The fires are out in Los Angeles, but cultural institutions may have been permanently scorched.
It was late in the afternoon of Thursday, April 30, and much of Los Angles was, quite literally, in flames–burning in an uprising sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers in the savage beating of motorist Rodney King.
As the city immolated and began the first night of a dusk-to-dawn curfew that was to continue through the weekend–virtually shutting down the city’s cultural institutions for four days Gordon Davidson, director of the Center Theatre Group, was alone in his office in the deserted theatre comples.Order now
Like many top managers of business across the city, Davidson had ordered his employees home earlier in the afternoon while safe routes of travel could still be found. Alone now in his cluttered space on the second floor of nondescript building near the Music Center of Los Angeles County, Davidson, was–oddly, perhaps–finding quiet time to catch up on phone calls.
The priority was a call Davidson had been trying to complete for days. The man he was trying to reach was South African playwright, director and actor Athol Fugard. As Los Angeles burned, Davidson fianlly got Fugard on the line, only to discover, through the miracle of CNN, that Fugard was simultaneously watching live helicopter television coverage of the violence.
“He said to me, Gordon, here I am in South Africa looking at television of Los Angeles, but I think I’m watching Johannesburg,'” Davidson recalled. “It suddenly hit me. I had not seen what was happening outside. Of course, the parallel was scary.”
It would be 24 hours before the violence abated and the pall of smoke over the city a cloud so thick it periodically closed Los Angeles International Airport–began to clear. By the end, 60 people would be dead, more than 11,000 arrested, more than 600 buildings burnes out and damages totaled at nearly $1 billion.
Miraculously, the fires and looting left the city’s cultural infrastructure almost untouched. A demonstration protesting police abuse turned violent in downtown Los Angeles, leading to broken windows and minor fires at City Hall, the federal Building and the infamous Parker Center headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department. But the Music Center complex, which houses the Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was untouched–though it was less than four blocks from the rampage. The Museum of Contemporary Art six blocks from the Civic Center was undamaged, as was MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary, a former warehouse in nearby Little Tokyo directly behind Parker Center.
Along Wilshire Boulevard west of downtown, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and two other nearby museums escaped damage even though looting and fires approached. Two branch libraries and the Aquarian Bookshop–a landmark in the African-American intellectual community–were burned out. Ironically, the libraries were affected because they had both been temporarily relocated to minimalls–a favorite target of arsonists in the disorder–because their existing buildings failed to meet earthquake standards.
Because Mayor Tom Bradley extended the curfew citywide–an act necessary both for safety and the symbolism of equity–the violence virtually shut down the city’s cultural life for the duration. MOCA, the county art museum and the rest of the city’s major musem facilities closed for the entire weekend. Literally every theatrical, movie and music performance scheduled in hundreds of facilities–large and small–was canceled.
At the Ahmanson, The Phantom of the Opera went dark, along with the Taper’s multicultural production of Richard II. Davidson also shut down It’s Only a Play at the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood. Box-office managers scrambled to reschedule performances, extend or alter runs and conjure up ways to honor tickets at future dates.
Center Theatre Group was forced to reschedule a fund-raising gala honoring Davidson for his 25 years as its head and the dominant theatre force in the city. The event was reset for late August.
Quickly, cultural institutions tried to cobble together short-term responses to what had happened. The Taper offered two tickets for the price of one if patrons brought food and clothing for devastated neighborhoods. Tickets were also distributed free to volunteers working on emergency clean-up projects in South Central Los Angeles, the area most affected by the unrest.
Special museum programs, including concerts and film screenings, were curtailed citywide. Attendance at MOCA plummeted by 7,500 from a normal week and, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, by more than 5,000.
Yet these emergency measures and short-term effects evolved as trivial distractions as the cultural community began to assess the long-term implications of what had happened.
Quickly, an intense local political controversy developed over the failure of the Los Angeles Police Department and its controversial chief, Daryl F. Gates, to respond effectively to the outbreak of the disorder, especially at the intersection of florence and Normandie avenues in South Central Los Angeles. Gov. Pete Wilson called out the National Guard, but the deployment was delayed by logistical shortcomings, even including an inability to move ammunition from a National Guard installation in Central California to L.A.
What civil rights leaders characterized as the literal meltdown of law enforcement, in turn, prompted escalated firearms sales and marketing for everything from alarm systems to private security patrols.
As the violence and fires abated, news media quickly discovered that the widespread police, law-enforcement and criminal justice disintegration had begun to have serious–perhaps long-term–ramifications for social behavior in southern California. People simply stopped going out, even after the curfew was lifted. While the effects may begin to disappear if the summer passes without a recurrence of the disorder, there were at least preliminary indications that what had happened had so shocked the community that long-term, even permanent, alterations in attendance at cultural events might have occurred.
Most potentially hard hit, agreed Davidson and a wide range of observes, may be multicultural institutions and productions–whose niche in the arts marketplace has historically been tenuous. “Clearly, this has shaken people, and changed some of their impulses to go out,” Davidson said three weeks after the violence ended. “A problem is that the mix of factors that makes people go to cultural events is always delicate and, if you put up a barrier like even fleeting concerns about personal safety, they are likely to just stay home.”
By three weeks after the end of the violence, such guages as ticket sales for CTG, the difficulty of getting a reservation at a popular restuarant on the weekend, and movie theatre box-office lines all reflected potentially long-lived effects. At the Ahmanson and Taper, ticket sales were down markedly and no-shows among subscription ticket holders were dramatically up. Similar patterns were reported across Los Angeles.
Bill Bushnell, former artistic director at the now-defunct Los Angeles Theatre Center, suggested that because the violence had brought out into the open a broad array of profoundly deep flaws in the ethnic and racial balance of the city, artistic organizations trying to explore varied cultural values could be disproportionately affected. Bushnell, talking about the situation over lunch at a delicatessen next door to a building burned to the ground by arsonists, contended that, for theatre anyway, the sizes of houses and the popularity of multicultural productions may be permanently damaged.
The violence showed Los Angeles many unpleasant things about itself. The city had actually begun to believe that it could evolved as the nation’s first truly multiracial, multicultural urban center–a so-called rainbow coalition living in harmony. But as the fires burned north from African-American areas of South Central Los Angeles, fueled by the special attention paid by arsonists to stores owned by Korean immigrants, the rainbow coalition began to appear as a fraud. And when thousands of Latinos and Chicanos joined in the burning and looting and the fires jumped the Santa Monica Freeway and began to spread north toward downtown, the rainbow coalition collapsed.
For the arts, the implications are critical. In no city more than Los Angeles does there exist an urgent need for a new division of power, money and cultural parity. Yet the recession, which hit California later and harder than the rest of the country, had sabotaged the ability of the arts to meet this urgent cultural challenge even before the Rodney King trial verdict.
A prime symptom of how economics and circumstance may interact was the bankruptcy last fall of the Los Angeles Theatre Center. The failure darkened the four-theatre city-owned complex downtown that had achieved far more success than any other cultural institutions in Los Angeles in attracting and holding onto truly multicultural audiences. It produced plays of distinct racial, political and ethnic origins and messages, but it attracted audiences that crossed not just racial lines but class lines as well. Old Toyotas driven by Latinos from East Los Angeles could be found parked next to Jaguars of the Westside Anglo wealthy. Corporate executives from San Mariono found themselves in line at LATC’s lobby bar behind blue-collar African-Americans from South Central.
Yet LATC had been killed–arguably by a combination of bad city planning, a sour economy, a horrible political squabble with at least some racial overlays, and management disharmony within LATC, involving, among others, Bushnell.
When the violence broke out, the theatrical institution with the best track record in dealing with the issues that underlay what happened was completely dark. Ironically, a meeting of a six-member committee to evaluate proposals from would-be new operators was canceled due to the uprising. The city Department of Cultural Affairs floated budgetary outlines for reviving LATC that depended on getting at least some new money from the Community Redevelopment Agency–the city’s urban renewal department–but political turmoil and apparent financial demands of reconstruction of burned-out parts of the city made such support less likely than ever.
Both the symbolic and actual importance of the LATC failure in late 1991 was underscored by the Los Angeles Times, the community’s dominant English-language newspaper. The Times, in a special section the week after the violence subsided, identified the LATC failure as one of the defining moments in city history leading up to the uprising.
When Mayor Bradley named 1984 Olympics impresarion Peter Ueberroth, a former travel agent, to head a public-private partnership called Rebuill L.A., Ueberroth appeared to leave culture entirely out of his plans.
The Department of Cultural Affairs initiated something it called the Arts Recovery Project, with a commitment of $100,000 in city funds, but the program was, clearly from the beginning, without resources adequate to address even a fraction of the need. The department did manage to schedule special Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts to benefit the healing process, and Adolfo V. Nodal, the agency’s general manager, said a series of annual summer festival events would be given more of a multicultural focus.
Private cultural institutions quickly appointed staff committees and board review panels to rethink their own commitments and programming in cross-cultural areas. Yet these actions were long on resolve and short on money. With cash reserves and financial resources tenuous, prospects for concrete results seemed scant. Corporations normally associated with cultural support had begun to cut back even before the violence–for instance, oil giant ARCO refused to advance a $200,000 grant to LATC las September, a step many observers believes was the proximate cause of LATC’s bankruptcy.
Post-uprising, Los Angeles cultural leaders privately worried that corporations and private patrons would rethink even existing commitments in the theory that money was more urgently needed for reconstruction projects in neighborhoods where many buildings no longer exist and thousands of people are newly homeless.
The National Endowment for the Arts, in the midst of imposing new standards of censorship and political-content control over its grant-making, scarcely acknowledged the cultural implications of what had occurred in Los Angeles. The California Arts Council, fighting for its life in the midst of an $11-billion deficit in the state government, was also a non-player.
As June approached, the fires had gone out and need for an arts and cultural responses to what had happened was, literally on a daily basis, ever more clear. But equally–perhaps more–clear was the reality that a lack of political will and money, combined with honest confusion and despair about how to address such a vast sweep of problems, make nearly certain that the post-uprising period will evade the city’s cultural establishment as an opportunity tragically missed