I took a wrong turn on the way to Museum of Contemporary Art. I think my map was upside down, a little blue dot of myself on a line of places I didn’t quite recognize. It had somehow turned muggy, my shirt clinging to my back in a way that reminded me why I think summer months in these temperatures should be spent solely on the beach with no shirt on. I think I had to turn back, but I didn’t want to turn back all the way to the start. We had tried that the day before and it involved walking under freeways and strange layers, a downtown Los Angeles for cars built over a downtown Los Angeles for pedestrians built under the ghost of horse and carriage. I don’t know, this map spinning in my hand and I think if I just take a right I can follow this place called Broadway all the way down.
I didn’t see much at first, failed to look up and beyond these ground floor holes covered in marker-pen signage and cheap shoes. The way Main Street in Gibraltar looked before its renovation in the 90’s, where the shop assistant grabbed at the clothes hung above the entrance with a makeshift stick and hook. In the breeze they looked like slightly drunk, flat, headless people going nowhere. You know these people, talking on their phones or with their neighbours, perched outside on the pavement, on a stool wrapped in duct tape to keep it from falling apart. At some point in the day, someone will make a coffee run, styrofoam cups of caffeine from the market accompanying their cigarettes. This isn’t as much a business as a place to spend time all day.
The skeleton of the Orpheum blazed above me. Even in the daylight, with its doors closed since God knows when, I could see the imprint of the neon bulbs popping in the sky. I had to stop and look above, agape, across the road at the turquoise Eastern Columbia building. To its side, the United Artists Building, which at least was now a trendy hotel. The hipsters had moved in; I could see what happened here. Yet, all I could do was look up. At rows and rows stretching across Broadway of empty tenements, punctuated by grand empty theatres with their signage intact, housed now by churches and jewellery stores and Urban Outfitters.
What had happened here? This was the Los Angeles I had come for; this was the set of the film in my mind when I thought of Hollywood glamour. Yesterday I had seen Hollywood Boulevard looking like a giant refuse collection, and now this ribcage to the city with beaten-down bones that once gleamed ivory. I could have wept.
At my destination in MoCA, I couldn’t concentrate on the Warhols and the Pollocks and the Rothkos. My mind was on Broadway. Gentrification was creeping in, but what had happened? I turned to history books in their basement library. They boasted of the largest collection of theatres one street in the whole world, now most of them empty, forgotten in favour of monstrosities like the Imax in the Staples Center, or the legendary Chinese Theater turned tourist fodder, gleaming only when someone puts their hands in concrete or the Oscar carpet rolls down the street.
Things passed, things changed. Someone convinced the people of Los Angeles that the dream of life was a car, and one of the best public transport systems in the world disappeared, tearing out the trams down the heart of Broadway. World War Two, The Depression, white flight…goodbye Downtown. Now all I heard was “don’t bother with Downtown; there’s nothing there.” I found photographs of the “nothing there”, something akin to all those movies from the 1930’s where everyone is walking down the street in coats and hats, catching trams and buying newspapers off the hollering boy in the corner. A deco dream, rusting away because everyone stretched themselves out to everywhere else.
We visit The Grove the next day, an enormous complex in Fairfax built to look like a charming, busy street by way of Disneyland. It’s Broadway, just scrubbed clean and three stories high instead of nine. There’s even a tram you can catch for that old timey feel. Meanwhile, the reality lays empty, waiting for the spark of interest to return. This obsession we have with simulation, the nostalgia of what we perceive as long as it’s sanitised, compartmentalised, under our control. We fear the reality of what we left behind on a sprawling street with better days before starvation set in.
We sit at the bar in Nordstrom, and the woman next to us is propped up by the grace of God and minor miracles. Her face looks like a road map to her plastic surgeon’s summer home in the Hamptons. She can barely blink. I wonder if this woman has ever ventured Downtown, stepped out into Broadway and figured that the spectres inside the crumbling theatres are too much like her life. On with the new, on with the shiny. In ten years time, I will see her walking down Broadway, into the inevitable new Nordstrom flagship store that will proudly boast it used to be a 1920’s theatre. The Grove will lay empty; someone else can wonder what it was that happened when the attention turned elsewhere.