I was sailing along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, making headway on the erstwhile Santa Barbara Boulevard, when road work and orange cones diverted me onto a side street and into a remnant of my past. In the distance, largely unchanged, stood the high-rise where I once went for checkups at my old pediatrician’s office. If I squinted, I could make out the bones of the hobby shop where my mother took my brother to buy his scale models of German panzer tanks and young Jack Kennedy’s P.T. 109. But it was the cluster of slumped and faded storefronts rising from an expanse of cracked blacktop that took me aback. The once-sleek, Jet Age shopping center, formerly known as Santa Barbara Plaza, now Marlton Square, resembled an abandoned town after a massive toxic leak and, perhaps for good measure, an opportunistic earthquake.
Over the past several years, I’d only monitored the decay out of the corner of one eye as I sped past in my car. Occasionally, I’d skim over newspaper stories or half listen to battles on the radio over redevelopment plans for the old shopping center, a shrill chorus replayed decade after decade. In the 1980s, Mayor Tom Bradley, with an eye toward expanding his list of civic legacies, tried and failed to rebuild the square. In the 1990s, Magic Johnson, deep in postriot entrepreneurial mode, saw his plans for the site get bogged down in fights with city council members. Rumors came and went: a bookstore, a Trader Joe’s, sleek bistros, mixed-use units. The square sat in limbo for years. Then, in 2007, the latest developer failed to pay contractors and set off a chain reaction of bankruptcy filings.
Just days before on a local station I’d heard another heated debate between two candidates running for the local council seat—and the conversation got stuck, like a skip in scratched vinyl: “But you weren’t there … But you weren’t there … But you weren’t there …”
I was there, years ago and now again on that familiar side street. I stopped the car on Marlton Avenue and stepped outside to take it all in. What happens when your memory lane leads to a ghost town?
In its prime, this self-described “modern” shopping center hummed with cheerful mom-and-pop operations—“high fashion” boutiques, stationers, hair salons, travel agencies—and “plentiful parking.” Some of the entrepreneurs had taken over older businesses and then proudly declared themselves “Afro-American” or “black-owned” when those phrases held so much promise. Now the outdoor mall was densely draped in graffiti, its breezeways and midcentury architectural notes (flagstone storefronts, waffle dividers) blemished and broken. Potholes as deep as ponds dotted the parking lot; scavenger pigeons pecked at piled-high trash, molting shag carpeting left to the elements, a sofa sighing at the lot’s center. A woman pushing a baby in a stroller sauntered the perimeter of the vast, oily puddle in the middle of the asphalt.
I stood there looking until I’d had enough. The wreckage seemed collected there in crumpled defeat. An unfinished, jagged argument. Some windows still displayed faded and almost entirely transparent decals that taunted in shadows of red, black, and green: “Recycling Black Dollars.” Across another building’s storefront, hand-painted fanciful cursive cajoled, “Let’s Do It Again,” but in this context, the sign’s meaning was ambiguous.
What was it exactly we were trying to build here? What were we to pass on?
The rubble at my feet, I realized, suggested something more complicated than just politics or the cycle of urban blight. All over Los Angeles there are lost dreams like the one at Marlton and King. Dreams either elided or abandoned—often without hard feelings—in the name of progress.
What was the precise moment that this dream shifted?
Apr 1, 12:48 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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