COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS: The following is a portion of an op-ed and analysis piece I wrote back on October 20, 1999, when Staples Center first opened. It was originally published on the Online Kingdom and is being re-published here as a response to what looked an awful lot like a paid infomercial advertising LA Live, the huge entertainment/retail complex directly across from Staples Center that was built on top of a couple of former Staples Center parking lots. This promo piece aired on Sunday night, January 11, 2009, following the UCLA vs. USC basketball game on FSN Prime Ticket.
During the program, Tim Leiweke, President/CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Los Angeles Kings, Staples Center and LA Live, said that through the building of LA Live (and Staples Center, since the land LA Live was built on was acquired and razed as part of the building of Staples Center), AEG turned a decaying part of Downtown Los Angeles that was filled with liquor stores and other run-down businesses into the thriving entertainment area that it is today.
Leiweke would not be wrong about that and I am not saying that AEG should be demonized for their development efforts in Downtown Los Angeles. But ever since the construction of Staples Center and throughout the creation of LA Live, there has been virtually no recognition of the sacrifices made by those who were forced out of the area.
This story was published during all the gushing, ooh-ing and ahh-ing about the opening of the then-brand new arena to provide some balance. It is being re-published now in that very same spirit.
MONTEREY PARK, CA — After 31 seasons at the Great Western Forum, the Los Angeles Kings will play their first-ever game on Wednesday at the brand-spanking new Staples Center, their 1999-2000 home opener against the Boston Bruins.
Before this potentially spectacular night could take place, it took a couple of years worth of negotiations, political wrangling, lots of wheeling and dealing, eighteen months of record-breaking construction by hundreds of workers and $375 million from owners Philip Anschutz and Ed Roski, Jr., along with various corporations such as Staples and Fox, to get the new arena built in Downtown Los Angeles next to the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The new arena is a state-of-the-art facility, one where Kings fans (along with fans of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers) will be able enjoy the game more than at the aging Forum, along with more choices for food and refreshments, among all the other amenities never before seen here in the Los Angeles area.
In order to bring this new facility to Los Angeles sports fans, a lot of people had to make tremendous sacrifices. We have heard a lot about the nearly endless work put in by Staples Center officials as well as the long hours put in by construction workers who toiled until near midnight, six days a week, in order to complete construction in time for them to open the new building last weekend.
There have been numerous articles and stories in the local broadcast and print media about how incredible Staples Center is and how the new arena could be the catalyst to revitalizing the economy in Downtown Los Angeles. Most of these stories glow and gush about the new arena.
This article is very different. In this article, we will examine who and what was at the Staples Center site prior to construction.
Staples Center And Its “People Cost”
There is a story about Staples Center that is not being told in the mainstream media—about the people who sacrificed much more than anyone else in order for Los Angeles sports fans to be able to enjoy watching their teams in a state-of-the-art facility, for teams like the Kings and Clippers to be profitable once again (primarily through the sale of luxury suites and premier seats that very clearly define and emphasize the differences between the haves and the have-nots) and so that the area surrounding the new arena can be revitalized.
What many people are not aware of is that in virtually every case of redevelopment in Downtown Los Angeles, small businesses and local residents of the affected area have been forced to relocate and the Staples Center project is no exception.
Furthermore, this area has a long history of being under redevelopment, going back to the 1950’s, having undergone four separate uprootings. The first happened when the Harbor Freeway (Interstate 110; back then, it was California Highway 11) was built. Not too long after that, the City of Los Angeles built the Convention Center.
More recently, the City built the new wing of the Convention Center and now we have Staples Center and the planned entertainment/retail plaza/hotel for the adjacent area.
Some forty years ago, the area surrounding what is now the Los Angeles Convention Center and Staples Center was primarily a residential community that had small retail shops and services mixed in. What you had in this area was, essentially, a self-sustaining community.
“That particular stretch of land was actually between Pico and 12th Street, going from Figueroa Street all the way to where the 110 is now,” said Richard Garcia, a community activist and a long-time resident of the central city. “This was a stretch of area that was all apartments. My parents and their families lived there until the late 50’s.”
Although Garcia, 32, is not old enough to have experienced being uprooted from the area, he has vivid recollections of what his parents have told him about their former home, along with his childhood memories of the area—he lived just across the Harbor Freeway from the Convention Center.
“There was a mix of residential and retail,” Garcia said. “The residential side was on the north side and you had some retail activity on the south side off Pico Boulevard. You had a liquor store/market, printing shops, plumbers, a lot of service-oriented type businesses. But it was very dense. It wasn’t a sparsely populated area.”
“If you went down Pico, you had the service businesses—a barber shop, some old hotels,” Garcia said. “Between Pico and Venice, you also had an old police station [the Los Angeles Police Department’s long-defunct Georgia Street station]. You had housing in that area, too. That disappeared when the Convention Center expansion was built. You’re looking at nine to twelve square blocks that are affected by all this redevelopment.”
“A lot of the streets in the area used to go all the way through [where Staples Center and the Convention Center are],” Garcia elaborated. “For example, Cherry Street went all the way from Olympic to Washington Boulevard before it got cut off by the freeways and by the Convention Center.”
Garcia’s parents were among many hundreds who lived in crowded conditions.
“The conditions in these buildings were very crowded,” he said. “My Mother’s family had nine or ten people living in a two-bedroom unit. There was no room to really kick around and hang out so they were always outside when they wanted to relax. My Dad’s family was in a similar situation.”
This was a community that developed for many reasons. But the most significant were the lack of personal transportation, the lack of political power and racism. All factored heavily into the equation.
“[Personal] transportation still wasn’t as accessible to everyone like it is these days so a lot of people used public transportation to get around,” Garcia said. “People used buses and the old Pacific Red Car that ran on Venice Boulevard.”
“Fortunately, a lot of services came to you,” Garcia added. “Back then, you had the milkman coming down the street every morning.”
Perhaps more significant, these were politically disenfranchised people who did not complain and were generally unaware of the applicable rules and laws.
Local politicians knew that and took full advantage.
“Even though many didn’t have rights back then, they didn’t know what rights they did have,” said Garcia. “Because they were minorities, they figured, ‘well, that how things are.’”
Indeed, racism played a big role in the redevelopment and eventual destruction of this community. At the time, where one lived in Southern California was “governed” by what are known as restricted covenants. These were unwritten laws which dictated that only people of certain ethnic groups could live in a particular area. City officials, financial institutions, mortgage brokers and real estate agents all colluded and abided by restricted covenants religiously. And although they began to slowly disappear by the start of the 1970’s, restricted covenants are a major factor in the way Southern California’s communities are shaped today and they resulted in the enactment of much more stringent Federal fair housing laws.
“Minorities got shipped into this area,” Garcia explained. “Mexicans from Texas and Arizona got shipped there. There weren’t a lot of other places where they could live. This was the other part of the mix. It was a segregated situation. For example, to the east of the area was a very exclusive area that had stores on 7th Street and 8th Street like Broadway, May Co., Bullock’s and Robinson’s. Back then, those stores were considered to be exclusive. They weren’t allowed to live in that area.”
Combined, racism and a lack of political power were forces that local officials took advantage of and many people believe that the decision to place the Convention Center in the area was not a sudden decision. Rather, it was a calculated plan.
“They let the surrounding area come all the way down [economically] before they cleared it for the Convention Center,” said Garcia. “It was a conscious effort by powers within the city.”
As such, the redevelopment of the area began. In the late 1950’s, the State of California cleared away a large portion of this area to make way for the Harbor Freeway. A few years later, the City decided to build the Convention Center there. These redevelopment efforts resulted in the uprooting of hundreds, if not a few thousand people.
The other shock was that back then, relocation costs were not taken into account, unlike today. Those forced to move away were on their own.
“The significance of that whole uprooting was that compensation wasn’t given to people [for relocation costs],” Garcia noted. “Remember, this was happening at the same time that Bunker Hill [in the current financial district of Downtown Los Angeles] was being razed to start the redevelopment project there. Even though these things were going on in different places, they had the same mode of operation.”
This meant that all the small businesses and area residents had to find new places to set up shop or live and no one was going to help them financially to do it.
Some residents found places close by while others had to go elsewhere.
“The residents who were there just moved to other places,” said Garcia. “But a lot of them moved to places real close to the area. Between Venice and Washington and Pico and Venice. Not everyone who left could afford to stay close by, though. Some had to go further east or further west. Some people moved out of the area entirely.”
In the end, what was once a very close-knit community had been destroyed.
“This was an area that was starting to become a community because a lot of the people who moved there came from Texas or from Mexico,” Garcia explained. “There were a lot of people who knew each other in that community. But when the Convention Center came in, it broke up the community and those relationships ended there. When you’re in a close-knit community, it’s kind of a shock to be suddenly removed from that.”
To make matters worse, none of the housing that was destroyed was replaced. It wasn’t until 1982, nearly twenty years later, that a token effort was made to build housing for those who were displaced. The only problem was that the properties were all condominiums with very high rental rates. Very few of the former residents, if any, accepted the offer.
Perhaps more significant in all this is that in most of the redevelopment projects that have been undertaken in Downtown Los Angeles, local residents and small businesses have been unjustly treated—what has happened in the Convention Center area is not the exception. Rather, it is the rule.
Perhaps the best documented example is the history of redevelopment in a community that this writer is very active in…the Little Tokyo area of Downtown Los Angeles, where City officials and large corporations have bitten off large chunks of the community, displacing many hundreds of low-income residents and small businesses.
The first redevelopment came in the 1950’s when the City decided to demolish the entire northwest section of Little Tokyo in order to build Parker Center, the current headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department. As a result, the entire block bordered by First Street on the south, Los Angeles Street on the west, Temple Street on the north and San Pedro Street on the east, was leveled.
“[This redevelopment project] led to the displacement of over one thousand residents of Little Tokyo, an event referred to as the ‘second evacuation’ of Little Tokyo,” wrote community activist Kent Kawai in a recent article (the second evacuation is a reference to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II).
And just like in the case of the Convention Center area, the displaced residents and business owners were not compensated for relocation costs. They too were on their own and a significant number of the residents disappeared and were never seen again. The fear was that they wound up homeless.
In the 1970’s, with Little Tokyo in an economic decline, large corporations from Japan swooped in, forcing out more local residents and small businesses when they demolished buildings surrounding Weller Street so that the New Otani Hotel and the Weller Court shopping center could be built.
The problem is that although the hotel and shopping center were said to be part of the economic recovery of Little Tokyo, no recovery ever happened because these new shops and the hotel catered almost exclusively to recent immigrants from Japan and not to the local Japanese American community, which had been in the United States for more than three generations and was almost entirely different culturally from native-born Japanese. What happened was that the money that was being spent by Japanese nationals was not being invested in the local community. Rather, it was going to large corporations based in Japan.
As a result, the numbers of Japanese Americans who shopped and hung out in Little Tokyo began to decline drastically. The small businesses in the area began to suffer and many could not survive. Moreover, with the loss of all the low-income hotels in the old Weller Street area, there was now an acute lack of low-income housing.
But unlike the Convention Center area, by the time the 1970’s rolled around, Japanese Americans were beginning to assert their citizenship rights and they stood up to the large corporations who wanted to assert their will over that of the local community.
“In the 1970’s, we created community organizations to preserve and defend Little Tokyo,” wrote community activist Jim Matsuoka. By ‘preserve,’ we meant to not only physically rebuild the area but also keep it as a center for Japanese American activities. We also sought to let it remain a home for other ethnic groups who lived here.”
“By ‘defending’ we meant to challenge the efforts of large, multi-national corporations who sought to exploit Little Tokyo economically and reduce it to a tourist attraction,” Matsuoka continued. “Future generations of Japanese Americans need a ‘center,’ and all current residents need a decent community they can proudly call their home.”
In the end, the community won concessions. They were successful in getting some of the low-income housing replaced, although a shortage in low-income housing continues to plague the area.
They also were able to get a new community center built to replace the demolished Sun Building, where many community organizations worked and where a number of “serve the people” programs operated.
But perhaps things are turning around now. In recent years, the Little Tokyo community has taken redevelopment of the area into its own hands and with fantastic results.
Little Tokyo has seen the refurbishing of the San Pedro Firm Building, formerly a run-down, City-owned, low-income housing building that was eventually purchased by the community, and now has double the number of low-income units that it originally had.
Little Tokyo has also witnessed the building of Casa Heiwa (which means “House of Harmony” in Spanish and Japanese, in recognition of the fact that Little Tokyo has always been a very multicultural community), a modern building that not only provides office space for the community-based Little Tokyo Service Center, but also a fairly large number of low-income housing units.
Add to those projects the renovation of the old Union Church which has become the Union Center for the Arts, and you have three redevelopment projects initiated by the local community that truly take into account the needs of the community, as opposed to the desires of large corporations who only want to exploit the area for profit.
Obviously, the residents of the area surrounding Staples Center do not have the organization or the political savvy that organizers in the Little Tokyo area do. Unfortunately, this means that they have had virtually no one to help protect their rights, either back in the 50’s or today.
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that 250 low-income residents and their children were uprooted from their homes in the Convention Center area to make way for Staples Center and for parking lots in the vicinity (see “Staples Center’s Displaced Have New Homes and New Worries” by Carla Rivera, October 9, 1999).
Garcia recalled the area just before construction on Staples Center began.
“If you go north of 11th Street, you had a lot of dwellings that were meant for couples but families were living in them and rent was still lower than in other places,” said Garcia. “There were at least seven or eight buildings that held 20-35 units a piece. There were a couple of smaller buildings there, too.”
These families, mostly Latino, all low-income, were provided with money to cover relocation costs. However, with low-income housing nearly non-existent these days, these families were forced to move into housing with higher rents.
“I’ve heard that combined incomes for these families was $1,200 to $1,300 a month, so 40-45% of their income went to rent,” added Garcia.
City officials told the Los Angeles Times that the compensation provided to these families was fair. However, families are finding that they will soon be unable to afford the higher rent in their new homes.
The Los Angeles Times also reported that tenant advocacy groups are complaining that the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has not provided fair compensation to many displaced residents and that the CRA has placed many obstacles in the path of these families who are seeking fair compensation for their relocation costs due to disorganization and massive red tape.
“The one factor that’s very obvious, when you have an area that’s primarily renters, they feel powerless—the ownership factor isn’t there,” Garcia lamented. “But a lot of the kids in the area go to the local schools and the families who live there make up a community. There can’t just be something where we react to a problem. There has to be something in place when the problems arise.”
Of course, some people who lived in the area were undocumented, and will probably never come forward to complain or question the compensation given to them.
Regardless, Garcia said that something needed to be done to try to revitalize the area.
“After the first phase of the Convention Center was built, the area continued to be run-down,” said Garcia. “When the second phase was built, the north side, nothing changed. There were no other efforts to improve the area. Nothing surrounding the Convention Center ever got built.”
“The decline of the area just north of the arena, where the parking lots are now, was also part of the downhill trend from where the Convention Center was built,” added Garcia. “The only improvements were made around the Pico Blue Line Station that were built after the rail line came in. But that’s it.”
The fact is, Staples Center is a reality and it is not going anywhere. But some community activists believe that more can and should be done to help displaced residents.
Garcia believes that Staples Center, along with their corporate partners, should be doing more to help.
“Whenever you have something of that size built, you would hope that positions would develop where these people could work,” he said. “The problem with that is that the people who lived in this area were primarily blue collar-type workers. Beyond the marginal jobs, there’s nothing else there for them. These people had to look elsewhere to find employment.”
“I know when they had a job fair [at Staples Center], it was done by lottery,” he added. “It makes you wonder if any slots were reserved for people who lived in the area.”
“Maybe some micro-loan type situations could help local residents who were displaced. Or they should fund job training for them and not just for jobs at the arena. There should be something done for them.”
But most importantly, the community needs more low-income housing somewhere nearby, not just to compensate the displaced residents but also as a crucial part of the economic revitalization.
“The city and the developers should be working to replace the low-income housing that was removed,” Garcia contended. “The area is still an area where people work, not where people live. As long as the percentage is lopsided towards those who work there, it’s going to be a tough deal. But if more people start living in Downtown, it will create enough mass inside to generate economic growth.”
“If you have people living there, they’re going to spend money at places near them,” Garcia added. “But as far as people traveling to the arena from other areas, I wouldn’t count on them as being a big boon to the area. If you don’t have a street life around Staples Center, the new arena is just going to be an island.”
One example Garcia mentioned rang a very familiar bell.
“Don’t forget…when the Convention Center was finished, the hopes were that the Democratic Convention would come there. That never happened. And the Convention Center never brought in a big enough event to bring other businesses into the area. No hotel chain ever thought that the area was worth investing in. This is a pattern…there have been a lot of planning mistakes—assumptions made by people who really didn’t know anything.”
At least with Staples Center, the 2000 Democratic Convention has already been secured.
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