Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

16 June 2015

I was in sunny Los Angeles recently, walking the pavement of Hollywood Boulevard, packed with a bizarre cocktail of tourists, people dressed in poor imitations of superhero costumes begging to be in your Instagram photo for a healthy fee, those tacky Hollywood-home tour salespeople and the regular leftovers of weird and wonderful Los Angeles locals.

Sadly, another sight never far from the wanderer’s eye is homeless people. That’s not surprising, you might say, every city has its share of those suffering homelessness. Maybe it’s all that glitz and glamour, but the problem feels worse in LA. And of course, much of Hollywood feels anything but glitzy and glamorous. Economically speaking, recent times have been good to this city. Unemployment is down to almost half of what it was five years ago and the long-neglected downtown area is showing signs of revitalisation.

Even if you’ve never been to downtown LA, you’ve almost certainly seen it. The wide streets and beautiful architecture hark back to the times of old Hollywood, one ruled by silent movie actors, a real-life relic taken right out of the city’s sour note to itself, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

The vast emptiness of the downtown area has made it a popular choice for filming locations, often popping up as the backdrop in music videos and any number of TV crime shows. Strolling the streets, it’s impossible not look up and feel a great sense of awe. It’s like a lovingly preserved museum piece depicting a wondrous city from a 1930s science-fiction epic. But the numerous theatres, cinemas and proud high-rise corporate headquarters suggest a city far more prosperous than the one that now exists.

A recent report by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority tears any sense of Hollywood romanticism to shreds. Numbers of homeless people in LA have jumped about 12 per cent in the past two years, placing further strain on already threadbare assistance services. And the rise of gentrification of the downtown area is making the problem even worse.

The eternal sunshine of California isn’t just a magnet for moviemaking. Long viewed as a destination for Americans who have, for whatever reason, fallen through the cracks, the friendly climate of this city means those suffering homelessness can live here without fear of succumbing to the climate. Indeed, New York has more homeless people, but more of them sleep in shelters. There are far more people in LA bidding goodnight on the cold, hard pavement.

But while the rising economy of the downtown area is undoubtedly having an adverse impact on its homeless population, gentrification shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing. Indeed, no city in Monocle’s Quality of Life survey is immune to the effects of gentrification, positive or negative. Whether it’s the grimy mix of big pubs and inner-city hipsters in Sydney’s Newtown, the tiny bars and coffee shops of Melbourne’s Fitzroy, or the charming village vibe of London’s Hackney – gentrification plays a role in improving the overall liveability of a city.

Allowing an entire neighbourhood to become a de facto homeless shelter is not a solution to this city’s housing crisis. Rather than bemoaning the changing face of LA’s downtown district, the city would be much wiser to focus on the core problems facing its homeless population. As New York City has discovered, giving people somewhere to go is a good place to start.

Ben Rylan is Monocle 24’s associate producer.

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