Posts by Gary J. Lai

Last month I promised to give an update about my foray into Downtown Los Angeles living. This is my first report.

One of the great benefits to living Downtown is that I also work here.  Even though my former neighborhood of Silver Lake is only about 5 miles away, LA traffic sometimes stretches the distance into an hour long commute.  Now I can just walk up to the Red/Purple Line Civic Center Station, or I can walk the mile and a half to work.  Either way, it takes about 20 minutes from door-to-desk.

Downtown Los Angeles is what we urban design types like to call a “neighborhood in transition” – meaning, development is happening at a breakneck pace, but much of the existing stuff, good and bad, is still very much evident. I snapped the following photos on my morning walk to work, documenting this neighborhood – my neighborhood – in transition.

All photos by Gary Lai

From my new apartment, I walk up a couple of blocks to 2nd and Main.  Our wonderfully funky historic City Hall is framed by the LAPD Headquarters to the left and Caltrans to the right. In many ways, this is the ideal of what new urbanists may view as a modern city: a mixture of new and old, clean streets with bike lanes, residents living in high-density housing.


LA County’s streets are home to 58,000 people homeless. I now live two blocks from the border of Skid Row where the highest concentration of homeless live.  Reminders of this tragedy is everywhere across Downtown.


I’ve never actually seen the Paraiso Restaurant at 3rd and Main open, but I hope at one time it was a happening place. Older, discount-type businesses and restaurants are still the predominant retail-type in DTLA, but it’s changing fast due to skyrocketing rents and development.


On my walking commute I like to cut through the historic Grand Center Market at Broadway and through to Hill street, passing the ridiculous line at the Eggslut booth.


The historical funicular train, Angel’s Flight, is being worked on again. I hope it opens some time before the California High Speed Rail in 2035.


My walk takes me along a diagonal shortcut through Pershing Square Park. The main water feature is now dry – victim of our historic drought and a post-modernism backlash.


One of the major issues afflicting pedestrians in DTLA is the poor conditions of our sidewalks. Cracked, dirty and falling apart, business owners have taken to washing their own sidewalk frontage.  The smell of bleach is common and pervasive as I walk down 6th toward Grand.


Just a half block away from work at 7th and Grand is the new Whole Foods, below the 8th and Grand luxury apartment complex.  I don’t think much needs to be said about DTLA after that sentence.

One thing I find ironic about moving to DTLA is that people originally moved away from Downtown because they thought the suburbs would be a healthier environment. After a month living in Downtown, I agree the downtown environment is not necessarily healthy, but my lifestyle is healthier. Instead of sitting in a car or bus for hours commuting, I now have time to walk and go to the gym despite a heavy workload – this resident as much in transition as the city surrounding him.

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Corpses of Chinese immigrants who were murdered during the Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection

On a chilly October night in 1871, in a western part of Los Angeles home to about 5,000 souls, two rival Tong clans in Chinatown found themselves in the middle of a dispute over a prostitute. During the quarrel, a shot rang out. In the middle of the street, Robert Thompson, a local rancher lay dead with a single gunshot wound to the chest.

By morning, 17 to 20 Chinese men and boys would join Thompson, after they were tortured and hanged by mob of over 500 men angered by the rancher’s accidental death.

This notorious event would come to be known as the Los Angeles Chinese Massacre of 1871, the largest mass lynching in American history. In its aftermath, ten men would be charged with manslaughter, and eight would be convicted. All eight would be acquitted on a technicality, released without spending a single minute within San Quentin prison.

A commemoration marking the day of this day of infamy in Los Angeles is planned at Father Serra Park across from Union Station. The Chinese suffered badly in California from 1857 to 1943 under the Chinese Exclusion Act. But in spite of their long and difficult past, many Chinese American decedents of these first immigrants have gone onto achieve a measure of success as both Californians and Americans. So, I’ve been asking myself the question: What exactly would this memorial be memorializing?

As an ancestor of a Chinese American immigrant myself, I realized I needed to investigate my own family story.

My maternal great grandfather immigrated to Northern California in 1892 at the peak of the anti-Chinese hysteria. He worked on the inter-continental railroad, then later opened a laundry near Stockton, California. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act’s moratorium on the immigration of Chinese women to the United States, he had two choices: 1. go back to China to find a wife and try and immigrate back into the US later (thereby renouncing his ability to become an American citizen), or 2. stay in this new country as a bachelor.

The call to start a family was too great. He left the United States to return to China in the early 1910’s to marry my great-grandmother. He would return to California in the early 1920’s with his teenage son, my grandfather.

My grandfather would have six sons and a single daughter – my mother. Because Chinese were not able to own land in California, any business my grandfather would establish would be dependent upon white landowners, who would raise their rents to take all of his profits. In desperation, he would move the family away from Stockton and into San Francisco’s Chinatown. The Great Depression would leave deep scars as my grandfather struggled to support his family in the slum. My mother would suffer from malnutrition as a child and would be taken away from the family for months on end.

In World War II, my grandfather’s nephew would die of his injuries fighting for the US Army in France. My uncles would fight in both Korea and Vietnam on the front lines. They would return home to be become shopkeepers, butchers, a career military officer, and a laborer. Their children would go onto college to later become engineers, workers in the technology field, real estates agents, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and one landscape architect. My cousins and I would live our lives as Californians, contributing to the economy, helping to build the state into what it is today. Their children continue to follow these footsteps.

Ultimately, I am grateful that my great-great-grandfather did not decide to immigrate to Los Angeles 20 years earlier only to be dragged out from his home, beaten, stabbed, and finally hanged in Chinatown’s Calle de los Negros back in 1871 (razed and rebuilt into what is now known as Los Angeles St.).

So, I found the answer to my question: A memorial at Father Serra Park is not only to commemorate the dead, but to acknowledge the accomplishments of the four generations that followed their undeserved deaths. We’d later become lawyers, doctors, teachers, shop keepers…even a landscape architect or two. The memorial acts as a reminder to all immigrants that the country they see as a beacon of freedom and equality is not always so

In many ways, the United States’ record in immigrant relations is a broken record playing the same sorrowful song, over and over again with different singers: the Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, and Muslims. It is up to us – the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these immigrants – to remind our country that we are here working and fighting for the United States. We are – and always have been – the engine that makes America great.

Looking at City Hall with Weller Court in the foreground. All photos by Gary Lai.

Fifty-one years ago my parents chose to move their infant son and 9 year old daughter to a brand new neighborhood away from the urban core of San Francisco.

While not exactly a suburb, Diamond Heights was a neighborhood almost completely devoid of typical San Francisco-style amenities: an absence of corner markets below flats, no rows of restaurants lining major transportation corridors, and no Muni streetcars or electric buses rumbling along streets on their way to Downtown. Diamond Heights was a suburban-style neighborhood with large swaths of detached single family homes with two car garages. The planners had every intention for Diamond Heights residents to get into their cars and drive the few miles into Downtown for work.

My parents were not alone. In fact, for the next 40 years, most middle class Americans moved away from the centers of cities and into suburbs. Today, a lot of us are moving back.

My wife and I just moved into Little Tokyo, just down the street from Los Angeles City Hall, and a block and a half away from Police Headquarters. We don’t have any kids, but the maintenance costs of our vintage 1921 Silver Lake house finally got the best of us. We are planning to vacate the house, do some minimal repairs, and sell it. In the meantime, we decided to move to within walking distance of my work in Downtown Los Angeles to see if we like it. For children of the 1960s-1970s, the experience can be more than a little weird. For us, downtowns have always been for work and play, but not for living. As Chinese Americans, my parents purposefully moved away from San Francisco Chinatown in search of a better life for their children. When my wife’s grandparents immigrated to United States from Japan, they ended up in Little Tokyo, but moved away as soon as they could afford to do so. The irony is not lost on us, as we walked down historic 1st Street looking for a table in one of many over-crowded restaurants this holiday weekend.

New apartments in Little Tokyo.

Suffice to say, all the reasons that post-war families chose to move to suburbs is too complex and multi-faceted to cover in one post. But it is undeniable that the suburbs represented a “better” life for that generation. Owning a single-family home with land was out of reach for most Americans in the early part of the 20th century. The West Coast – specifically Southern California, with it’s seemingly endless supply of developable land – represented an unique opportunity to achieve the fabled “American Dream”. While the idea every family should own a single family home seems admirable, and even egalitarian, there are unintended consequences to trying to achieve this goal:

  • Running out of land – As our population rises, the space for single-family homes dimishes.  Vast areas of fertile farmland or natural landscapes are gobbled up to accommodate homes farther and farther away from the economic centers; many Southern Californians commute over 2 hours one way from home to job.
  • Pollution – With Southern California transportation infrastructure centered around cars and freeways, the city’s air pollution is the worst in the country. Idle engines stuck in traffic for hours on end is a primary cause. The problem is exacerbated with more people commuting farther distances in heavy traffic.
  • Social isolation – As we spend more time in our cars and live farther from the economic activity, we spend less time with the people who live around us. Real communities cannot thrive if we barely know our neighbors and our social circles are scattered throughout the region (causing us to drive even more!).

Japanese Village shops and restaurants on historic 1st Street in Little Tokyo.

The Millennial generation seems to have intuitively sensed these problems and are now seeking to be closer to their jobs. They aim to spend less time in cars and have their goods, services, and entertainment within walking distance.  All of these desires have guided developers to build sleek new dense housing, restauranteurs to open cafes and shops in the Downtown districts, and supermarkets to return to areas long abandoned. The demand for these amenities has been fueling a revival of Downtown Los Angeles for the last decade, with development only accelerating every passing day.

So, with that all in mind, my wife and I have moved Downtown last weekend.  I’ll tell you how it goes…

Angel City Brewery – a local hot spot – in the adjacent Art’s District.

 

My un-irrigated “meadow” never looked so good! Photos by Gary Lai

I came to a realization while driving up the coast the other day:  I had forgotten what a green Los Angeles looks like. Heck, I forgot what a green California looks like!

This all happened while I was driving up through the Valley, past Thousand Oaks. There before me stood a sea of green rolling hills, while on the radio, Governor Brown was declaring the end of the drought emergency, lifting most of the statewide water restrictions across almost all of the California counties. The morning paper reported our snowpack in the Sierras finished the winter at 173% above normal!

For a second, I couldn’t help thinking, “We’re back! Maybe I’ll finally be able to take long showers, wash half-loads in ‘full’ mode on the washing machine, and crank up the irrigation controller for my newly replanted lawn!”. But then I came back to my senses.

There’s no going back to the days when water seemed endless. Because the water never was endless.

According to the Introduction to Water in California, part of the California Natural History Guide Series, California receives about 200 million acre-feet of water in an average year.  78 million acre-feet becomes runoff that we can use.  As a rule-of-thumb, an acre-foot of water services about 5-8 people. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?  But wait!  Fresh water is needed in all of our riparian ecosystems too, so we can’t take it all.  Adding the thirsty needs of agriculture, industrial uses, air conditioners, man-made lakes, ornamental landscapes, sports fields and swimming pools, and all of sudden, it doesn’t really seem like that much. Factoring the often forgotten figures related to waste and inefficiencies like leaky pipes and the safe margin shrinks a little further more.

The green hills of Griffith Park.

California’s population is projected to reach 50-60 million people by 2050, so our water needs will only increase. Remember that 78 million acre-feet?  That’s all we are ever going to get. To make matters worse, climate change makes the amount of water we receive much more unpredictable. A historical average might not be the future average as the cycle of droughts and wet years become more intense and extreme.

My point is that fresh water is not endless. Water is a precious and finite resource that will run out if we continue to treat it as if there is an endless supply.

I do believe that desalinization is in our water future. However, the plants of today are expensive, dirty, and take an inordinate amount of energy. Desalinization should be a method of last resort when we have exhausted all of conservation and storage options. We currently waste so much water.  Water conservation is a low cost, low-hanging fruit that can extend our supply well into the future until we can develop desalination technologies that will be safer, cheaper and more ecologically responsible. So, please don’t increase your shower time 10 fold or rip out that drought-tolerant landscape. Please continue to be cognizant that our water future is determined by what we do today.

For more about the drought and saving water strategies, check out our past posts about the topic here.

My trusty ’07 Toyota Prius, circa 128,000 miles old. Photos by Gary Lai.

I still remember my wife’s family’s 4th of July celebration even after nearly a decade later. I had just moved to Los Angeles and and was the proud new owner of a 2007 Prius. I was harboring high expectations about showing my wife’s family the car. We had been married for almost 15 years and I was already acquainted with my wife’s family ritual revolving around any new car. Family would gather around the shiny new vehicle to “ooh” and “ahh” appreciably in harmony. Just a year before I witnessed this tradition first hand when one of my wife’s cousins bought a new Subaru WRX.

Remembering this ritual I attempted to be helpful, parking close to the garage so that no one would need to venture too far away from the house during the summer heat to check out my new car. I walked in, set down our potluck dish, then proudly announced my $28k purchase.

The sound of crickets was deafening.

Needless to say, I could have parked in San Bernardino. No one even bothered to come out to look at the car at any time during our visit.

That was then, this is now. The boring, pedestrian, and weird Toyota hybrid is now the most common car across the city. My wife and I recently counted 97 Priuses pass by in just a span of an hour and a half while seated at a Silver Lake restaurant outdoor patio.

Hollywood has even taken notice. There a scene in La La Land when Emma Stone’s Prius keys are surrounded by scores of others on the valet board. Automobile anonymity.

Angelenos need to face reality: the era of the Mustang or the Mercedes SL500 convertible is over. The Prius is the car that most represents Los Angeles today.

A snapshot recently from Astro’s Coffee Shop in Silver Lake. From left to right:  Honda Insight, 2 Toyota Priuses (Third Generation), Chevy Volt.

Don’t kill the messenger! I’m a “car guy” too. I spent a sizable time during my 80s era youth salivating over Ferraris and Lamborghinis. I wasted most of my young adulthood tightly griping a controller in front of a TV playing Gran Turismo on the Playstation. I owned an illegally modified “rice rocket”, an Acura Integra, for 10 years. I even had the honor of driving on the track at Laguna Seca behind the wheel of a 2004 Dodge Viper. However, when it came down to buying a car for driving in Los Angeles a decade ago, I chose a Prius.

Why? Because…

1. …I am a Landscape Architect on a limited budget who lives in a very expensive city.
2. …our traffic is the absolute worst in the country. LA commuters waste an average of 81 hours a year in traffic compared with the next worst cities, Washington DC and San Francisco, tied at 75 hours of annual traffic purgatory.
3. …owning a BMW M5 capable of 0-60mph in under 4 seconds is meaningless in a city where you rarely afforded the opportunity to “speed” over 35mph.
4. …in a city with the worst air quality in the country, I drive a car that emits a fraction of carbon versus a gas-only internal combustion engine vehicle. I’m not the only one that made this decision. Los Angeles is now the leading city in sales of alternate fuel cars: Teslas, Volts, Leafs, and of course, new generation of Priuses.

Angelenos, I understand anyone’s apprehension and concern. Los Angeles invented car culture and its difficult to fathom Los Angeles choosing something so pedestrian as symbolic of our auto-loving city. Take heart, in the near future there will still be sexy, exotic fire-breathing sports machines rolling into parking lots along Sunset Blvd. or Beverly Blvd. for valets to lustily salivate over. For the foreseeable future certain cars will retain their status symbol.

But change is visible just over the hill of the proverbial 405 freeway: Millennials have stopped driving and are ride sharing; Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers have decided saving money and protecting the quality of air is more important than “status”, especially while stuck for hours every day in traffic.

The emergence of the Prius shows that we have, indeed, turned the corner on transportation.