Los Angeles Bridge’s Demolition Is a Sign of Changes Sweeping the City
LOS ANGELES — With its cracked concrete and rusted steel, the Sixth Street bridge has increasingly looked like a relic of this city’s hardscrabble past, a reminder of what downtown Los Angeles looked like before its rebirth over the past decade. hiny new condominiums have replaced flophouses. Lines snake around street corners for $8 hot dogs in places where only a few years ago drug addicts would shoot up. Now, the old bridge — deemed almost sure to collapse in a major earthquake — must go, too. A sleek new structure with bike paths will take its place, at an estimated cost of $449 million.
The impending demolition of the 83-year-old bridge has become a symbol of the drastic transformations taking place on either side of the Los Angeles River — and, increasingly, all over the city. Housing prices are shooting skyward, from Venice Beach to the Eastside; neighborhoods once dominated by immigrants and minorities have grown rapidly whiter and wealthier in recent years.
And anxiety about the dwindling space for lower-income people in Los Angeles has fueled an outpouring of nostalgia for the bridge itself, with art shows to memorialize it and even a street fair to mark its final days.
“It’s beyond just the bridge — it’s the culmination of everything that has slowly eroded from the L.A. that I loved,” said Terry Ellsworth, 67, who has lived and worked in the downtown Arts District near the bridge since 1994. He recalled a Goodwill clothing store and a market nearby, where he would buy a week’s worth of groceries for $10. “Now it’s all gone,” he said. “Poor people have to go somewhere else.”
East of the bridge, Boyle Heights remains a largely Mexican community, but rising rents are beginning to push out families. To the west, the artists for whom the Arts District is named are already all but gone.
Indeed, the Arts District has been part of a wholesale renaissance of downtown Los Angeles. Once a ghost town at night, the area has become a hub of night life and public transportation. By 2019, when the new bridge is scheduled to be finished and the surrounding area renovated, there will be soccer fields, an arts complex and access to the Los Angeles River below. The project will add another destination to the resurgent downtown, said José Huizar, the city councilman who represents the neighborhood.
Mr. Huizar, who grew up in Boyle Heights and recalled riding his bike over the Sixth Street bridge as a paperboy, said the area was finally receiving some public investment after decades of neglect.
“The parks were taken over by gangs — I knew gang members’ names, because the graffiti would stay up for years,” Mr. Huizar said. “Now, I take my kids to the park.”
Much of the housing on the Eastside and in Boyle Heights is rent controlled, but Mr. Huizar said there was still “a lot of fear about gentrification in Boyle Heights, but I’m not as fearful.”
“I think the improvements are for people who live there now,” he said.
Among residents, however, there is much more wariness about who will be around to enjoy the coming amenities.
Renters across the city, on median, are putting 47 percent of their incomes toward housing, the highest figure in the country, according to a study released last year by the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. And in many neighborhoods residents are feeling pressure from the same rising costs that have reshaped San Francisco, and are unsure where else in the city they can go.
“The rent is sky high,” said Veronica Arellano, 40, a substance-abuse counselor from Echo Park, a largely Latino neighborhood just outside downtown where she grew up. “We’re trying to manage, but a lot of families are paycheck-to-paycheck. It feels like we’re being pushed out.”
So far, Boyle Heights has largely fought off gentrification. Protesters beat back developers who were advertising the area as a more affordable alternative to downtown (and offering bike tours with “artisans treats”). And public outrage halted plans to build a huge medical complex beside Mariachi Plaza, a historic Mexican cultural space.
“We’ve been able to slow the gentrification,” said Isela Gracian, president of the East L.A. Community Corporation, a local improvement group. “But we’ve already seen increasing rents pushing people out in Boyle Heights, as well as small businesses.”
At a farewell party for the bridge in October, thousands of revelers took in sweeping views of the city, which have drawn countless television commercial shoots. Some from the Eastside not only said goodbye to the bridge, but wondered if the fall of the viaduct also meant the end of a more affordable era.
“The bridge used to be a gateway for low-income people working in high society,” said Daniel Rios, 38, an English teacher who grew up a few miles to the east. “The new bridge is beautiful. I just hope even 50 percent of the people who came out to say goodbye today are still going to be here to enjoy it.”
Not everyone is wistful. After four decades in Boyle Heights, Martha Alcantar said she welcomed the new bridge.
“Before, it was just Hispanic people on this side,” Ms. Alcantar, 62, said, as she carried her granddaughter. “Now, we have all races in my running group, and I like that.”
She also likes the changes on the other side of the river, which she said had fostered a growing pedestrian culture. “You can go downtown to the little cafes on the other side,” she said. “The bridge will be part of that.”
On the downtown side, the demolition of the bridge has coincided with the end of the cheap warehouse spaces that first drew artists to the area, beginning in the 1970s and ’80s.
Now, those warehouses are some of the hottest properties around. Soho House, a private club, is taking over an old band rehearsal space, while the former site of a popular punk rock bar has become a yoga studio. Though Skid Row remains just a few blocks away, families are even moving to the area.
David Hollen, 55, a sculptor, said that he was among those being pushed out of the space where he has lived and worked; he is not sure where he will go.
“All the really cheap spaces in L.A. are pretty much gone,” Mr. Hollen said. “The joke going around is that the new bridge is going to be a very expensive homeless encampment. The beautiful parks under it will be perfect for sleeping.”
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