Los Angeles: Sounds of a Fragmented Downtown


Life on the Westside, surrounded by the touristic and relaxed vibes of Santa Monica and the vast wealth of iconic Beverly Hills, one rarely makes it all the way to Downtown. Like many people living in metropolitan areas in America, ‘downtowns’ do not attract people like they did in the 20th century…

By Noelle Wright for URBAN VIGNETTES.


Spending most of my time in LA within the boundaries of the Westside, I experienced a life most students at UCLA do. One full Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf study sessions while overhearing, or, rather, eavesdropping, on conversations being held at the next table discussing a new pilot episode or a pitch for a new album.

Life on the Westside, surrounded by the touristic and relaxed vibes of Santa Monica and the vast wealth of iconic Beverly Hills, one rarely makes it all the way to Downtown. Like many people living in metropolitan areas in America, ‘downtowns’ do not attract people like they did in the 20th century.


The Sounds of Downtown LA


Composed of different neighborhoods, to walk in Downtown is to imagine another era of Los Angeles; a walkable LA, with the glittering theaters of Broadway and the money-making financial center of Spring Street Financial District.

One approaches downtown to find a vast collection of skyscrapers and the last remnants of art-deco buildings in the city. The story of suburbanization, so common to American cities, left the city’s center vacant and abandoned.

But, lively areas still exist. Ethnic enclaves can still be found, most significantly in Chinatown and less so in Little Tokyo.  Hidden music venues, like The Smell, have stood the test of time, and continue to attract the city’s punk scene. Olvera Street, located across LA Union Station, serves as a performance of Mexican culture and community activities for the area’s large Latino population. Here, you’ll experience sensory overload, with the mariachi bands and the smell of empanadas.


The Sounds of Gentrification


The most significant change in the past ten or so years that has contributed to the change in downtown has been the city’s attempts to revitalize the area, with many private developers transforming the abandoned buildings into attractive lofts.

Students and yuppies alike flood these lofts, and along with the new real estate business has come hip bars, exciting new gastronomical restaurants, and a collection of new art galleries.

In these areas, Downtown comes alive at night, with the sounds of young professionals yearning for some sort of “authentic” 1920s Downtown LA in its heyday experience. Reveling in the old banks remodeled into bars, Downtown  does not sleep for this part of the population.

The sounds of people coming together bring about a human characteristic back to the area that has been vacant for so long.

This recent change has resulted in a Downtown that can be seen and heard through different eyes and ears, with views that are in contention with another.


 The Sounds of Fragmentation


Though the newly gentrified areas and ethnic enclaves may not sleep and are full of excitement, there are parts of Downtown where people warn you to never walk. A walk through the neighborhoods of Downtown reveal a city that remains fragmented and that can immediately change walking from one block to the next.

If New York City has Central Park, LA has Pershing Square. The epitome of a ‘concrete jungle,’ the square is the main public space in the city. With green spaces blocked off, one has the choice of either sitting in center on lawn chairs under the blazing sun, or finding shade in the dark corners that surround the park. Arriving in Pershing Square via LA’s short subway line, one is welcomed by an empty subway station and the sound of silence. Everyone is in their cars in LA, after all.


One walks through Pershing Square, surrounded by hotels and skyscrapers, and can hear the sounds of ambulances and police cars. Surrounded by Southn California’s vast interstate highway system, the sounds of traffic are hard to ignore.

There is no moment of peace, as one minute later, a new flood of traffic re-enters Downtown. And, for being a city where the sun is always shining, not many people can be found walking in the square.


The Sounds of Activism

In a spot in the corner of the square, however, music blasts through portable stereos as a small group of people congregate in the square. In a place so severe, intimacy can be found between them, as they share a common cause.

This is the new “Occupy” movement. After being ejected by the police from protesting at the Civic Center, protestors have moved to the park to demonstrate.

Protestors are made up of activists from the LA Community Action Network, residents of Downtown’s poorer populations, and the homeless alike. This square may appear severe and intimidating to some, but is very inviting and open to conversation to others.


 The Sounds of Inequality


Walk a few blocks down Pershing and find Skid Row. Homelessness adds another layer of sound to the city. Homelessness has become part of the urban landscape of Downtown, that is no secret. Some see it as a societal issue; others see it as a reality of the physical urban space. “LA is at war,” remarked one of the activists involved in the “Occupy” protest.

This is another sound that is often heard, but not reacted to by most Los Angelenos: the sound of the lack of inclusiveness.


The Sounds of People Fighting for their City


If downtown is perceived to be the place where functions of community life are held and people connect to their city, the same cannot often be said for downtown LA, where the sense of hope is dwindling, but only those in these few blocks feel it, while others in their cars commuting to the suburbs do not.

But people do still continue to fight. Though their voices are not often heard, their stories and cries can be felt just by walking through Skid Row and reading the signs. This is the sound of people fighting for their city.


Sounds for the Future


Downtown is only one area among many in this monstrous metropolis. How is LA to reconcile such fragmentation? The sounds heard and experienced by the people in the city of LA differ one person to person.

In order to break these sound barriers, we must find a way to make the voices of all in this vast city included.

About the author:

After growing up in the “metropolis” of Honolulu, Noelle left island life for a city life in Los Angeles. She graduated from UCLA with a BA in Political Science, International Relations/Comparative Politics. She is currently a Master’s student in Sciences Po Paris’ ‘Governing the Large Metropolis’ program. Her interests include foreign policy and urban issues in Asia, North America, and the Middle Eastern. She is a strong believer in accessibility to transport, a subject she is currently researching. She is a dedicated yogi, and a perpetually curious student, forever learning from the people and places that surround her.