Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

norman m. klein

los angeles
downtown
norman m. klein

interview by CECELIA STUCKER AND OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by GIANNI OPRANDI

Norman Klein’s celebrated book, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, looks at this fragmented city, made of so many layers that it only exists in the stories we make up about it, and not so much in what we see of it today. We met at the Grand Central Market and talked about the history of Downtown LA, a place Klein describes as a financial fantasy of the ’80s, retrofitted from its glamorous origins in the 1920s and now part of the resurrection of East LA.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, Norman, what is Downtown LA? It looks like any American city.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Well, LA was a very small city at first, centered around the downtown. The Spanish government didn’t discover it for 250 years. They arrived in southern Mexico by 1519, swallowed the entire country, but thought this place, way up north, was nowhere, a mud-bound nothingness. They arrived finally in the 1750s and built a tiny village following the small river. The village had maybe 600 people, then crept to about 2,000 in 1840. It was mostly poor people at first, then a few rich cattle barons. But after the Civil War, it started to grow a bit faster. Most of all, it was transformed away from cattle to crops. This basin was an ancient lake, and like all ancient lakes, the land was incredibly rich for growing things. The lake bed was sloped and rose somewhere around Bunker Hill, where they noticed the air on top was perfect! A strange mist pushes from the water to the arid interior. It was called haze, even in the 1880s. They had haze all over the basin … And above the haze was this extremely desirable place, Bunker Hill. So, by the 1880s and ’90s, they’d built mansions here, and then hotels, and it became the most glamorous section of this new city.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The ’20s were the glorious era of Downtown, right?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — The ’20s were more or less the peak of Downtown. It wasn’t as big as, say, Chicago’s downtown, and the area around it was agricultural, with citrus farms and pepper trees.

CECELIA STUCKER — And how did this relic funicular called Angels Flight fit into the downtown cityscape?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Angels Flight was built in 1901 to connect the Bunker Hill area above to the heart of the city, which had grown around Broadway, a street name borrowed from New York. Broadway was a key street. Every downtown has to have a street where all the classes meet. Angels Flight cost five cents to ride. Otherwise, you could walk up the hill. Broadway had all the big department stores, the best doctors, and theaters — live theater, too, not just movie theaters. That’s why a lot of the old cinemas have big stages. They would have performers singing and dancing. And back then, they had to have room for an orchestra.

OLIVIER ZAHM — For the silent films.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yes. Very glamorous. This was really the heart of the entertainment and department store district, including a 19th-century-style shopping arcade. That’s where the classes met in public.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Could you see the ocean from Bunker Hill?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — On a clear day you could see 35 miles, to Santa Catalina Island. Eventually the haze became smog, which is evident in photos from the 1880s, when there was no pollution. Haze made the coastline less attractive to the Spaniards, who didn’t want soft fog or mud. Then, in the period from the 1880s to the late ’20s, downtown experienced enormous, intense growth. Yankee businessmen looking for a place to build large came here. By then, this was basically the Saudi Arabia of America. LA County was also the food basket of America, rivaling Midwest farmers. And also, with the ports and a vast trolley system, Southern California finally had big muscles. Imagine a city that was the food basket and the oil basket of a country. How big would that city be?

OLIVIER ZAHM — And cinema was starting in the ’20s?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — We think of cinema in LA. But as we know, cinema started as much in France as in any other country. By the time it arrived in LA, the city was already a giant. So, how did Pathé and Gaumont fuck up? [Laughs] Why’d they lose it?! First France, then London and New York. So, how did cinema wind up here? It happened in stages, from 1912. Then New York investors became more comfortable sponsoring film companies in LA. They found it easier to capitalize, so most of the New York film companies moved out here. By 1923, they were building big studios.

CECELIA STUCKER — And this was all occurring adjacent to Downtown?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yes! Oddly enough, on Glendale Boulevard. That’s where Hollywood started, from around 1912 through 1916. Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park was then called Edendale. It had the Mack Sennett Studios in 1914, which was part of the “floating class” story. In the midst of this environment, Charlie Chaplin invents the Tramp on Glendale Boulevard. Then various studios cropped up just west of Edendale, in Silver Lake and Los Feliz. But the city of LA hated the movie people. First, because the women had too much sex and they smoked. [Laughs] Second, because the men had too much sex and smoked with them. And third, there were so many Jews. They hated the Jews — except the German Jews, who were good for business. Film people were hated by the LA business leaders, by rooming-house owners… They hated the actors and the instability of what I call in my new book the “floating class.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — So Downtown LA was already a financial place?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — It was the financial center, with many banks. And as you know, in order to stay rich, newcomers must sacrifice by being poor. But it was in-migration, not immigration. People from other cities came here. Some farmers came with start-up capital. Many came with nothing but the shirts on their backs.

CECELIA STUCKER — That’s the frontier legacy…
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Oh, yeah. Like gold fever up in Northern California in 1849. When gold or anything is first discovered, there’s a very short window. A few people get it, which creates a tremendous, strange fever, and thousands flock for it but go home empty-handed. Some drifted here from the goldfields. One theory is that when the real estate booms started in the 1880s, when LA grew really fast, that fake growth was like gold fever … same as London in the 1980s, when dingy East London was just getting on its feet. You went there, and it was funky and sweet. Now you go to East London and can smell the money walking around.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the money came to Downtown LA.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yes. The best and worst of it started with the mid-century plans, the freeways, knocking down buildings. Car circulation violated Downtown LA, and all but destroyed the western edges. This came at the time when investment reversed direction into the suburbs and the Westside. The population Downtown dropped by at least 80%. When I first arrived, in the mid-’70s, Downtown LA had nothing. The cultural life was gone. I walked through the relative garbage heap of a once-proud downtown, and remember saying to myself, “LA is the city of the future, 15 years too late.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — What happened to Downtown LA in the late ’60s?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — During the postwar era, by the late ’60s, Downtown had filled mostly with parking lots. The new leadership didn’t know how to bring Downtown back. There was a flock of high-rises, without much result. In the ’60s, they decided to follow cultural trends and built the Music Center.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t they want to keep a strong financial or business center there?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yes! However, business headquarters began to drift out of Downtown in the ’60s and ’70s. Many banks and their headquarters moved to Century City and even to the San Fernando Valley — towns like Encino. Economic power left the city like rats leaving a sinking ship.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But what about all these huge buildings?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yeah, that kept on going. But they failed to reverse the pattern. By the 1990s, the rents were so cheap, during the recession, that some loft spaces rented for a dollar a square foot. Now they’re maybe a hundred times that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It was that cheap?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Of course. Why would you go to LA, the land of sunshine, and live Downtown? Why not go to Chicago’s downtown, or New York, which was still cheap after the near-bankruptcy of 1975?

OLIVIER ZAHM — But they still constructed new buildings, like the Bonaventure, my favorite one.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — But that was a hotel with a problem because it got caught up in the midst of the erasure of the west end of Downtown.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You think it was a mistake?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Would you say that the Tour Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement in Paris was a mistake? High-rises must belong to what lies around them. In LA, it was an official mistake because money kept fleeing in the ’90s. LA wasn’t made to be high in this particular way — or so many people believed.

CECELIA STUCKER — So, LA was meant to grow outward, as it’s also done.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yes, outward and in sedimentary layers. Southern California has these crazy layers. We know that mid-century architecture created a lot of masterpieces in the hills of LA, but Downtown faded anyway. There was a flourish of postmodern architecture, mostly near the beach towns 10 miles west. That left the Bonaventure in between, perhaps 15 years too late. In order for LA to grow and prosper, it couldn’t grow by large districts, the way Paris, New York, Tokyo, or Chicago did. These cities have huge, well-established districts. LA expanded by annexing little towns, which voted to join the city — 35 towns over a period of 30 years. Some were too poor to afford a police station or even a name with a charter. These non-towns were called unincorporated areas. What resulted was an archipelago of townships of only hundreds of inhabitants, in many cases. The freeways ignore them, but recent developments have discovered them.

The Bonaventure Hotel, constructed in the mid-’70s with its now-iconic round glass towers and exterior elevators, is the most-filmed building in Los Angeles. It’s been the backdrop for myriad action, crime, and science-fiction films.

CECELIA STUCKER — Not all towns joined the city… Beverly Hills, West Hollywood…
NORMAN M. KLEIN — They wouldn’t join. West Hollywood was an unincorporated district, and a town so poor it couldn’t afford a police station. So, it would have to join the Hollywood district or die. The point is you have what I call these “little granules,” with only four or five streets of little stores, buildings no more than three stories high. LA was filled with these quirky little towns.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, has Downtown always considered itself the historic center of Los Angeles?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yes and no. Downtown was the center until, let’s say, 1930. Then, very quickly after 1930, with the cars, freeways, and suburbs, other hubs like Downtown developed.

CECELIA STUCKER — You’ve talked about micro-kingdoms — the sprawling of LA is like the development of the Holy Roman Empire.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yeah, remember history maps as a kid? The funniest was of the Holy Roman Empire because it had, like, 75 colors on it. Similarly, LA had a lot of micro-townships. But it’s huge. Let me go back to a European example. In the 1980s, why did so many little European villages become so sexy and then so expensive, when, in the 1970s, they were shit? And now, eastern districts of Paris that used to endlessly be slums, are they slums now?

OLIVIER ZAHM — No. They’re trendy.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — So, why wouldn’t that happen to LA, too?

OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say the boom today is similar to what happened in the ’20s?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yeah. The irony is that in the 1920s, LA was growing as fast as New York City — it doubled in size in 10 years, to almost two million people — and was putting up brick as fast as New York, which was a bad idea for earthquakes. [Laughs] Then, of course, the brick fell after earthquakes in Long Beach in 1933.

CECELIA STUCKER — Does Downtown’s success in attracting young people in 2018 have any relation to the 1920s?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Today every person under the age of 40 wants to live in some magical moment when people were presumably friendly, when the operas, newsstands, barber poles, and family cafés were there, whenever that was.

The five-story Bradbury Building, built in 1893 in downtown LA, is best known for its sky-lit atrium and elaborate ironwork walkways, staircases, and bird-cage elevators. Blade Runner’s Deckard had his apartment there and fought the last alien replicant on its roof.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There are a lot of new restaurants, galleries, and hotels in Downtown.

CECELIA STUCKER — “New” is not the most accurate adjective. A lot of these spaces are reinvigorated. Repurposed. They are failed infrastructure made into trendy and ironic spaces.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yeah. Well, despite its trendy resurrection, no banks want to come back. No major corporations want a headquarters there.

CECELIA STUCKER — Is it a tendency toward nostalgia?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Of course. Retrofitting buildings from before 1950, especially from the ’20s — these cyborg-like interiors — are now very sexy. This is the new urban theory: to retrofit history, like the historicist architects of the late-19th century retrofitting Vienna, or even Amsterdam. What mental place does that conjure up? Tenants want to live in Blade Runner, but with really good bathrooms.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Blade Runner was shot a block east of this café.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — On Broadway, in the Bradbury Building, right across the street from us.

CECELIA STUCKER — It’s Hollywood’s tendency to redo in a way that’s similar to how real estate is redone.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Oh, that’s interesting. Hollywood is always retrofitting locations. That is how movies are art-directed. And how they are computer art-directed on CG [computer graphics].

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, but at the same time, Blade Runner is a vision of the future. And, in a way, LA is a city of the future because what’s after LA? The sea and sky.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Okay, I agree with you. Now I’m going to ask Ridley Scott a question: “It’s 1982, and Blade Runner just came out, so what is 2019 for you?” That’s the date announced in the film. The “project,” he’d say, which was 40 years ago — the 1940s retrofitted. If you look at the film, the Rachael character looks straight out of film noir. And they had a problem with Harrison Ford because they wanted to give him a hat, like [Humphrey] Bogart, but he already had a hat like Bogart as Indiana Jones. Instead, they had to give him a haircut from the ’40s. Which now looks normal to us! Today we don’t see anything funny about that ’40s haircut made for the year 2019.

CECELIA STUCKER — What’s the role of your “anti-tour” of Los Angeles? Where did it develop?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — In the anti-tour, I take people to where something is missing in the city.

CECELIA STUCKER — To visit gaps in history, places of erasure.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Erasure is when you tear down, and Downtown LA is one of the most erased places on earth. Yet traces remain, like scars or phantom limbs.

CECELIA STUCKER — So, we’re sitting where Bunker Hill was once eight stories higher?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Oh, yeah! And the houses were showboat Victorians from the 1880s.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And they tore them down?
CECELIA STUCKER — A few survived, but weren’t they moved?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Peggy Lee, a hip singer who got popular in the ’40s, led marches in protest of tearing down Downtown. To shut down these marches, the power brokers dragged some of these houses to a place near the Pasadena Freeway. You find them looking forlorn, at Heritage Square, along the 110 Freeway going north of Downtown around Avenue 43. There are plans to hipsterize Heritage Square and give it a DIY flavor. What goes around comes around.

CECELIA STUCKER — How do relics or ruins like that inform our relationship to history?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — There’s a French term: dents crues, or perhaps cassées.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, “broken smile.”
NORMAN M. KLEIN — You look at a street and see one or two empty lots like missing teeth. The anti-tour excavates these spaces. It’s like being a Situationist. I take people on a Situationist journey through dents cassées.

Hollywood and Los Angeles hate each other. Yet the myth developed, and a lot of people think LA really is Hollywood. Netflix and those other television studios have found you can build a team here and shoot faster than the old studios. Netflix and Hulu are starting to like LA.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s a food revolution in Downtown. Originally, you said, this was a place for agriculture…
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yes. Your instinct is completely on target. In 1900, LA was an agricultural town, sometimes with strange ways of doing business. The Chinese and Japanese were forced to live together Downtown. The city had a vegetable system, based in Downtown, to disperse produce through the city. The Chinese and Japanese immigrants handled much of that. Then developers started tearing down their communities — they kept Little Tokyo but removed the Japanese during World War II.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Ah, yes, they put them in the desert.
CECELIA STUCKER — Manzanar internment.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — And they erased the Chinese in Chinatown, near Olvera Street, and made it look more Mexican for tourists. So, the Old Plaza is what’s left, but with no Chinese since the late ’30s. Obviously, if you keep tearing things down, you leave funny gaps.

CECELIA STUCKER — This is what you call “scripted spaces”?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yeah, a certain narrative develops around these odd places. Europe is filled with them — or, like, families living in the ancient walls of Constantinople, in Istanbul. The life of a city is how it half-remembers and half-forgets. How it adapts. Sometimes what happens is a piece of a lost project, left out or left over, is reoccupied by the poor people living in the area, who transform it for their own purposes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is Angels Flight one of the oldest of such things?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Built in 1901, finally torn down in 1968 and moved to storage. Then in 2010, it was brought back, but after the hill it serviced was gone, effaced. So, to keep Angels Flight at the proper angle, they attached it to a building and a cement foundation, instead of to the missing hill. By attaching it to nothing, the whole point was lost, like Jerusalem’s scarred history from the Mount of Olives.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s just a tourist attraction. There’s no other reason to take Angels Flight. But it’s a beautiful relic.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yes! Very. And a good movie location to kill people. It’s in many noir films from the ’50s… Kiss Me Deadly, a film called Criss Cross. Back in 1950, they redid Fritz Lang’s M up in Bunker Hill, before it was torn down. It was symbolic of going nowhere fast. Directors loved to have people thrown down the steps of Bunker Hill, or strangled on Angels Flight.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When did they construct the freeway?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Mostly in the late ’40s and early ’50s onward. The Pasadena Freeway was built before the war, along the arroyo that had been symbolically the power vector for Henry Huntington when he set up the trolleys after 1892. It was like a memory of power coming and going, as much as a fact. Where the trolleys had begun, the freeways came, like a conquest.

CECELIA STUCKER — That’s the Henry Huntington who built the library and gardens, and developed certain neighborhoods around Los Angeles.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — At one time, all these teeny villages were laced together by trolleys. It’s an example of what I meant by the “little granules.” Highland Park was the first town to join LA.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s so far.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — It’s maybe five miles north, which was a meaningful distance by wagon in 1895. That’s what the problem was. But the trolley was moving to Highland Park because of Mr. Huntington. Clearly, this miniature town had to make a decision fast. The arroyo needed policing — it was basically a long trough of mostly dry riverbed. For a few months, it filled with water, with risks of drownings. As of 1895, the arroyo had too many criminals and hookers, without enough money for police. As the trolley was coming, there was no time to waste. Highland Park joined LA in 1897. However, it remained a little town-like pocket inside LA. Today, the neighborhood still feels like that. To the northeast of Highland Park, Pasadena was long a rival to LA, but never joined — never annexed. Glendale didn’t join either. The biggest wave of annexations came in 1913. Water from the new aqueduct stopped at the San Fernando Valley. LA city managers said to the agricultural towns in the aqueduct’s path: “You want the water, you join the city. You don’t join the city, you pay three times more.” In March 1913, 200 square miles of the Valley voted for annexation to LA to get that water. LA doubled its size, essentially, in one day. What a patchwork.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, water constructed the city, then freeways constructed it again.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — Yes. Freeways reconfigured all of Southern California in circulation loops that destroyed many of the little townships. Housing converted agricultural areas. Freeways added sprawl, zoom, and spaces between.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The oil and the agriculture still remained?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — In the ’20s, yes, before the freeways and movie studios grew bigger — but not as big as oil, not even close. Manufacturing and aerospace grew phenomenally after World War II.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And then data technology. Now the Internet is also a source of money.
NORMAN M. KLEIN — LA is, in some ways, the lower half of Silicon Valley. I read today Netflix is now worth $150 billion, which is more than twice as large as Warner Bros.

CECELIA STUCKER — How do Hollywood — the industry and the city — feed one another?
NORMAN M. KLEIN — They mostly hate each other. Yet the myth developed, and a lot of people think LA really is Hollywood. Netflix and those other television studios have found you can build a team here and shoot faster than the old studios. Netflix and Hulu are starting to like LA.

END 

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Los Angeles issue #30

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