as a matter of deliberate policy, has fewer public lavatories than any other major North American city” (Davis 1992, p. 163). There are only five public toilets in the fifty-two block area, which is home to anywhere between 8,000 to 11,000 people at any given time (see Figure 4). In 2013 all of these went “dark” when vandals stole their computer chips (Burgess 2013).

Figure 4: One of skid row's five automated public toilets on the corner of 5th and Los Angeles; Photo by Hayley Burgess, Neon Tommy.

Figure 4: One of skid row’s five automated public toilets on the corner of 5th and Los Angeles; Photo by Hayley Burgess, Neon Tommy.

For Downtown Los Angeles, we used the discourse analysis method to examine the structure and rules of the city and looked for ways in which such socially constructed rules are being maintained via different text formats. To further embrace ourselves in the Downtown lifestyle, we rode the Blue Line Metro train from Willow Station in Long Beach to the 7th Street/Metro Center station in Downtown Los Angeles. We then switched to the red line train, which took us to Pershing Square station, our starting point. All along our walk we took photos and discussed what we saw.

From Pershing Square, we walked along 5th Street, heading east into the Historic District (see Figure 5). We then continued on into the Central City East District and eventually came upon the edge of Skid Row along Wall Street.  From there we walked south along Wall Street and turned right onto 5th Street, heading west. This led us into the Jewelry District where we stopped at one point to get coffee at a cafe. Afterwards we continued along 5th Street and then turned right onto Spring Street, which took us north back into the Historic District. We walked along Spring Street until we turned left (west) onto 3rd Street. Then we turned left onto Hill Street and headed south.

We stopped to look at Angel’s Flight, which is located across from the Central Market. We then continued till we turned left onto 4th Street, heading east until turning right back onto Broadway and walked south along that street until coming across a small pizza shop called Two Boots Pizza. We stopped there for lunch and discussed what we had seen so far on our journey through Downtown Los Angeles. From Two Boots, we continued south along Broadway, turning right (west) onto 8th Street and then right (north) onto Hill Street. We then turned left (west) onto 7th Street and right (north) onto Olive Street, which brought us back to Pershing Square.

At Pershing Square, we went west along 5th Street and entered the Financial District. We stopped and went into the Biltmore Hotel and then continued south along 5th Street, passing the Los Angeles County Central Library. We also took a moment to look inside here because of its significance as a major library. We were exited the library at Flower Street and went south until turning left onto 6th Street, heading east until turning right (south) onto Hope Street. We then turned right (west) onto Wilshire Boulevard and finally left (south) onto Flower Street where we stopped at a coffee shop at the corner of Flower Street and 7th Street. This shop was across the street from the 7th Street/Metro Center Station where we concluded our journey through Downtown Los Angeles.

Map of our route. Image from OpenStreetMap.

Map of our route. Image from OpenStreetMap.

Figure 5: Route through Downtown Los Angeles

We began our journey by exiting the subway at Pershing Square Station. Upon exiting the subway there was an abnormal absence of homelessness and other transient related problems that can often be observed in urban public space. We walked East on 5th Street away from the Square through the Historic District towards the Central City East District (see Point 1 on Figure 5). At the cusp of Los Angeles’ Skid Row we were greeted by many seemingly homeless and mentally and physically ill occupants. The streets were littered with paper cups, broken glass, and articles of clothing. There were multiple instances of people found sleeping. Other inhabitants of the area were hauling around blankets and boxes and pushing carts of other personal belongings that would seem worthless to the average person. There was a police station on the corner of 6th Street and Wall Street that had little effect on the activities of the residents. There were few places to shop, no public restrooms, and next to no public space to sit down.

We headed south on Wall Street and turned east on 6th Street en route toward the Jewelry District (see Point 2 on Figure 5). As we distanced ourselves from our previous area the number of homeless observed quickly dwindled. While this was not an upscale area, the presence of cafes and shops became more prevalent. We purchased coffee beverages from one of the coffee shops costing $4.50 for a cappuccino. Next to the coffee shop was a convenience store selling mock tourist merchandise with Skid Row as the focal point and spectacle (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Skid Row tourist merchandise; Photo by Kelsey George.

Figure 6: Skid Row tourist merchandise; Photo by Kelsey George.

From here we travelled north on Spring Street until 3rd Street where we ultimately ended up trekking south on Broadway through the heart of the Historic District and back into the Jewelry District (see Point 3 on Figure 5). This area had a swap meet feel to it. Storefronts were decorated with cheap merchandise.  It was more ethnically diverse here, but heavily Latino.  We observed clear signs of gentrification occurring on Broadway with the presence of ‘hipster’ clothing store Urban Outfitters. A Gap store was under construction at the ground level a large apartment building, which was having renovations done to the façade. The presence of these new businesses in this district presented as the emerging culture, as the previous dominant cultures are slowly getting pushed out.

With the Financial District in mind for our final destination, we travelled along the streets that contain this wealthier section of Downtown (see Point 4 on Figure 5). Immediately we noticed the dominance of white, middle-upper class professionals. The streets and sidewalks were free of any litter and the little parkways present were manicured. The area did not have any panhandling or loitering and the occupants of this space seemed comfortable walking. The area housed lounges, fine dining, and beautiful hotels. The district was also elevated on a hill above the rest of Downtown, which further illustrated its dominance over the rest of Downtown.

During our discourse analysis of Downtown Los Angeles, we noticed signs of social inequality in the use of public space as argued by Mike Davis (Davis 1992). There is an increasing desire to push those deemed undesirable out of Downtown and contain them into a small area. The tactics we observed included spikes on park bench and round bench designs (see Figure 7) to prevent the homeless from sleeping in the public space. We observed several people sleeping while sitting up as a result of these modified benches (see Figure 8). The towering skyscrapers that resemble militant architecture have shallow setbacks and eaves that provide little shelter from rain. Public businesses have restrooms available only to paying customers to keep the unwanted out, which further illustrates their presence is not invited. At first glance, or to the average person walking by who does not rely on public space for livelihood, these tactics are nearly unnoticeable. After a more critical analysis of the space one can see that these are symbols of inequality that say specific demographics are unwelcomed.

Furthermore, there is evidence to rid the Central City East District (Skid Row) of the homeless entirely, where the city has aimed to contain them. There is no running water and no working public toilets available to the residents of the district. City services like trash collection and police/fire enforcement is seemingly non-existent, despite the proximity to the police station on Wall Street. The brutal activity that occurs in the area goes unnoticed by police as a method of making the residents so uncomfortable they leave on their own. The area is gentrifying and eventually the land that is currently occupied by the disadvantaged will be in such high demand that more intense measures may be used to remove them for good.

As women walking in this district we became very concerned for our safety. One of us had a rolling computer bag and stated that she felt like she had “target” written all over her. Concern for our personal safety resulted in our decision to get out of ‘Skid Row’ after only venturing one block into the area. Although our group felt an immense empathy for the inhabitants for Skid Row, and the greater Downtown Los Angeles area, we were very aware of the safety risks posed to us particularly as women in a high crime zone.

We sought to explore Downtown Los Angeles utilizing this sort of discourse analysis methodology. In our analysis we noted the truths of the Central City East District, more specifically Skid Row, were hidden to those outside of the area. If one were to actually walk or drive through the area an immediate landscape shift would occur. The majority of people would become distressed and feel unsafe in this atmosphere; we suspect that many of those who sleep in Skid Row also feel unsafe. The socio-spatial constitution of Downtown Los Angeles was structured so as to contain the homeless population to the Skid Row area by making the other districts as unwelcoming as possible. The lack of covered entryways, comfortable benches, and public restrooms were among the most visible ‘texts’ present.


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