May 31, 2023

Creating Downtown LA

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Last summer, the American Sociological Association (ASA) held its annual meeting in downtown Los Angeles (DTLA). “We’re right in your backyard!” an out-of-town colleague said, and while only about 20 miles away, this area is in many ways a world away from where I live in Los Angeles. I seldom go downtown, despite it being a mere 2 miles from my workplace, mostly because I prefer open spaces to commercialized zones. (Yeah, traffic and parking issues are a deterrent too).

The conference took place at the city’s Convention Center, near the Arena (formerly known as Staples Center) and LA Live, a complex of sports-themed restaurants, hotels, and performance spaces. My colleague, Leland Saito, studied the development of this area in his book, Building Downtown Los Angeles: The Politics of Race and Place in Urban America. He explores how low-income people of color were systematically displaced over the last five decades—mostly within the last twenty-five years—to create this commercial area. He argues that the meanings of race are intertwined with geographical spaces, and that displacement isn’t just an effect of race, but creates meanings of race itself (pp. 3-4).

Saito found that city leaders defined the area’s long-time residents as undesirable—explicitly stating as much in the early 1970s when the convention center was in the works—and believed that removing them and creating these large taxpayer-funded projects would produce new revenue streams for the city. His book details the process by which business leaders and political officials do the work of creating city spaces, which do not just emerge organically but are the effects of policy decisions and the exercise of power (p. 5).

While this process on the surface appears to be purely about generating business, it also reveals who has value to political leaders; in this case, the goal of the displacement of working-class people of color was to lure (predominantly white) tourists and convention-goers indicates who has more value to civic leaders (p. 13). In turn, politicians benefit from what Saito describes as the “edifice complex,” where “politicians …can point to such structures as evidence of their effectiveness in completing such visible projects” (p. 25).

Podcast: Interview with Leland Saito 

Today, DTLA features much new high-rise, high-priced housing, and white residents have become the majority (compared with Latinx residents before the 1990s) which defies the city’s overall demographic shift (p.177-180). Having attracted more affluent residents, those who once lived where LA Live, Arena, and the Convention Center are very likely priced out of DTLA. The restaurants, shops, and entertainment options that are now available are also beyond reach of the area’s former residents.

While this might seem like a purely economic effect of gentrification, Saito explains that whether or not it was intended, this change is “racialized in its effects” (p. 35). Further, it is not just that those who bear the brunt of displacement are mostly working-class Latinx, but, as Saito argues, the construction of meanings of race are accomplished through the creation of spaces within cities. This process serves to facilitate the creation of racial hierarchies, deeming some groups more economically desirable for civic leaders than others.

Saito’s analysis offers a deep dive into the politics and practices that led to the creation of a zone within DTLA designed to draw in people like me: those attending professional conferences or conventions or who have the resources to pay to attend a Laker’s game at Crypto (tickets for the NBA playoffs this year started at about $300 per person). He also explores how local coalitions and groups organized in response to these changes, successfully working for a community benefits agreement and specifically an increased minimum wage (p. 156). A proposed new NFL stadium was not built downtown,  largely due to resistance and a lawsuit filed by a local coalition called Play Fair (p. 160). This reminds us that the creation of cities is a dynamic process, and that by prioritizing some residents over others reflects and reproduces inequality.

I am left wondering if given the history of this part of DTLA whether the ASA meeting should have been held in this location. It had the conveniences of many nearby hotel rooms and restaurants, ample parking, and for me, it was conveniently located near the freeway. It is easy to forget the displaced people who once called the neighborhood home when we are enjoying these urban spaces.


The information in this excellent essay is incredibly helpful. I think your essay was the greatest I read today. I agree with you.

Fascinating article and lots of additional details.

The passage also mentions your colleague, Leland Saito, who studied the development of the area and wrote a book titled "Building Downtown Los Angeles: The Politics of Race and Place in Urban America."

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