Building Downtown Los Angeles
The Politics of Race and Place in Urban America
Leland T. Saito


Introduction: Racial-Spatial Formation

Broadway, a major street in downtown Los Angeles’s historic commercial and business district, had a vibrant and active street life in the 1970s and 1980s because of its popularity among Latin American immigrants. Surprisingly, Broadway at that time had retail sales per square foot equaling those of the world-renowned site of luxury shopping and tourism, Rodeo Drive, located across town to the west in Beverly Hills (Turpin 1986a). Matching the vision of urban planners, a majority of the Broadway shoppers arrived by public transportation, with 67 percent using the bus, in contrast to shoppers on Rodeo Drive who primarily used their own cars or “limousines provided by the stores” (Turpin 1986a:VII–1).

In discussions on how to “revitalize” downtown Los Angeles, however, why did city officials and downtown boosters, rather than celebrating Broadway, lump it into characterizations of downtown as the “hole in the doughnut” (Khouri 2015:C4), an empty place after workers in the skyscrapers abandoned the area and fled to their suburban homes? I suggest that it is because the Broadway shoppers were primarily low-income and working-class Latin American immigrants, rather than the explicitly favored affluent consumers and residents that filled the visions and imaginations of downtown boosters when they pictured their “ideal” downtown. While it is not always clear if contemporary urban planners implicitly or explicitly favor Whites, these visions and strategies that favored affluent Whites over lower income racial minorities, I contend, are rooted in the history of racially exclusionary policies and images embedded in US society of “ideal” residents as affluent Whites, in contrast to the negative images of lower-income racial minorities (Lipsitz 2011; Rothstein 2017).

The public discussion and city policies around Broadway reveal the complexity of race and public policies connected to place in urban America. Shoppers packed the sidewalks of Broadway, and while their individual purchases were smaller than those in Beverly Hills, more shoppers making more purchases contributed to the high sales totals per square foot on Broadway (Turpin 1986a). The lively street-level activity, however, concealed the empty, unused upper floors in many of the buildings along Broadway, which posed a major concern for property owners and city officials who wished to increase the economic activity in the neighborhood, property values, and tax revenues.

Many of the businesses that catered to Latin American immigrants have now closed, in part the victims of city policies aimed at turning downtown into a place of entertainment, culture, and commerce for affluent business travelers, tourists, and residents. These policies have contributed to a turnover in businesses and a dramatic increase in enterprises that cater to affluent consumers, a rise in luxury housing, and White locals and tourists replacing immigrants as consumers along Broadway. While this demographic and economic shift is in part due to Latin American immigrants increasingly populating the suburbs, and new shopping areas opening up outside the urban core that target this population (Mejia 2016), the movement outward of immigrants and the rise in Whites in the area are also heavily influenced by public policies to transform downtown Los Angeles into a destination for the affluent (Sims 2016). Recognizing the growing success of this effort, the New York Times’ worldwide list of “52 Places to Go in 2014” included downtown Los Angeles and listed several new attractions on Broadway, including Alma Restaurant, Bon Appétit magazine’s choice as the nation’s best new restaurant in 2013, and across the street, the trendy, high-priced Ace Hotel, which opened in 2014 in the historic 1927 United Artists Theatre building. Continuing the trend, Apple opened a major store in 2021 in the historic Tower Theater at Broadway and Eighth Street, a block away from the original 1926 western terminus of Route 66, which changed to Santa Monica a decade later. The transformation of Broadway occurred in tandem with the construction of Staples Center (renamed Arena in 2021) and L.A. Live, which rose a handful of blocks to the west of Broadway.

I examine public policies, race, development, and place through two major issues in Los Angeles that are deeply connected to one another. First, an analysis of a key set of complementary and adjacent projects that were built over four decades, which have helped define downtown Los Angeles and have served as a catalyst for attracting billions of dollars of private capital from US and international companies. The city of Los Angeles constructed the Convention Center, which opened in 1971, and Anschutz Entertainment Group built the Staples Center sports arena, which opened in 1999, built the L.A. Live entertainment district, which opened in stages through 2010, and spent five years and $50 million through 2015 in a failed attempt to build a National Football League Stadium next to L.A. Live.

These projects continued the trend of major urban development projects across the nation that have directly led to the displacement of low-income and working-class racial minorities, often the result of city officials targeting these neighborhoods for demolition through the rationale of removing “blight,” spurring economic growth, and bringing in affluent residents and consumers (Anderson 1964; Frieden and Sagalyn 1989).

Second, I examine the rise of a progressive growth-with-equity coalition, composed of unions, community organizations, and faith-based groups, to counter displacement caused by development projects and to work toward city policies that take into account the interests of lower-income residents on issues such as affordable housing, living wages, and local hiring programs. I examine the 2001 L.A. Live Community Benefits Agreement as a prime example of the work of this coalition.

Using the case of downtown Los Angeles, I propose the term “racial-spatial formation” to include the historical and contemporary processes of racial formation and place and the racialization of place, in order to analyze the relationship between race, place, and public policies. In terms of racial formation, I emphasize the foundational work of Michael Omi and Howard Winant (2015) and the view of race as a social construction, a central organizing principle of society, and the focus on the continual struggle and negotiation in the sociohistorical process through which race is given meaning and importance through policies and place.

By using the term “racial-spatial formation,” I foreground the importance of the spatial aspect of racial formation (Omi and Winant 2015), and the link between the racialization of place and racial formation (Huante 2021a; Lipsitz 2011). While there is a great deal of research that examines racial formation and place, and other research on the racialization of place, these two areas of research are often analyzed separately (Huante 2021a). Instead, I suggest that in some cases, these two areas can be better understood as mutually constitutive processes, as exemplified in the work of Alfredo Huante (2021a) and George Lipsitz (2007, 2011). As Lipsitz (2011:5) explains in his research on racial and spatial inequality, “social relations take on their full force and meaning when they are enacted physically in actual places” and that “we learn that race is produced by space, that it takes places for racism to take place.”

Research on racial formation that examines the meaning and importance of race can include issues that do not explicitly include place, such as the US government’s construction of racial categories through the Census. I focus on the spatial aspect of racial formation (Omi and Winant 2015) and how policies related to race and place, such as the history of suburbanization and residential segregation in the United States, directly contribute to racial formation (Massey and Denton 1993; Rothstein 2017). I examine how racial formation occurs through the policies and practices that generate and support the definition of “valued” residents as the affluent, which, although seemingly race-neutral, favors Whites because of the history of racialized capital accumulation. Giving important material consequences to this definition of valued residents, Whites become the beneficiaries of the massive amounts of public and private capital invested in downtown Los Angeles and of the projects and amenities that emerge from that investment.

Regarding the racialization of place, important research has examined how neighborhood change and gentrification have affected the racial composition of communities (Brown-Saracino 2017; Freeman 2005, 2006; Hwang 2020), but there are two issues that I raise with this research. First, an examination of the importance of historical events on contemporary processes is often missing. Research on neighborhood change and gentrification that focuses on individuals and groups operating in the housing market, for example, misses the history of capital accumulation and racial disparities in wealth, and the impact of that history on buying a home today.

Second, this research tends to treat race as an unchanging category. Race, however, has changing meaning and importance according to the historical context and local circumstances. A key part of my analysis is that the creation and exercise of public policies do not simply affect racially labeled groups. Instead, shifting public policies, such as those regarding residential segregation, the use of eminent domain, and the ownership of land, contribute to the constant struggle over the meaning and importance of race and place as part of the process of racial formation (Huante 2021a; Massey and Denton 1993; Rothstein 2017). These changes in the meaning and consequences of racial categories, and the importance of public policies in these changes, are part of the process of racial formation (Molina 2006), and are recognized in the term “racial-spatial formation.” As Lipsitz (2007, 2011) and Huante (2021a) emphasize in their research on race and inequality, historical and contemporary practices come together and mutually support the relationship between race and place in the production of inequality.

Omi and Winant (2015:125) use the concept of “racial projects” in racial formation theory to examine the links between racial meanings, the organization and distribution of “resources . . . along particular racial lines,” and how government policies contribute to this process. Racial projects reveal how power is exercised through place by illustrating how ideologies and practices establish the importance of race and class through place. Examples of urban development policies that contribute to racial formation include the establishment of racially segregated neighborhoods, zoning regulations that require single-family homes and prohibit multifamily housing, and urban renewal and highway construction projects that target communities of color for removal.

Lipsitz (2007:17) emphasizes that racial projects “have always been spatial projects as well” and that government policies, such as those in downtown Los Angeles supporting demographic change, have played a central role in racial formation and the creation and support of whiteness. Lipsitz (2007, 2011), in some of the key works on structural inequality and place, explains that whiteness involves the ideologies and systemic practices that create and support racial hierarchy and privilege in society, resulting in advantages for Whites and disadvantages for racial minorities. Research on race and whiteness documents that the meaning and importance of race are constantly changing through time and place, rather than fixed and static (Jacobson 1998; Lipsitz 2011; Omi and Winant 2015). The importance of homeownership for capital accumulation for Whites, for example, and the history of exclusion for racial minorities from this important process through the practices of government, financial, and real-estate institutions (including exclusionary zoning, restrictive covenants, mortgage policies, redlining, residential segregation, and racial steering), demonstrate the importance of the relationship between race and place in the production of whiteness (Lipsitz 2007, 2011).

The formation and enactment of public policies contribute to the changing meaning of race through time and place (Molina 2006; Pulido 2000). In the contemporary United States, there has been a fundamental shift away from the practices of whiteness and policies that explicitly enforced racial exclusion (Feagin 2006; Lipsitz 2006, 2011), such as the policies of the federal government and private financial institutions that created Whites-only suburbs in the post–World War II era (Jackson 1985; Massey and Denton 1993; Rothstein 2017). In contrast, contemporary policies are often intended to be race-neutral; however, such policies can produce racialized effects because the policies operate within a society in which racial hierarchy and privilege are deeply embedded in established practices and institutions. As a result, such policies can have racialized outcomes and support inequality in society (Bonilla-Silva 2001, 2017; Feagin and McKinney 2003; Pulido 2000; Saito 2009). For example, racial disparities in wealth created by explicit racial exclusion and whiteness in the past frame access to today’s housing market, and White homebuyers have advantages created by the history of capital accumulation and the wealth they bring to the marketplace.

To analyze the mutually constitutive relationship between policies, place, and race in racial-spatial formation, I examine the process through which policies are created, the ways in which race and class influence policy formation, and how those policies generate racial consequences. That is, race shapes policy formation, policies shape racial formation, and policies racialize place (Huante 2021a, 2021b). By emphasizing the links between race and place, I help bring together the research on urban policies, the racialization of place, and racial formation.