Typical Los Angeles “food desert” photo along Figueroa Corridor. Getty Images/David McNew

Walking through the Figueroa Corridor in South Central, Los Angeles, it is difficult to overlook the wave of urban developments. If you haven’t visited the area, you may have already seen it through popularized photos of fast food chains between Jefferson Blvd and Adams Blvd used as an icon for “food deserts.” These so-called deserts are short on healthy food options and high on fatty foods, and the commercial zoning of the Figueroa Corridor coupled by a large mix-used inner-city/university population has lead to a proliferation of prefabricated options. Though the restaurants are iconic of the area, due to a number of factors including the expansion of nearby University of Southern California, the re-emergence of Downtown LA as a cultural and economic center, and the relatively cheap land value of strip-malls, the northwest end of South Central is losing its fast food chains in favor of multi-story housing facilities. Re-enforcing the trend away from the strip-mall towards a more fashionable aesthetic is the style of the new developments: marble-looking columns meet archways at entrances, statues line the walkways, and brick is mixed with stucco.

West 27th PlaceWest 27th Place along the Figueroa Corridor featuring a style similar to other area developments

One such development stands out among others, both for its location and size. Tucked in a nook behind the new LA Metro Expo Line 23rd St station and across the street from LA Trade Technical College, and down the road from USC, The Lorenzo is in a prime location but is also the first USC-student related project to push east from Figueroa St. Its shear size makes the building stand out; over five stories tall and a city block long, The Lorenzo is an impressive structure that is viewable from all directions in South Central. Like other recent developments, it follows the architectural style mentioned above with Romanesque details over stucco and an assortment of arches, spires, and statues.

There is an apparent architectural unity between The Lorenzo and other are developments implying either a relationships between developers or a greater, standardized trend. My interest in this unity recently peaked at a time when San Francisco-based Cultural Geographer Alexander Tarr was in town. As he often does when in Los Angeles (the city is one of his research focuses), he stopped by my residence which is a couple blocks from Figueroa Corridor, and, as we usually do, we walked around the neighborhood making sure to spend time at The Lorenzo construction site. From interviewing Tarr, my goal was to find out more about the Romanesque trend in the area. However, happening upon The Lorenzo close-up, our interview took a concerning turn: walking up to the structure we were met by an imposing street-level brick wall. Take a look:

LA Lorenzo exteriorLos Angeles Lorenzo exterior, with slanted street-level brick exterior
Detail of The Lorenzo first level

The Lorenzo features a brick wall first level without windows masking a parking garage. This element is troublesome for a couple reasons. First, entry is assumed to be via car (from street to the parking garage), not unlike Los Angeles’ Westin Bonaventure Hotel whose creators thought that pedestrian entry would someday be obsolete, and a focus that leads to a second concern. Without street-level access there will be little first level activity other than cars driving in and out — no coffee shops or other staples of urban centers. The Lorenzo has a cousin downtown named The Medici, and both structures include these walls. The cousin’s name refers to the Renaissance Medici family, bankers and prominent purveyors of such style, walls included. For Medici, the walls weren’t there to make the building more attractive. Rather, as Tarr points out, they had a functional purpose to guard against peasants rioting against aristocrats in their neighborhoods. How does such a wall integrate into a community far removed from Rome? Tarr elaborated during our discussion:

The development is very much a faux Italian style and that intentionally evokes Palazzo Medici, perhaps the most ruthless proto-capitalist in Italian and even global history. Like Medici architecture, this building in Los Angeles is supposed to symbolize wealth and power – or power as wealth – in the mindset the community. This one in particular and the Medici development downtown, there is deliberate branding that offers the promise of a certain lifestyle: living here is the thing that you do if you’re a rich urban young person and I think there’s a real attempt to make the signifier, “are you young and wealthy? This is the kind of place you want to live.” So the developers make them all look the same to attract a certain clientele. And it’s different than the restored loft look downtown, a different subset of people.

It’s interesting that generally for this kind of urban development as designer would
tell you that you want a Jane Jacobs view of the world. In her view buildings should be eyes on the street with storefronts on a walkable first level. Though what we’re seeing with this development is that you enter in the parking garage and then you’re immediately in a gated fortification. This has been pointed out, such as by Mike Davis complaining in City of Quartz about “Fortress LA,” or architectures that are inward looking and guarding against an abstracted community on the outside, ie, we don’t know who they are but are afraid of them.

Lorenzo under construction, with bannerThe Lorenzo under construction with a banner that reads, “Over-the-Top / Under the Budget!”

Who is influencing this turn towards Fortress LA in South Central? Nearby University of Southern California, whose students are the constituency being targeted for the The Lorenzo’s “upscale living,” comes to mind. USC recently instituted a curfew policy on campus; at night, the university secures campus with a series of new gates and barriers and requires school IDs to gain access. Some in the community have pointed out the disruption this has on ongoing community outreach programs and the recently signed community benefits agreement tied to USC’s redevelopment of the University Village. Safety is certainly a concern — there is periodic gun violence and even a recent fatal shooting — however, creating a “walled campus” before the development of fancy on-campus student housing publicly touted as a meeting place for the greater community sends a mixed signal. Is the intention to connect new development to the community, or create a luxury space at a safe distance from them? Tarr (an USC alumni) continues,

There are many places in the world where money is not okay. People know money is behind developments but it’s not an object that people want to discuss or wish to be upfront that money equals power. There are a few places where this isn’t true, such as Las Vegas with its Venetians and Pyramids. Therefore by doing this Italian fortress style here in South Los Angeles, the developer is set up around a display of money and in Southern California, where downtown is bleeding south and the University developments north, development is very tied up with this sophisticated money-oriented look.

Oil derricks near downtown Los Angeles, 1896. Wikimiedia Commons/Leslie

Styles displaying wealth are not new in this area. From the earliest days of Western development in Los Angeles, money has been present and wealth has been demonstrated in the architecture of houses. For example, during the oil boom of the late 19th Century oil derricks filled downtown and oil barons built their houses nearby. One of the most extravagant areas was known as Chester Place, home of There Will be Blood inspiration Edward L. Doheny, just a few blocks west of where The Lorenzo is now. Wealth is evident in the gaudy mansions of Chester Place and traverses LA Victorian, Transitional, Craftsman, and Modern movements. Tarr elaborated on local architecture and its segue to the recent faux Italian trend:

There are other forms of architecture such as Victorian that are also about symbolizing power. However, Victorians in particular incorporated a stylish connection with nature and other layers of aestheticism. Sleek modernism did the same with new material technology. Yet with the new Italian look there isn’t an exploration of the media but rather a limited use of materials, because having people build a stone building by hand, with interesting masonry, and is earthquake safe at that scale would cost billions of dollars. Therefore there is only so much a developer can do and they revert to 2x4s, plywood, and stucco. Probably the most expensive material is the Spanish tile roof and windows. Those are all little things to make it look like it isn’t a giant stucco building.

Lorenzo-construction-entryThe Lorenzo driveway under construction

A question remains for developers in South Central: how are their new buildings perpetuating and building community? The answer is tangled in a balance between maintaining a consistent connection to past architecture and continuing wealth and power stereotypes. In this area, at the north end of South Central, the issue is complicated by mixed income populations and mixed use zones. Like many things, the decisions about major development are held in the hands of a few — the developers, their architects, and city planners — however the demand for and subsequent success of these buildings remain in the hands of residents. Whether or not residents really have a say in neighborhood development through their rent money is debatable, but as it presently stands the other Romanesque dwellings along Figueroa Corridor have had little difficulty attracting students with extra money to spend on rent. Other USC students have come out against such development s mentioning that high rents a keeping the average student away. Perhaps the market, then, will find a middle ground in new development, but USC’s plan for the future — a handful of real estate developers sit on the USC Board of Trustees — undoubtedly holds much influence and responsibility.

Longtime neighborhood residents have pointed out that large-scale projects such as The Lorenzo are often championed as job-creators and indicators of community health. But as one reisdent, Sandy, points out at Site of Impact (and interview project of residents surrounding the proposed Downtown NFL stadium) the jobs created are often not sustainable for families and the health issue can go the other way, for example, dust from The Lorenzo construction site is presently blanketing nearby streets. Coupled with The Lorenzo’s slogan to create “upscale living,” community challenges towards this kind of development go beyond the elaborate facades that communicate power and wealth. Indeed, there is a very real separation forming between the protected spaces of new developments such as The Lorenzo and their outside neighbors.

Contact Craig Dietrich at @craigdietrich, or view all Public Spaces essays posted at NMDNet.

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