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.

Within the larger systems of metropolitan Los Angeles and Southern California (separately, the ninth largest economy in the world), Down-town has become the privileged crucible where apparently infinite foreign capital and low-wage immigrant labour are first transformed into assets for the regional boom. But because Downtown is simultaneously a portal for capital and for immigration, and because the two functions remain concentrated in the same inner core of land development and infrastructure, there are growing contradictions. The yen-fueled momentum of highrise development cuts into the crowded work and residential spaces of the inner-city working poor: commercial overbuilding produces rampant underhousing. At the same time the uncoordinated dynamics of redevelopment and immigration, without investment in radically expanded welfare and physical infrastructures, are making powerful, if differential, impacts upon the living standards and residential positions of older working-class and middle-strata neighbourhoods from Boyle Heights to Venice and the San Fernando Valley. The political consequence is a far-reaching electoral realignment, excluding the working poor, as the old pro-development coalition under the figurehead of Mayor Bradley is attacked by a populist homeowners’ rebellion orchestrated by his former Democratic allies on the white Westside. This is a complicated scenario, with sweeping assertions; a plot, perhaps, for Chinatown, Part Two. In the meantime, let me sketch, in bold outlines, the major action.

The crisis of Downtown L.A. began in the same period in which Polanski’s brilliant historical film noir is set, immediately after the great highrise building boom of 1923–24 that constructed the skyline as it remained until the 1960s. Commercial life in the centre began to wither as precocious automobilization (on a scale not achieved in Europe until the 1970s) gridlocked the Downtown traffic flow while the oil–rubber–paving lobby sabotaged the recapitalization of the city’s once superb fixed-rail systems. A middle-class exodus to the Westside was followed by relocation of the large department stores and retail trade outward along Wilshire Boulevard. Depression and war filled Downtown tenements with an increasingly impoverished and shifting population; once aristocratic Bunker Hill near the civic centre became Raymond Chandler’s notorious ‘lost town, shabby town, crook town’ with ‘women with faces like stale beer . . . men with pulled-down hats’. footnote4