There Is A “There” There

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Ice skaters in front of the Tower of London, with the Norman Foster-designed City Hall in the backgroundI write from chilly London (to rainy LA) where I have joined my family for the holidays. London, like other mega-cities, is trying to find ways to remain liveable with its ever expanding population and teeming central city streets. Its preoccupations are echoed in major cities worldwide, including in less dense LA.

This became crystal clear when I was working on the show for this month and two seemingly unrelated segments came together under a common theme: quest for community.

We had already decided to do a story on the Downtown Women’s Center, designed by Sullivan + Pica Architects, not only because it was a natural for a show that aired in the season of giving, but it was interesting architecturally – a redo of a historic industrial building (that was developed in the 1920s by Florence Casler one of the few women developers past or present) with an intentionally unshowy but appealing design for homeless women by a team of largely women architects and interior designers.

We had also already decided to a segment on the Rose Parade; I was recently introduced to one of its leading float designers, Raul Rodriguez, and realized a look under the skirts of this classic LA extravaganza was long overdue.

Raul Rodriguez talks to DnA about his designs for the Rose Parade
Raul Rodriguez talks to DnA about his designs for the Rose Parade (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

(I also had another, more personal reason, for covering the Rose Parade. I was introduced to its charms by my dearest friend John Chase – he took me to see the floats a few years ago. John died this year and I just know he would have loved to hear the floral creations get their due. One of John’s virtues was his ecumenicism – he adored what some would dismiss as kitsch every bit as much as “high art” architecture.)

But then I started working on the first segment — a “voxpop” of picks of “the best thing to happen to the built environment in LA in 2010” (as a counterpoint to the sense that there has been little built in this bleak economy)  – and found a theme emerging that connected these stories: a desire for a sense of place and community in a place commonly thought not to possess either.

It was fascinating how most people coalesced around a theme of public engagement with city rather than a specific building. Juan Devis, Producer of Departures, KCET’s exploration of LA culture, for example, chose the rise of bike culture – specifically the extension of the LA River bike path and CicLAvia, the one day event which closed streets to traffic so as to open them to cyclists and pedestrians, serving, in his view, as a great leveler of class and ethnicity and neighborhood. His perspective was shared by the Urban Land Institute’s Katherine Perez; but she also chose the high quality architecture on Skid Row as did Huffpo’s Guy Horton; both felt good design provides a sense of pride in neighborhood long missing from utilitarian facilities for the homeless. Rochelle Mills of Architours, and a resident of South LA, chose the Expo Line, rising steadily along Exposition Blvd south of the 10. She was passionate about the way this line is already acting as a generator of excitement and development in a part of LA that’s long been left out of the action. Sam Lubell picked the choice of Diller, Scofidio and Renfro to design Eli Broad’s new art museum in downtown, on the grounds that this might serve as the essential glue in a collection of landmark buildings that currently have “no there there.”

Volunteers at work at Fiesta Parade Floats
Volunteers at work at Fiesta Parade Floats (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Such a critique might be applied more widely to the LA region. But what emerged on the show was that whether through engaging in the annual mobile barn-raising that is the Rose Parade, or coexisting with other homeless people in an increasingly well-serviced Skid Row, or turning the streets temporarily from thoroughfares into public spaces, the Southland does have a “there there.”