Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reaganomics on Spring St. and Skid Row

The building is named after Ronald Reagan. It was opened with ceremony Oct. 27, 1990.  The ex-president himself showed up and was handed an oversized key. "I wish all who enter here good luck," he said.  Then-governor George Deukmejian bragged that the 850,000-square-foot structure--state government's largest office building--was constructed on time and within its $106-million budget. There were protestors too, carrying signs with posters of Robbie Conal's painting "Contra-Diction" for Reagan's role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The building was a project of the Community Redevelopment Agency, intended to improve Spring St. "I think it is a tremendous asset for that area," C.R.A. chairman James M. Wood said. "Nothing is going to improve North Broadway, Spring and Main like this building."  He forgot to mention that it was the C.R.A.'s Bunker Hill Project that had lured the banks away from their traditional locations on Spring Street which had been known as the "Wall Street of the West." I should be fair: the Bunker Hill Project began well before Wood's tenure as C.R.A. chief.

Like many buildings of the era, it was heavily secured against the rising tide of people for whom the economy had not "trickled down." Leon Whitson in the May 12, 1991 L.A.T.  referred to the building as "Fort Ronnie." His description of the interior was attractive, but I've never been inside.  "Security is a prime concern," he wrote. "Employees who arrive by car will enter the building from underground garages, ensuring their safety and their isolation from the street...... One new building cannot change the fact that the hub of the downtown business community has moved irrevocably west to Bunker Hill. Even a street-friendly architectural masterpiece would not overcome the drawbacks of a location on the edge of urban desolation, and the Ronald Reagan State Office Building is far from friendly....Fort Ronnie may effectively defend itself from its surroundings, but it fails to send out a clear message of official optimism in Spring Street's revival."

 I thought it wasn't too ugly, until I compared it with the old state building, a 1932 W.P.A. project.

The old state building at 217 S. 1st. St. had been damaged in the 1971 earthquake, but it was still in use until 1973.  It was demolished in 1976, over the protests of preservationists.  It served as a temporary public park while the plan was to rebuild on the site. After it was demolished in 1976, it was used as a public park, with plans to rebuild on the location. In 1979, the C.R.A. had chosen a different location for the new building, and by 1982 they chose the current location at Spring St.  It was the fourth they had considered.  2600 state employees were to be relocated there from 31 locations around the city, and more space would be leased out to generate income. It was supposed to bring shoppers to Spring St. as well as serve as office space.

Here's another story about the old location/

Construction of the Ronald Reagan State Building began in 1988 and was completed in October 1990.  
George Kalebdjian, manager of a clothing store less than a block away, agreed the state building would help the area. But he said merchants will be at a disadvantage until the city does something to rid the area of street people who frighten away customers according to the L.A. times 1990 
He probably didn't know that the C.R.A. had been working to get the mission to another location for several years and that construction would begin at San Julian within the year.  
The mission was not exactly welcomed with open arms at the new location, either.

The Union Rescue Mission was not far from the new building site.  It is the oldest and largest of the rescue missions in downtown L.A. The Mission's location on Main and 2nd was at least a block away from the skid row "containment zone" that had been established in the late 1970s.  The Mission got its start in1891in canvas tents  and a gospel wagon under the name  Pacific Rescue Mission.  It moved to Main St. the location of city hall in  It was and is the oldest and largest of the rescue missions. Turkey dinners on Thanksgiving were and still are a long-standing, well known tradition.  Thousands who were down on their luck took shelter there over the decades.

1983 was the year that persons with mental illness began to outnumber alcoholics on skid row, according to the LAT.  Reagan has been blamed for closing the mental hospitals.  Persons with mental illness were to be cared for in their communities, he said, but made no provision for any such care.   1984 was the year the crack epidemic made the news. In the 1970's, cocaine was "nature's way of telling you you had too much money." That completely changed when crack became widely distributed, with help from Oliver North and the CIA.  

1984 was the year the C.R.A. began to pressure the Union Rescue Mission to find another location, father from the future state building, and deeper into the center of skid row.  That "Mission on Main St." which had been there since 1926, was too frightening for the delicate sensibilities of state employees.    May 6, 1984 L.A.Times reported that Lee Holthaus, director of the U.R.M. did not want to move, but realized that it might be unavoidable. "As soon as the state building is approved", he said, "we'll just be in the way."  

In 1989, the C.R.A. agreed to pay URM 6.5 MILLION DOLLARS moving expenses, if they would move to 517 S. San Julian St. at the location of an unused factory.  Executive director George Caywood hoped the move would allow the mission to serve more people in a more compassionate way, but was appalled at the hostility toward the very poor. Mike Neely, head of the Homeless Outreach Program, said there is more need for low income housing than for shelter beds, a situation that continues to this day.  Charles Woo, chairman of the Central City East Association, a group of area business owners, complained that the move would affect property values.  Toy importers and fish processors had been moving to the land left vacant by several decades of "slum clearance."  Woo saw another form of discrimination at work. "Why should the Union Rescue Mission be offensive to state employees yet be acceptable to the blue collar women and men working in Central City East?" he asked. Other skid row service providers were concerned about the concentration of services in a small area.  

Construction began with a dedication ceremony in Jul 1991 and was completed in 1994.

The parking and delivery entrance is on San Pedro.  You see pedestrians, as well as tents and shopping carts, on San Julian, and trucks on San Pedro. It was designed that way to calm the fears of the local business owners. This is the respectable entrance, where employees, administrators and visiting dignitaries come it.  Apparently San Pedro St. claims a higher degree of respectability than San Julian, although it's still skid row.

St. Vibiana's Cathedral was its next door neighbor. 

The plans were to build "Plaza St. Vibiana," a pedestrian space and complex of low rise housing and commercial structures south of the cathedral.  Before that could happen, St. Vibiana's was damaged in the 1994 earthquake, and a long debate between the Catholic Church and historic preservationists began.  The old cathedral building was preserved as a wedding and performance video, and a new cathedral was built at a different site.   Now, February 18, 2015, I read that a housing complex will break ground here.

The former building was dismantled in Mar 1995.

This is what Main St. looks like now.

Vibiana is the one that's still there, and it's not the same, either.  Once it was St. Vibiana's Cathedral.  Now its just Vibiana, a venue for weddings, concerts and other fancy events.  

The interesting building with the palm trees appears to be a parking structure--employees only--but employees of what?  I don't know.

Spring St. had lovely old architecture, but didn't regain its vitality until the adaptive re-use ordinance of 1999. A new generation moved into the office spaces turned apartments, and patronized the shops and restaurants of their ground floors.

They take pictures of each other.

Dogs and trees have also played their part in revitalizing Spring St.

Did the construction of the state building and the relocation of the Union Rescue Mission have anything to do with it?  I don't know, but on 5th St. between Spring and Main, you can buy Skid Row souvenirs with your unhealthy soda.

I like to think that the younger generation looks at the needy with compassion, rather than the hatred and fear that forced the Union Rescue Mission's relocation.

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