Sunday, May 10, 2009

One Year Downtown

This week marks our one year anniversary living in Downtown Los Angeles. It's been a momentous year, both for our little family, and for the city, state and country at large. Back in July I wrote a two-part post on future of downtown (Part 1 and Part 2). Just ten months ago, I was complaining about California's 5.5% unemployment rate, little knowing that today we'd be looking at more than 11% unemployment and climbing and the prospect of the state completely running out of money.

Some of the predictions I made back then have come true: the condo market has indeed collapsed and people in the know are saying it may not return for another decade. Retail is floundering and the prospect of downtown attracting a big box retailer like Target is dimming as chains shut down stores and in some cases (Circuit City) are completely going out of business. A flood of rental units has come onto the market as a result of the condo collapse, with mixed results for downtown: fewer buyers with substantial ties to the community but more people living downtown overall. Also, rents are coming down, which is attracting a more diverse pool of people to the neighborhood. Downtown is also seeing the loss of local jobs as banks and government both take big hits.

Despite the ugly economic realities, Downtown has been undergoing an amazing transformation right before our eyes, one that is embodied by what has happened on 6th Street between Los Angeles and Broadway (and where we happen to live). The past year has seen the reopening of Cole's, the launch of the Association, and the launch of new restaurants/cafes, including Blu LA Cafe and the D-Town Burger Bar. The Cecil Hotel (on Main but close to 6th) and the Hayward have refurbished their retail spaces and are getting new tenants (or in the case of the Hayward, launching their own clothing store, Crack Gallery). There have been some casualties--626 Reserve has shut down, along with a handbag store located in the Hayward--but other retailers are moving in to replace them. Even Barry Shy's buildings are seeing a flurry of retail occupancy with a make-up school, clothing store and a coffee shop all opening in the SB Lofts.

With the new retail has been an influx of foot traffic on 6th Street, which has dramatically changed the block for the better. It feels safer, especially after dark. And it feels like a destination, a place people want to visit and move to. Considering the economic climate, the transformation of 6th Street has been truly remarkable. Add to this the fact that people in LA are still driving less even though gas prices have dropped to reasonable levels, and I think you are seeing a community that will thrive in the long term.

Unfortunately, that long term isn't likely to include our family. My husband and I absolutely love living downtown. We love being able to walk to work, to walk to our favorite restaurants and bars. The cultural environment is incredibly rich, and it's a tremendous pleasure to do things like walk to MOCA and attend plays at the theater on Spring Street. But we have Kidlo to think of, and Downtown isn't a viable place for our family in the long-term. The two big sticking points: parks and schools, especially the latter.

When you are raising a kid without a backyard, having access to a good park is absolutely essential, and Downtown just doesn't cut it. Pershing Square is a travesty and Grand Hope Park, while lovely and clean, is a fairly long walk for us and doesn't have a very good playground. I believe that Pershing Square will eventually get a playground, but it won't come soon enough for us. My son is old enough that some outdoor play every day is important and I can see that very soon the lack of a park is going to become a big problem.

The school situation is an even bigger problem. 9th Street Elementary is the only public school zoned for Downtown and they primarily serve homeless kids. According to Susana Benavidez, they are doing a great job for those students, but in terms of test scores they are ranked among the lowest in the city--not a surprise, given the unsettled lives these kids lead, but not a great fit for a kid who is achieving at grade level or better. The only other alternative is private school. As it turns out, there is a good private school in City West, the Pilgrim School. But we can't afford to shell out $15K-$20 a year for tuition, so that's not an option for us (I'd much rather save money to pay for Kidlo's college tuition).

The upshot of all this is that we are likely to be moving out of the neighborhood two or three years from now, when Kidlo is ready for kindergarten. It's really a damned shame because we love living a pedestrian lifestyle, we love having relationships with all the local merchants, and we love seeing the neighborhood grow and change before our eyes. It's something so rare in Los Angeles. But when you have a family you ultimately have to do what's best for the kid, and in this case, moving to a decent school district is what we need to do.

In the long term, will Downtown become a family-friendly (or at least friendlier) place? I think so. I just got back from a trip to New York City and was on the Upper East Side when the schools were letting out. The streets were clogged with families, kids in school uniforms and their younger siblings in carriages. Central Park's playgrounds were full of kids playing after school for a bit before walking home for dinner. I can see that happening in Downtown LA as well--eventually. But the eventually won't come soon enough for us.

At any rate, we plan to completely enjoy the neighborhood while we're still here. And I know when we leave we will definitely shed a tear.


EL CHAVO! said...

Do you know where you might land once you leave downtown? These are the kind of issues that really need some in depth analysis, cuz it seems like too many of the downtown boosters tend to overlook any of these practical issues, instead focusing on some new restaurant opening as a some sort of proof that El Centro is coming into it's own. I think the heavy handed fantasy that gets pumped is far from the reality.

Good luck to you, nonetheless. Wherever you end up.

Li said...

You are so right about the downtown boosters being unrealistic. Is downtown better than it used to be? Definitely. Is it going to continue to improve? I think so. But there are a lot of basic services that are lacking. And you can't have a neighborhood based solely on partying singles. In the long term, the PTB are going to have to address the park and school situation if they want to have a stable community.

I think we're going to end up in Eagle Rock. I like it because it's a short commute to downtown and it's not pretentious (not Silverlake, though some people tried to turn it into hipster heaven). The schools are also very good and the houses are within our price range. But I am really, really going to miss being in a walkable neighborhood.

Brian said...

Brilliant post Li!

This conversation takes place all the time in our home - what direction is downtown moving towards? Who do developers think are moving here, all singles with no kids? When is retail going to support the dramatic shift in occupied units?

It's a theme we discuss constantly and I can certainly understand the angst of leaving downtown but the reality of it all.

Li said...

Brian and EC, you should see the comments in Blogdowntown (they wrote a post on my post). Some people are such downtown boosters they can't understand why people aren't willing to put up with any inconvenience to live here.

Anonymous said...

Why not NYC? I lived in DTLA for several years waiting for it to become like a real city. Never happened. Moved to Brooklyn blind. Found better jobs, much nicer and less expensive apt, ditched the car ... life is far better than LA.

Li said...

I love New York--I grew up in the Bronx and lived in Park Slope and the East Village before moving to LA. But raising kids in New York is really difficult and insanely expensive. Plus my husband is a pretty hardcore Angeleno and I don't think he'd do well crammed into a tiny NYC apartment.

Brian said...

Your "re-post" over at Blogdowntown and the subsequent comments were a topic of conversation in our place last night.

We talked about the development of downtown and how the city, along with developers, have dropped the ball with amenities/services as the influx of residents continues.

More importantly neither of us can understand the argument of "... if you don't like it, leave downtown ... go back to the suburbs ...". In addition to being a childish argument it's baseless. I don't want to leave downtown but expressing an opinion about the shortcomings shouldn't signal others that I need to be shipped out.

Li said...

I had to bow out of the conversation because I was getting too frustrated. I saw your post on retail in Downtown and I was thinking, how much inconvenience are people supposed to tolerate in order to live down here. I really love a lot of aspects of downtown, but my love is not so all encompassing that I'm willing to put up with anything to live here.

Judi Love said...

Hey Li - check out Elysian Valley and we can be neighbors! Totally the land that time forgot and soooooo not expensive and hipsterish. :)

You hit the nail on the head about living here with a kid. I think the park thing is honestly the thing that is causing our leaving. It's ridiculous! TPTB definitely need to realize that this downtown has families and they deserve something. I've grown tired of the whole "why would you raise children here?" thought process that I see from TPTB and the commenters at BlogDowntown.

So we will be leaving downtown in about 2-3 weeks and it's bittersweet. The baby is well known in the area and we take walks every night to people watch and enjoy the neighborhood, but I'm tired of feeling like we are non-existent and shouldn't have a say.

Li said...

Judi, I just found out that another Downtown family has bailed and is also in Elysian Valley. Maybe we should create a Downtown refugee community in EV :^)

I'm going to start looking at listings for EV. It would be fantastic to live that close to Downtown since I work in City West. Do you know anything about the local public school?