jake gittes: How much are you worth?
noah cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
gittes: I want to know what you’re worth—over ten million?
cross: Oh, my, yes.
gittes: Then why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?
cross: The future, Mr Gittes, the future. . .

Robert Towne, Chinatown script

The shortest route between Heaven and Hell in contemporary America is probably Fifth Street in Downtown L.A. footnote West of the refurbished Biltmore Hotel, and spilling across the moat of the Harbor Freeway, a post-1970 glass and steel skyscape advertises the landrush of Pacific Rim capital to the central city. Here, Japanese mega-developers, transnational bankers and billionaire corporate raiders plot the restructuring of the California economy. footnote1 A few blocks east, across the no-man’s-land of Pershing Square, Fifth Street metamorphoses into the ‘Nickel’: the notorious half-mile strip of blood-and-vomitspewn concrete where several thousand homeless people—themselves trapped in the inner circle of Dante’s inferno—have become pawns in a vast local power struggle. Intersecting these extremes of greed and immiseration is the axis of a third reality: el gran Broadway, the reverberant commercial centre of a burgeoning Spanish-speaking city-within-a-city, whose barrios (interpenetrating the ghetto to the south) now form a dense ring around the central business district. (See map one.) A ten-minute walk down Fifth Street thus passes through abrupt existential and class divides, a micro-tour of social polarization in the late-Reaganite era. Moreover this landscape—whether we recognize the location or not—has insinuated itself into the contemporary imagination. Because the Downtown skycity is so recent, and because of its proximity to the media factories of Hollywood, it figures prominently as a representation of the early twenty-first-century urbanism that is now emerging. It has become de rigueur for passing theorists and image-mongers, whether as critics or celebrants, to stop and comment on the architectural order and social topography that are coalescing out of the lava of development around Fifth Street.

For Fredric Jameson, in a seminal essay, the built environment of Los Angeles, especially its ‘downtown renaissance’, is a paradigm of the ‘post-modern’ city where architecture and electronic image have fused into a single hyperspace. footnote2 For the well-known urban designer James Sanders, director of the Bryant Park Project in Manhattan, the ‘intense—even poetic—verticality’ of Fifth and Grand is an expression of Los Angeles imperialism: ‘The “new” downtown Los Angeles is pulling away international banking and finance, establishing a centre of great radiating lines of communication and trade for the Pacific Rim. As on the East Coast, where New York is grabbing the remaining marbles of the Atlantic economy community, so Los Angeles is setting itself up as the Pacific’s economic capital. The two cities seem intent on carving the world into two great economic entities, with themselves as the centres.’ footnote3

Hollywood, meanwhile, has reached for different hyperboles. Younger directors have relentlessly exploited the social extremes of Downtown as a nightmare stage, a ground zero, for such contemporary apocalypses as Repo Man, The Terminator, To Live and Die in L.A., and so on. This dystopian figuration acquires a dark grandeur in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner with its images of mile-high towers, ruled by interplanetary genetic-engineering conglomerates, rising above the poisonous congealed smog that drips acid rain upon thirty million inhabitants. None of the theories or visions on offer (with the partial exception of the racist ‘yellow hordes’ of Bladerunner), however, registers the presence, probably epochal, of an enlarged low-wage working class, living and working in the central city, and creating its own spatialized social world: networks of recreation, piety, reproduction and, ultimately, struggle. They fail to capture the growing tension—relayed through various mediations to the traditional L.A. working and middle classes—between international capital and international labour migration in the contested terrain of the inner city. For if L.A.’s Downtown is in any sense paradigmatic, it is because it condenses the intended and unintended spatial consequences of the political economy of post-Fordism: that is to say, the rise of new, globalized circuits of finance and luxury consumption amid the decline of much of the old mass-consumption and high-wage industrial economy. But there is no single, master logic of restructuring, rather the complex intersection of two separate macro-processes: one based on the overaccumulation of bank and real-estate capital (most recently, from the recycling of the East Asian trade surplus to California); the other arising from the reflux of low-wage manufacturing and labour-intensive services in the wake of unprecedented mass immigration from Mexico and Central America.