Toronto Star covers Esotouric’s Lowdown on Downtown tour

Toronto Star: Irreverent tour turns L.A. unconfidential – Guide provides candid commentary about city’s shortfalls, history.

LOS ANGELES–Even the passengers on this zany “secret history of Los Angeles” bus tour get in on the city-bashing act. One of our stops is Pershing Square in L.A.’s historic heart, a prime example of what guide Richard Schave calls “bad public space.” When we walk through the near-empty concrete “park,” Joie Magidow, one of several locals on the tour, shouts out: “It used to have palm trees and green spaces. People would take their lunch there. Then it turned into concrete sh–.”

Imagine an enthusiastic guide who slams his city, left, right and especially centre? Welcome to Esotouric’s “bus adventures,” where co-owner Schave entertains by lambasting the revitalization efforts in L.A.’s downtown.

Schave takes us far off the tourist track to show us architectural masterpieces, neighbourhoods in transition and even some urban successes. This 4 1/2-hour adventure is clearly not your standard promotional tour.

Esotouric began in 2007 with a menu of offbeat itineraries. They highlighted L.A.’s noir, seamy side. Two sensational and still unsolved 1947 city murders featured prominently: the brutal knifing of Elizabeth Short, later known as the Black Dahlia, and the shooting of mobster Bugsy Siegel. Esotouric still offers these popular tours along with another based on Raymond Chandler mysteries.
Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, prowled the same downtown streets Schave now wants to rejuvenate. “This is the site of the largest public eviction in U.S. history,” he says as we walk atop Bunker Hill, where some 5,000 people lost their homes in the late 1950s to make way for a massive redevelopment that is still ongoing.

On the bus, Schave displays old photos on TV screens of the Victorian houses that once stood on the hill. Today, there are high-rise towers, high-rise office buildings, Frank Gehry’s acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall and very, very, very little public space. Schave blames award-winning architect I.M. Pei (the Louvre pyramid, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and Commerce Court West in Toronto) for cutting off the buildings from the people. “He designed these crazy streets,” says Schave. “It’s all his fault.”

Bunker Hill residents were linked to the commercial district below by a five-cent funicular that deposited them steps from work, banking and grocery shopping at the Grand Central Market. City planners shut down the funicular, known as Angels Flight, in 1962, but brought it back under public pressure in 1996. However, it closed five years later after a fatality – and has yet to reopen. “They keep promising to start it again soon,” says Schave, “but don’t hold your breath.”
Grand Central Market does remain open, defying predictions of its demise when Bunker Hill was depopulated. According to Schave, “You can fill two bags of groceries here for under $10.”

He shows us Grand Central because it is a “good public place.” Another positive example is the Mercantile Arcade, modelled on London’s Burlington Mall. It connects Spring St., the former “Wall St. of the West” that today is home to lofts and art galleries, with Broadway, where vaudeville theatres once flourished and now is mostly a Latino shopping street. Enthuses Schave: “The Arcade was the Rodeo Dr. of its time, and it’s still perfect. It’s my favourite part of the historic downtown.”

Another bad example of downtown public place is L.A. Live, a $3 billion redevelopment project anchored by the new GRAMMY Museum and the Staples Centre, home to the world champion L.A. Lakers. Schave dismisses the massive undertaking as the worst of 1980’s-style urban planning. “It’s a freeway exit,” he says.
Despite his rhetoric, Schave sees a hopeful future for his beloved downtown, a future he intends to influence.

And not just through his eye-opening bus tours. Schave, who has a degree in fine arts, is director of Art Walk,* a not-for-profit organization that is drawing attention to the city’s core as a desirable place to live. On the second Thursday night of every month, people converge on the old city centre for walking tours, to visit galleries and enjoy street entertainment. The event began in 2004 with a handful of visitors but now draws more than 10,000 people to the historic district’s streets.

“After 15 years of failure, Los Angeles has finally got it right,” Schave says of the city’s support of Art Walk and shift to promoting mixed-used, instead of high-rise, development. His goal is to proselytize for the positive power of public spaces through Art Walk and his private tours.

“Los Angeles is complicated and needs lots of explaining,” says Schave, who this year lectured on downtown L.A. at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

Schave is a master of stand-up and local trivia. He stops the bus to point out Ross Cutlery on Broadway, where O.J. Simpson allegedly bought a stiletto similar to the one used in the murder of his ex-wife. Murder scenes or hotels where notorious killers once stayed are duly noted.

The tour ends on a high note. A former industrial area hidden among cold storage warehouses is these days home to artists taking advantage of city incentives for low-cost residential use. Long-time denizen Terry Ellsworth takes the reins from Schave and shows us around his Arts District.

“Al’s bar, where lots of alternative rock groups got their start, was here,” says Ellsworth.

“It was quite a wild place in the 1980s – if you say that you remember an incident, you really weren’t there.”

But today it’s a stable community drawing people from outlying regions.

Says Ellsworth: “Watch us bring the city back to life.”

Dorothy Parker once described Los Angeles as 72 suburbs in search of a city. Thanks to Schave and his friends that may finally be changing.

Michael Benedict is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

*Editrix’ note: With great regret, Richard resigned as the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk’s Director on November 9, 2009 due to philosophical conflicts with the Board, which informed him of its desire to give the HDBID, a private organization of the neighborhood’s largest property owners, a voice in the management of this arts non-profit.

Richard Schave’s The Lowdown on Downtown tour next rolls on Saturday, February 27.