Shap­ing up L.A. for the Games

As it did when it hosted in 1932 and ’84, the city can use 2028 as a civic barom­e­ter.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Thomas Cur­wen

When asked to ex­plain the se­cret of Los An­ge­les on the eve of the 1984 Sum­mer Olympics, the late poet, nov­el­ist and fan­ta­sist Ray Brad­bury broke it down, cap­tur­ing the in­gen­u­ous ad­van­tage the city en­joyed as it was com­ing of age.

“L.A. is a con­glom­er­ate of small towns striv­ing to­ward im­men­sity and never mak­ing it, thank God,” he wrote. “We have no kings, queens, or courts, no real peck­ing or­der, no hi­er­ar­chies to pre­vent those of us who care to lean into creativ­ity from run­ning loose in the big yard.”

With that creativ­ity and free­dom, he con­tin­ued, “we have con­quered the world and don’t have enough sense to know it. Maybe it’s just as well. With such knowl­edge comes ar­ro­gance. We are not ar­ro­gant yet, although I de­tect signs of it.”

More than 30 years later, it is hard to imag­ine what Brad­bury would make of last week’s an­nounce­ment that Los An­ge­les will host the Olympics in 2028. The city to­day is ap­proach­ing the im­men­sity that he seemed wary of.

Down­town, once stag­nant and over­looked, is thriv­ing, its sky­line ev­ere­volv­ing. The Dodgers and Du­damel are on a roll. Ge­orge Lu­cas is break­ing ground on a mu­seum in Ex­po­si­tion Park. Two foot­ball teams com­pete in the city’s back­yard, and a sub­way sys­tem is tun­nel­ing its way to­ward the sea.

What once was a blank slate is now crowded with — if not in­hib­ited by — ex­pec­ta­tions.

Add the Olympics to the mix, and it is per­haps un­der­stand­able that the re­ac­tion has been slightly fuzzy. Los An­ge­les is no longer pow-

ered by the in­no­cence that Brad­bury de­scribed. By many mea­sures, it has be­come the world-class city that it could only once dream of.

But the Olympics have al­ways been a mea­sure of our as­pi­ra­tions, and by win­ning this in­ter­na­tional nod, the city not only shows it­self to the world but also puts a mir­ror up to it­self.

What will Los An­ge­les look like in 11 years? Less an ex­er­cise in crys­tal-ball gaz­ing, the ques­tion is an op­por­tu­nity to con­sider the fu­ture the city wants to make real.

Since the inau­gu­ra­tion of the mod­ern Games, the Olympics have be­come both an as­pi­ra­tion and a dis­trac­tion for cities around the world, in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les.

This dusty burg won the 1932 Games in 1923, the same year the Hol­ly­wood­land sign was un­veiled, Walt Dis­ney Co. was es­tab­lished, and Amelia Earhart — who learned to fly in Long Beach — was awarded her pi­lot’s li­cense. De­spite Pro­hi­bi­tion, the Jazz Age was swing­ing, and the danc­ing wouldn’t stop un­til Black Tues­day, 1929.

Three years later, fan­tasy was in high de­mand as soup kitchens, shut­tered fac­to­ries and fore­closed homes crowded the land­scape, and in the lead-up to the Sum­mer Games, the Los An­ge­les Times at­tempted to shift the fo­cus to a fire­works dis­play in Pa­cific Pal­isades and ten­nis par­ties in Santa Mon­ica. The city would be happy to pro­vide a tem­po­rary di­ver­sion, if not a per­ma­nent des­ti­na­tion, for refugees of the day.

In 1978, when Los An­ge­les was awarded the ’84 Games, the city was in an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis. In the af­ter­math of Water­gate, Viet­nam and a gas-ra­tioning oil cri­sis, the as­phalted mega­lopo­lis faced the un­cer­tainty of Propo­si­tion 13 and the loss of the Los An­ge­les Rams to Ana­heim.

As The Times noted, civic pride had died “some­where be­tween Watts and the Am­bas­sador Ho­tel pantry.”

“There just isn’t the en­ergy that there used to be,” former City Coun­cil­woman Ros­alind Wy­man told The Times in 1978. Twenty years ear­lier, Wy­man played an in­stru­men­tal role in bring­ing the Dodgers to Los An­ge­les in 1957. “Peo­ple ba­si­cally don’t re­late to the city as a whole, any­way. They iden­tify in terms of their neigh­bor­hoods, their im­me­di­ate in­ter­ests. We’re into the ‘Me Gen­er­a­tion’ now, and peo­ple don’t have civic spirit when they’re to­tally wrapped up in a phi­los­o­phy of ‘me, not us.’ ”

Mayor Tom Bradley’s cam­paign to win the Olympics seemed risky. The Games had brought ri­ots to Mex­ico City, ter­ror to Mu­nich and debt to Mon­treal. Yet Bradley was un­de­terred, fight­ing for — and win­ning — con­ces­sions from the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee.

Former county Su­per­vi­sor Zev Yaroslavsky, who also served on the L.A. City Coun­cil and is now at the UCLA Luskin School of Pub­lic Af­fairs, be­lieves that the in­cen­tive to host the 1984 Games came, in part, from the city’s es­tab­lish­ment which, in his mind, had “this in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex” about Los An­ge­les.

“The elite thought we had to prove some­thing,” he said, de­spite the fact that the city and its econ­omy were grow­ing. The stakes were higher as well, which led to a more ro­bust de­bate over host­ing the Games.

“In 1978, we had no term lim­its in the City Coun­cil,” Yaroslavsky said. “We would be held ac­count­able for suc­cess or fail­ure of the Games. There was a po­lit­i­cal sur­vival in­stinct to pro­tect us from a fi­asco that would be detri­men­tal to us.”

It helped, ac­cord­ing to Yaroslavsky, that Peter Ue­ber­roth was in charge. “He squeezed ev­ery dol­lar. The ’84 or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee ran the Games as though their rep­u­ta­tions de­pended on it, which they did.”

By the time the torch was lit, the ’84 Olympics had gen­er­ated an ex­cite­ment that would defy any Or­wellian naysay­ers.

“The Games went out as they had come in,” wrote Times colum­nist Jim Mur­ray, “on a note of joy, and hope and prom­ise. Amer­ica gave a party and the world came. The ones you want at your party any­way. The world’s Olympians. Vic­tors all. We’ll miss them. May they come back soon.”

The prom­ise, how­ever, was short-lived. Soon af­ter the party, a po­lice scan­dal, a crack epi­demic, the col­lapse of the aerospace in­dus­try, ri­ots and earth­quakes rat­tled the city’s newly won es­teem.

“1984 ben­e­fited from low ex­pec­ta­tions,” writer D.J. Waldie said of L.A.’s last Olympics. “Any­thing short of a dis­as­ter would be called a suc­cess.”

Waldie also cites a num­ber of other fac­tors for the pop­u­lar­ity of the ’84 Games, which will make 2028 more chal­leng­ing.

Back then, he said, “We were a bit more naive about celebrity and less ready to troll our he­roes. It was a marginally less cyn­i­cal time too.”

In ad­di­tion, there were fewer me­dia out­lets, leav­ing The Times and na­tional me­dia greater op­por­tu­nity to con­trol the story.

Joel Kotkin, a writer and ur­ban scholar at Chap­man Univer­sity, be­lieves that the Games will be more dif­fi­cult to pull off in 2028 than they were in 1984.

“You could ar­gue in some ways that L.A. is less a suc­cess­ful world-class city than it was in 1984, cer­tainly in terms of tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nomic lead­er­ship,” he said. Since then, the city has lost cor­po­ra­tions and ex­pe­ri­enced slower job and pop­u­la­tion growth.

Kotkin is con­cerned that the Olympics will be­come the or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple for any de­ci­sion that the city makes when other is­sues — poverty, hous­ing, home­less­ness — de­mand at­ten­tion.

“We are fo­cused on our im­age and not so much on what is hap­pen­ing in our neigh­bor­hoods,” he said. “We think we can glitz our way to suc­cess, but it will take a lot more to do that.”

Los An­ge­les, he said, puts on a great show, but that is not enough.

“It seems to me this is not an as­cen­sion story as it was in 1932, or a con­fir­ma­tion-of-great­ness story as it was in 1984,” he said, “but a way to re-mar­ket a prod­uct that has lots of brand prob­lems.”

In clos­ing his es­say, Brad­bury imag­ines what might lie ahead for Los An­ge­les, whose “some­what friv­o­lous and more re­laxed” at­ti­tude had “si­phoned up the pow­ers of the world” to its ben­e­fit.

His pre­dic­tion wasn’t promis­ing.

“Per­haps late in the cen­tury,” he wrote, “when the many small towns of L.A. con­nect up and sign peace treaties with each other, and cross-pol­li­nate theater groups, art mobs and po­lit­i­cal mal­func­tions, we will have found our navel, our peck­ing-or­der hi­er­ar­chy and — at last — ar­ro­gance. Which will mean the death of creativ­ity.”

Whether the city has reached that point is a mat­ter of con­tention for its boost­ers and crit­ics.

Los An­ge­les is fa­mous for its abil­ity to court both dream­ers and prag­ma­tists. For ev­ery ec­cen­tric am­bi­tion, there is a bro­ken side­walk need­ing re­pair. For ev­ery point of pride, a dark­ened shadow.

But the city is too eas­ily ren­dered in ei­ther utopian or dystopian terms, as if each is mu­tu­ally exclusive. Will the 2028 Games be fis­cally wise or fool­ish? Will they be po­lit­i­cally pop­u­lar or a po­lit­i­cal blun­der?

Prob­a­bly a lit­tle of each, but the an­swer to these ques­tions just might be ir­rel­e­vant, Waldie said. The suc­cess of the 2028 Olympics, he ar­gues, will be the de­gree to which Los An­ge­les — the city, its neigh­bor­hoods and the venues — is able to de­light and cap­ture the world’s imag­i­na­tion.

“We will al­ways have in­tractable prob­lems be­fore us, for which the Games are a dis­trac­tion, but they are not a mean or empty dis­trac­tion, but a joy­ful one,” Waldie said. “There will al­ways be a big plate of kale sit­ting in front of you, but oc­ca­sion­ally there will be a bowl of ice cream too.”

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

THE OLYMPIC torch at the Los An­ge­les Memo­rial Coli­seum. The fa­bled sta­dium opened in 1923.

Mel Mel­con

KAR­LOS SAN­TOS-COY of Fuller­ton pho­to­graphs his niece Karina Rader, left, sis­ter Karla Rader and niece Katana Rader in front of the L.A. Memo­rial Coli­seum.

Los An­ge­les Times

CARL LEWIS an­chors the win­ning U.S. men’s 400me­ter re­lay team at the 1984 Games, a huge suc­cess.

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