Pershing Square Tour: History

Los Angeles – the city so many claim has no downtown – actually has two. The “new” downtown shines with glassy skyscrapers whose height, if not spread, is the match of any major metropolis. The other, the “old” downtown, sits just three or four blocks away – almost like a Hollywood set, circa 1930.

Founded tight on the banks of the Los Angeles River (a big mistake, early settlers soon learned), downtown’s growth spread quite naturally onto the available grasslands to the south. Generally, the hard-to-develop hills to the north and northwest were avoided, as was that unpredictable river to the east and northeast.

So, southward the little town grew. When the railroads arrived in the 1870’s and 1880’s growth skyrocketed and with each decade, downtown’s hub crept steadily southward and – once it cleared Bunker Hill – westward. By 1940, Pershing Square was at the epicenter of downtown Los Angeles. The problem was, downtown was no longer the epicenter of Los Angeles.

Suburbanization – born of a far-reaching streetcar system, was no stranger to Los Angeles. But with the arrival of affordable automobiles in the 1920s, many area residents who used to travel by trolley to Spring Street banks, Seventh Street department stores and Broadway theatres, soon viewed downtown as irrelevant. Why should they wrestle with downtown car and streetcar congestion when everthing they needed – the banks, department and grocery stores, movie palaces, dentist and doctor offices were now just a few minutes’ drive from their homes – and with free parking, to boot? The opening of Bullocks Wilshire in 1929 (whose main entrance was around back, off the parking lot) had kicked off the trend and by the 1950s, massive, regional suburban shopping malls were going up all over the Southland.

Meanwhile, downtown was dying. Urban planners were hired to save it. As downtown promoters agreed, “We need more parking. We need wider streets. We need grander plazas and taller buildings. We need a modern look.” But, as the saying goes, “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” To post-World War II urban planners, urban blight was the problem and the bulldozer the hammer. While the concepts of “re-vitalization” and “adaptive re-use” may have been in their lexicons, there were rarely put to practice.

Accordingly, Bunker Hill’s decaying tenement houses and pot-holed parking lots were bulldozed to oblivion, the hill smoothed and reduced by thirty feet. Up went modern, glass and concrete towers with broad plazas, underground parking – even an underground avenue. New skyscrapers flowed down off the hill, down the Figueroa and Flower Streets corridors (easily accessed from the adjacent Harbor Freeway) creating a “new” downtown business district for Los Angeles.

It’s a Fact…

If Hollywood movie makers are seeking a 1930s-era New York City street scene, they need look no further than downtown Los Angeles. On Spring Street, the former “Wall Street of the West” fully 85% of its 1930s-era buildings remain standing!

Ironically, the creation of a new downtown saved the old one. As banks, insurance companies, law firms and doctors relocated to Bunker Hill, they abandoned their former offices. Those office buildings, no longer choice downtown properties, either remained empty or were re-occupied by ground floor Latino retailers or workers employed in the growing jewelry industry. So with the “big money” now to the west and up atop Bunker Hill, the old downtown remained largely intact.

So there you have it. MTA’s Pershing Square station sits smack in the middle of LA’s two downtowns – the old and the new, making it one of the best places to begin your tour of downtown Los Angeles.

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