“The people of Los Angeles waited patiently for half a decade to make use of a useless site”

Graffiti on the abandoned Oceanwide Plaza towers is a physical manifestation of increasing tensions over the wealth disparities that blight downtown Los Angeles, writes Shane Reiner-Roth.

The battle of Oceanwide Plaza is a preview of the social and economic tensions that will increasingly take place across Los Angeles as it sprints towards the 2028 Summer Olympics.

This billion-dollar tomb to foreign real-estate speculation in the western corner of downtown Los Angeles (DTLA), laid hollow since 2019, was revived early this year by graffiti artists and paragliders that made it their night-time playground. The city council was quick to posture against “dangerous” trespassing, but has not yet been able to fully prevent the takeover.

Chauffeurs dodge panhandlers to escort their clients directly to the front doors of exclusive restaurants

For anyone needing visual evidence of regional wealth inequality in present-day LA, a visit to its downtown should do the trick. The pristine towers of international banks and oil companies in the Financial District twinkle in short distance from the tents of the growing unhoused population spilling beyond the sidewalks of Skid Row. The streets between the two enclaves are an ongoing contest for representation, as chauffeurs dodge panhandlers and skater punks to escort their clients directly to the front doors of exclusive restaurants, and USC-frat bar crawls leapfrog small businesses shuttered by staggering rent spikes.

The arrival of Staples Center (since renamed Crypto.com Arena) in 1999 enticed a thousand developers to South Park, the western corner of DTLA bordering the Financial District, and they set about constructing venues for business and tourism far beyond the human scale. Rampant infill development transformed the sector into a questionable cultural destination, anchored by the steel-and-glass-fortress structures of LA Live and the Los Angeles Convention Center, whose public displays of inequality are accompanied by an omnipresent security presence.

This course of development escalated during mid-2010s rumors (and 2018 confirmation) that Los Angeles would host the Summer Olympics in 2028, the third time the city will host the international sporting event.

NOlympics, a prominent local activist organization, spoke out against the decision, claiming that the Olympic Games “always accelerate policing, evictions, inequality, exploitation, and the erosion of democracy in every host city”. This was true when the Olympics were first held in Los Angeles in 1932, when law enforcement drove the poor out of the city at the height of the Great Depression, and it was true in 1984, when the second iteration ignited racial and economic tensions, precipitating the 1992 uprisings less than a decade later.

The public sector of Los Angeles, meanwhile, has sworn to minimize the development of critical infrastructure, claiming the groundwork had been sufficiently laid during Olympics past, thus leaving it up to private enterprise to construct whatever it sees fit. Compare this to other cities that have hosted, including London, Tokyo and Barcelona, which constructed thousands of average-priced housing units in anticipation of the games. Wholly unconcerned with history, international developers competed for the few remaining plots surrounding Crypto.com Arena, the future host of Olympic basketball games.

It is only this type of building misuse, of course, that could bring political urgency to 1101 Flower Street

Oceanwide Holdings, a Beijing-based publicly traded conglomerate, began building in 2015 on Oceanwide Plaza across the street from the venue, at 1101 Flower Street. The $1 billion used to erect the glassy, 53-storey-tall exteriors of the three towers defining the complex, designed to include luxury condominiums and a five-star Park Hyatt hotel above a three-story mall, was spent in vain. Construction was halted in 2019 due to “financing challenges” – one of the many risks of real-estate speculation that should deter reckless development, but doesn’t.

An obstructive eyesore barricaded on all sides, the towers were pillars of urban misuse for years before spray paint ever touched glass. The mind reels when considering all the more worthwhile things $1 billion could have funded in the city aside from a money pit.

The people of Los Angeles waited patiently for half a decade to make use of a useless site. Unsanctioned spray paint, paragliding equipment, and rooftop steaks made Oceanwide Plaza a more vibrant site in reality than any marketing campaign ever could in imagination.

Videos endlessly shared on Instagram depict Oceanwide Plaza as a living organism whose facade changes appearance as routinely as a snake sheds its skin. Fittingly enough, the re-awakened towers became a provocative backdrop to the 66th Annual Grammy Awards when the glitzy ceremony in honor of an increasingly stratified industry was held across the street in early February.

It is only this type of building misuse, of course, that could bring political urgency to 1101 Flower Street. While protecting people is the message, protecting property is the principle. The Los Angeles Police Department has already spent more than 3,000 hours at the site, buzzing its helicopters around the buildings to spotlight, and later arrest, dozens of occupants while the Los Angeles City Council voted to allot nearly $4 million to remove the graffiti and reinforce the barricades.

The energy visible on the facades of Oceanwide Plaza is that of the city itself

Another money pit, and an equally futile one, too, as graffiti artists have only since found new ways to enter the site. However apparent antagonisms already were between economic classes in Downtown Los Angeles, the unfolding events at Oceanwide Plaza have spelled them out that much more plainly.

The marketing team for LA28 doesn’t know how right it is when it boasts that LA “is an infinite canvas to pursue your wildest dreams” (the irony of which is only intensified by the use of a graffiti-style “A” in the LA28 logo). The energy visible on the facades of Oceanwide Plaza is that of the city itself; that fact has been laid bare by the local enthusiasm for their efforts.

For the next four years, underserved Angelenos tired of their treatment by the city and private enterprise would be well advised to regularly check in on 1101 Flower Street.

Shane Reiner-Roth is a writer, photographer, curator and educator. He is a lecturer at the University of Southern California and is studying for a PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record and Architectural Digest.

The photo is by Shane Reiner-Roth.

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