The Other Side of Downtown (and a cool web video).

Posted by Glenn Gritzner on October 22, 2009

Hello Enthusiasts –

Apologies for the lack of a post last week (I know you all wait on pins and needles). I was going to post on the restaurants and bars in Turks & Caicos, which is where me and the missus were, but I thought that might be getting a little far afield from my usual Downtown LA beat. (I will say, though, that the tropical rum drinks were actually pretty high quality. They certainly weren’t Tiki Ti quality, mind you, but better than most tourist destinations.)

Anyway, your loyal Amateur Enthusiast is back, with a little bit of a different slant in this post.

For most of us, Downtown is somewhere to work and, increasingly, play. And for more and more of us, it’s somewhere to live – but for you fellow Enthusiasts, that’s usually going to mean a pricey, swanky loft with a rooftop pool, workout room and 24 hour concierge. Or, even if it’s not that swanky, it’s still pretty decent all things considered.

But bordering Downtown, on streets very few of us ever drive down, is where the proverbial other half lives – and they’ve lived here a lot longer than we have. Just across Sunset, or just across the 110, or just across the 10 are homes that often house multiple families, in conditions few if any of us could even contemplate tolerating. They are basically forgotten. And because they are forgotten, we have not invested in nearly enough of the infrastructure to support these neighborhoods, and we see the results in crime, overflowing emergency rooms, and high dropout rates.

But this isn’t meant to be preachy or even a sad story. It’s meant to be a happy one, at least on one front. Most of you know that I was very involved in getting a number of local school bonds passed over the last few years. They were full of controversy and strife and difficulty, as is everything with our local school district. Who gets the money? What kinds of schools will we build? Where will we build them? And – the horror! – eminent domain. And then the property tax bills started hitting. I recently got this year’s property tax bill (yes, I am reaping what I helped to sow), and the line item for “District Schools” is admittedly high.

However, now here we are. What did our money buy? Well, the District has built 80 new schools in the communities that need them most (with more on the way), along with completing almost 20,000 repair projects, not including lots of other projects like ‘greening’ our schools, or investments in technology, or replacing portables. And Downtown has seen a tremendous amount of this investment in the form of the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, and what’s still called “High School 9” or, more colloquially, “450” because the new school is on the site of the former District headquarters at 450 N. Grand. Miguel Contreras has been open for a couple of years and, drawing from the exact same population as the old Belmont High School, is already seeing a significant increase in its graduation rate – when kids see adults care about their future in the form of a gleaming new school, they work harder to achieve that future.

But this post is going to focus more on 450. It’s a performing arts high school right across the freeway from the cathedral. And boy has it had its share of controversy. Its high cost, its unorthodox design, the soaring tower (how many people have asked me ‘what is that thing?’), the involvement of high profile civic leaders like Eli Broad, its status as a community school (instead of drawing from the entire District or being a charter), whether it would require auditions or not, and past construction delays are just some of the elements that have been the subject of newspaper articles and tremendous amounts of community controversy for the last 6 or 7 years now.

Now, though, it’s open. Just this September. It’s a community school – it serves those invisible kids that are all around us, but who we never see. Kids who used to have to go to the old Belmont High School with its 5,000 students, or who had to get bused an hour each way, every day, to a school that had more room for them. Kids who have seen few signs of anyone besides their families caring about or investing in their future.

And the controversies all of a sudden seem irrelevant. Why? Because they are the controversies of adults. Standing at the gate of a new school when it opens for the very first time, on the very first day is an experience I will never forget. The smiling hopes of the kids, the almost visible relief of the parents who can finally go to parent night or pick their child up from school, the energy of the new teaching staff, the pride of the principal. I wasn’t at opening day of 450, but when THESE kids in THIS neighborhood see what we’ve done for them – the voters who approved the bonds, and the hardworking Facilities folks at the District who built the schools – in building THIS school HERE … well, I can only imagine.

Actually, I don’t have to imagine. What inspired this post was an e-mail I got with a link to a movie that someone shot on 450’s opening day. I don’t know who did it or why, but it told the story better than I can, right from the kids’ mouths. It’s a little long, but I can’t encourage you strongly enough to take a couple minutes and take a look at it. It will make you feel what I’m talking about. Click here. (It might take a second to load)

And this is good for Downtown. It’s good because schools are a critical part of any neighborhood’s infrastructure fabric. It’s good because, just like restaurants and grocery stores and entertainment options, if we’re really going to make Downtown a vibrant part of the City, we can’t close it off to people with children – families have to feel welcome. It’s good because it gives hope to kids who would otherwise be on the streets, causing trouble. It’s good because 450 is part of a fabric of cultural institutions, from the Colburn School to the Music Center, that will work together to enhance those opportunities. It’s good because schools are vital parts of communities – when Barack Obama came to town in the later stages of his campaign, he didn’t speak at a hotel or the convention center. He spoke at Miguel Contreras. That alone speaks volumes – and elevates Downtown.

So next time you’re driving near 450 and you look up at that tower and think “what is that thing?” and you wonder how much it cost and you think the school looks funny, slow down a little bit and try to get a look at the faces of the kids walking around. The kids that are in the video. And then ask yourself which matters more.

Thanks, and happy travels.

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