Los Angeles as We Knew It Is History. But Its Future Begins Today

The city’s most thoughtful academics, politicians, business leaders, artists, and chefs answer the question on everyone’s covered lips: ’What’s next?’

Absorb the new abnormal. All the clubs are closed, but the line outside Trader Joe’s is limitless. You still awkwardly wait an hour to enter, buy a few bottles, and slink out onto empty streets praying you don’t get sick. But now you’re turned away if you aren’t wearing a mask.

The Roaring ’20s have begun, but jazz is canceled. The same goes for all live music, sporting events, theater performances, strip clubs, and yes, Coachella. In an instant, the sweaty, anxious, and lopsided recovery of the last decade dissolved into 30 percent-plus unemployment, severe immiseration, and a local government begging for cash. Newspapers, restaurants, music venues, and other vital cultural organs are in danger of permanently failing, and the homelessness crisis still dangerously festers. Oh, and there’s a lethal invisible virus latent in any social interaction. Hugs are dicey; the Soho House double-cheek air kiss is a reminder of much simpler times. Welcome to Los Angeles 2020. Are we having fun yet?

los angeles covid-19

The daisy-cutter carnage of the coronavirus has only started. The brief novelty of Zoom yoga and telecommuting in sweatpants has ebbed as the ramifications become more dire and infinite. A paralyzing ennui has set in. All future speculation brings to mind the old William Goldman adage: Nobody knows anything. L.A.’s last pandemic occurred when Beverly Hills was just a bunch of bean fields; modern-day Los Angeles and the fledgling Babylon wracked by the Spanish flu in 1918 have few similarities. Though the death count in L.A. remains a fraction of that in New York, the financial devastation from the shuttering of all nonessential businesses augurs a cruel 365-day forecast. During a normal recession some sectors plummet while others go unscathed, but this plague has spared almost nobody. William Morris Endeavor laid off 250 staffers and CAA instituted steep pay cuts. The Chateau Marmont axed its entire staff. As for the undocumented, homeless, and working poor, Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era poverty photos might look too familiar in the coming months.

With the virus plateauing but still perilous, Mayor Eric Garcetti described the city in mid-April as “under attack … our daily life is unrecognizable.” The constantly shifting medical situation compounds the maddening uncertainty. Oxford University scientists claim that their vaccine works on monkeys, and the first few million doses could be ready by September (if it proves effective on humans). Other medical professionals believe that a vaccine won’t be rolled out for 18 months or more. Meanwhile Japan is fast-tracking the antiviral medication remdesivir as a possible palliative. The virus could always mutate into a more fatal or gentler form. A vaccine could cost hundreds of dollars or it could be free. Physicians are still trying to decipher whether COVID-19 causes strokes or other long-lasting damage. And everything you currently know could be outdated by the time you get to the end of this article.

“It’s definitely possible that it’ll abate in the summer and return in the winter,” says Tara Vijayan, the director of antimicrobial stewardship at UCLA, who has spent much of the last two months treating novel coronavirus patients. “We might see a bit of a lull once we release these guardrails, but anything novel can hit hard at any time. We still don’t know if any of us have immunity, and, if so, for how long.”

los angeles reopening

Dutcheraerials/Getty Images

As the city slowly and fitfully emerges from quarantine, we’ll be confronted by scrambled realities until a mass-produced vaccine is here. In an attempt to understand what comes next in both the near and distant future, and the deep scars this catastrophe will leave, I spoke to some of L.A.’s most thoughtful academics, politicians, business leaders, chefs, venue owners, and artists. The answers varied, but the consensus was uniformly grim. Unless there is a massive influx of federal aid that goes dramatically further than previous efforts, the city could lose up to a third of its restaurants; economic inequality and unemployment could spike to levels unseen since the Great Depression; and the homelessness problem will metastasize.
The battle for the soul of Los Angeles is about to be fought in multiple arenas. Amid rampant chaos lies rare opportunity, and in typical fashion, its future will be warred over by a mass of competing interests. Since the 1990 publication of his landmark history, City of Quartz, Mike Davis has been L.A.’s most prescient urban theorist, savagely indicting the California Club set that has stealthily crafted the city’s big-business agenda. Davis foresees the current crisis further fueling the age-old rivalry between the public interest and greedhead developers who have wielded disproportionate local influence since their forefathers drained the Owens River Valley in an act of original sin.

“It’s an extinction event for your little neighborhood bistro,” Mike Davis says, “but a huge opportunity for the wealthy.”

“Small businesses have a short
window before they collapse, and
there’s no possibility that the federal government’s loans will get out
in the required time. It’ll hollow out
L.A.,” Davis says. “Mom-and-pop
landlords are weeks from liquidation, and the real estate investment
trusts are looking over their shoulder, licking their chops, ready to buy
property knowing prices will never be this low again. It’s an extinction event for your little neighborhood bistro but a huge business opportunity for the wealthy to come in and clean up.”

Backing up his point, Westwood-based Stockdale Capital recently raised $500 million with the express purpose of vulturing distressed properties. In the short term, the construction of large mixed-use developments and luxury condos will slow down. Commercial vacancy rates will skyrocket as retail shops go under, and corporations have their employees work from home. Davis sees municipal land banks as a stopgap solution to halt—temporarily—gentrification and displacement. But for now the state has merely enacted an eviction moratorium until June, and the city has frozen rent increases on rent-controlled apartments. The moves provide some relief but are ultimately Band-Aids used on heavy wounds. (Given opportunities to strengthen the statewide eviction ban, the Los Angeles City Council has twice declined.)

According to an early April poll conducted by USC, only 45 percent of L.A. residents are currently employed. Even as shelter-in-place orders are lifted, social-distancing restrictions will severely limit capacity in all brick-and-mortar businesses—which means less revenue and a dramatically reduced need for employees. For the foreseeable future, hotels and restaurants and amusement parks will be half full at best. Bars, when they are allowed to reopen, will be bizarre if not outright depressing—no one orders bottle service in an empty club. At the apex of the crisis, Domino’s and Postmates were still hiring. Sex sites and cannabis stores were enjoying record traffic. But OnlyFans and Postmates alone can’t prop up an ailing economy. That same USC survey reports that nearly a third of L.A. County residents will likely run out of money should the shutdown extend into the summer.

The obvious solution is a federal stimulus—but the early attempts have been woefully inadequate. For the next four months, Canadians will receive $2,000 a month, not including their free health care. Meanwhile the one-time $1,200 allotted to Americans won’t even cover the rent on a one-bedroom in South Gate. The chief benefactors of Washington’s largesse have been major corporations, few of which are headquartered in Los Angeles (at least outside of the entertainment industry). Most small businesses’ futures lie in their ability to procure Paycheck Protection Program loans, but the first round of funding was depleted in days, leaving many out of luck and frantically negotiating with landlords and creditors. Amoeba Music launched a GoFundMe to survive. Counterpoint Records & Books, a nostalgist’s paradise in Franklin Village, didn’t get a dime and faces existential danger. Ruth’s Chris Steak House hoovered up $20 million and the Lakers reaped $4.6 million (both returned the money after public outcry).

Within the regional political landscape, there remains the will to address the su erings of the disenfranchised. Less clear is how to do that. “We learned our lesson from the Great Recession,” says Nury Martinez, president of the Los Angeles City Council, whose district covers much of the central and eastern San Fernando Valley. “We built up our corporations but not our people. We need to seize this opportunity and use federal dollars to fund job-creation programs, affordable housing, and, most importantly, help people pay their rent.”

She envisions a New Deal-type program to employ the suddenly jobless as sanitation workers or parks-and-rec maintenance staff. But this raises the question broached by that great late-period L.A. noir: Where’s the money? In his most recent $10.5 billion budget plan, Garcetti proposed furloughing nearly 16,000 city workers and gutting street repairs, gang intervention programs, tree trimming, and neighborhood council dollars. The cratering of hotel and sales tax revenues underscores the imperative to procure federal funds. But this is deep-blue Los Angeles attempting to requisition money from a Senate controlled by Mitch McConnell. The executive branch is run by an oily transactional golem whose only use for the city involves Beverly Hills Hotel trysts with porn stars. Maybe it’s time to send Kim Kardashian back to Washington.

Late last year a poll of 900
Angelenos rated homelessness
as the city’s most dire problem.
Garcetti’s fiscal proposal cuts
services for the homeless by 6
 percent (the LAPD would get
two raises). Now the crisis must be fought on two fronts: first, the public health risk that COVID-19 poses to the nearly 60,000 people on the streets without insurance, sanitation, or the ability to properly social distance; second, stopping thousands of newly destitute and vulnerable people from being forced out of their residences.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this pessimistic about the homelessness crisis,” says Councilman Mike Bonin, whose Westside district includes Mar Vista and Venice. “If a month into this the vast majority of unsheltered people in Los Angeles are still living in encampments, we’re fucked. If we can’t move people rapidly indoors now with tens of thousands of vacant hotel rooms, it’s hard to find some hope and light at the end of the tunnel.”

Over the pandemic’s first few weeks, there was an urgency to provide the homeless with handwashing stations and toilets—but then inventory ran short. The mayor shrewdly commandeered closed recreation centers to house the indigent; the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs set up L.A.’s first temporary tent city in decades. But “temporary” is the operative word. When the fallout settles over the next 18 months, it’s practically unthinkable that the situation won’t have worsened. In the interim there is Project Roomkey, Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to move 15,000 people from encampments and shelters into empty hotel rooms.

A year’s worth of Hollywood films might never hit theaters. Next year’s Oscars might last only an hour.

As in all economic downturns, the dispossessed are the most dramatically impacted, but Hollywood has been comparatively recession-proof—picture Fred Astaire tap-dancing through the Depression. In our current dimension, Joe Exotic is the Gay Divorcee for the 75 percent of Americans reporting that they’re now streaming more Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ than ever before. But even Disney has announced pay cuts and furloughs, and Marvel has terminated overall deals. Early statistics estimate that Hollywood could lose $20 billion, but as the pandemic stretches on that number might turn out to be twice that. A year’s worth of Hollywood films might never hit worldwide cinemas, which figure mostly to be closed or sparsely patronized. Next year the Oscars might run an hour.

The virus also canceled all scripted film and television productions, which means interminable waits for the new seasons of Succession and Atlanta. As far as reality shows go, how do you shoot Vanderpump Rules during quarantine? Does Lisa match masks with the Vanderpump dogs?

“When the quarantine first started, everyone wasn’t talking about the new season of Ozark, they were talking about Tiger King,” says Danny Gabai, head of Vice Studios U.S. “The cultural shift toward documentaries was already happening, but this accelerates it. The streaming wars are still going full throttle, and companies can’t just stop making stuff. The coffers aren’t that deep in terms of already-produced content, and I’ve been already finding that a lot of buyers are getting more aggressive about picking up unscripted and documentary projects.”

Indeed, a big-budget production isn’t a matter of flipping a switch. It requires filmmakers, talent, guilds, distributors, and financiers to be on the same page. If scripted filming does proceed this year, it will be in a stripped-down skeletal fashion—similar to how many documentary crews operate.

Of course Los Angeles is no longer just an industry town. For the last several decades, its Instagrammable allure and cinematic mythos have made it one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Between 2014 and 2019, L.A.’s leisure and hospitality industries reported 2.3 percent annual average growth, surpassed only by the educational and health services sectors. But the impact from nonexistent international travel and the closure of theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios will be only part of the sad financial saga. In the first week of April, hotel occupancy was at a meager 22.7 percent. The Melrose Avenue shopping strip and the Venice Boardwalk were veritably abandoned. As retailers from Neiman Marcus to the Gap have shut stores and cut employees, thousands of workers suffered immediate whiplash.

vista theater reopen

“Unfortunately not every business will survive this,” says Rick Caruso, whose vast real estate and retail portfolio includes the Grove and the Americana at Brand outdoor retail complexes. “Any over-leveraged business with too much debt will struggle, but everyone’s revenues will be less. Until there’s a vaccine,” he says, “people will be reluctant to go out. Those businesses that rely on large crowds coming together—concerts, movie theaters, and indoor malls—will have a tough time. The smart businesses will find alternative ways to supplement the loss of revenue.”

Recently named to Trump’s bipartisan Great American Economic Revival industry group and Newsom’s state Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, Caruso will have as much of an impact as any nonpolitician on the city’s reopening. He foresees a slow and methodical process based on medical data and testing capacity. Ideally small businesses will open first as they’re the least able to sustain extended closure and generally have fewer people in their physical spaces. Face masks, temperature checks, and social distancing will become de rigueur. Even if the virus abates during the scorching summer months, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already warned that it could return in the winter—in tandem with flu season—to create an even more wretched scenario.

Los Angeles Apparel is one of the few nondigital firms to flourish amid the crisis, according to founder and CEO Dov Charney. It has sold a half million cloth masks since late February. The company swiftly capitalized on the national shortage and weeks-long Amazon backlog, ramping up production at its downtown factory. With demand surging, the company’s employee ranks quickly doubled to almost 1,000 as it cornered the mask market for those who bought neon headbands in the late ‘00s from Charney’s old business, American Apparel. Even the CDC recently placed an order. Los Angeles Apparel’s localized success might represent a broader shift that could define the next decade of American life: The disruption of the international supply chain—think of the terrifying ease with which the virus spread—could hasten the end of the current chapter of globalization. Multinational juggernauts like Grumman and Boeing have laid off thousands. But while the troubled aerospace industry might never return to its gilded days, local manufacturing has actually been trending upward. Many new jobs, however, require highly skilled workers trained in automation.

“It’s extremely valuable to manufacture locally because you can quickly adjust to market trends,” Charney says. “People don’t want ties or jackets right now. They’re hunkered down. They want sweatpants, hoodies, and masks. Formal clothing was already on its way out, but this accelerates it. Right now it’s about comfortable and practical clothing to work from home and go to the store.”

“You’ll see a lot of young cooks nd a lane for themselves because the tradiTional restaurant model may not work anymore,” says Roy Choi.

You didn’t need Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential to tell you that restaurants were already among the most precarious parts of the economy. If most businesses live month to month, many chefs live day to day, hanging on by razor-thin margins and customer whim. Over the last decade Roy Choi, the short rib alchemist behind Kogi, was heavily responsible for what became known as the food truck revolution. His tacos quickly became an L.A. symbol as iconic as the Apple Pan hickory burger or El Tepeyac burrito. But instability wrought by COVID-19 forced a switch to a leaner model. Since March Choi has teamed with corporations, charitable donors, and the band OneRepublic to help feed the hungry and give his employees regular work hours. Despite the partnership, his profits have been reduced to next to nothing. “This situation revealed how fragile the industry was,” Choi says. “It was like a house filled with termites. This pulled away the screen and showed that we were all close to the foundation collapsing.”

Everything from Michelin-starred fine dining to multigenerational ceviche stands went broke within days. Choi estimates that if the shutdown extends into June, it’ll be an extinction-level event for the L.A. food world. Conversely he stresses the industry’s inherent creativity and adaptability. Tables will be spread six feet apart.

Takeout and delivery will be prioritized. A digital ordering format doesn’t necessarily need to put waiters out of work. It can potentially turn them into Swiss-Army-type multitaskers bolstering operations in multiple ways. On-demand delivery services and ghost kitchens will become even more crucial.

“I think you’ll see a lot of young cooks find a lane for themselves because the traditional restaurant model may not work anymore,” Choi predicts. “It could further blur the line between what’s street food and what’s a restaurant, like how it is in Mexico or South America. Hopefully it’ll lead to street food being further woven into the city’s fabric and ultimately provide an easier pathway for cooks to open up these new establishments.”

The retail shops, restaurants, and bars that weather the tumult of the next 18 months will be well situated to thrive in the post-Hunger Games landscape. But even if they reopen under rigorous safety protocols and social-distancing measures, a viral flare-up could send the city back into lockdown. Which is why it’s almost impossible to imagine festivals, large theater productions, or sporting events until there’s a vaccine. If Mookie Betts ever plays a game for the Dodgers, it’ll likely occur in an empty home stadium in Chavez Ravine. Coachella is still technically rescheduled for October, but you probably shouldn’t book your Airbnb just yet. It’s hard to picture a summer without the Hollywood Bowl, but if the show goes on, it might be streamed from a stage in front of empty seats.

There’s no substitute for a riveting play, playoff game, or transcendent concert, but until such events are feasible, expect a digital substitute. In April a coalition of local promoters banded together to throw Weed Rave, a Zoom house party with DJs, a virtual smoking patio, and a 24-hour stoner-movie screening room. When the legendary burlesque club Jumbo’s Clown Room temporarily shuttered in March, one of its dancers, Emily Whittemore, created NAOMIDROME, a streaming show that exists in a surrealist cyberhaze between the debauched East Hollywood club and Wayne’s World; audience members can chat online with the dancers, make requests, and tip via credit card. In more traditional avenues of the art world, the Center Theatre Group downtown started a Zoom series featuring monologues, discussions, and town halls. There’s been talk of livestreaming plays, too. Museums and galleries have virtual tours that allow you to partake in such attractions as the Broad’s Infinite Drone light-and-sound exhibit or check out van Gogh’s Irises at the Getty Center.

Over the most recent weeks of the lockdown, music venues have numbly started recognizing that they might have already hosted their final shows of the year. But there are ways for smaller rooms to keep the party going–though now it will be beamed directly into patrons’ apartments. It’s clearly not the same, but the liquor is cheaper, and there’s no chance of a DUI or a regrettable one-night stand. As shelter-in-place restrictions are loosened, private gatherings might require that guests and staff be vetted, temperatures taken, masks worn, and the property thoroughly sanitized. Just like Woodstock.

One place suited to tightly regulated small-room events is Gold-Diggers, an East Hollywood bar, performance space, boutique hotel, and recording studio that has become one of the city’s most vibrant hot spots over the last two years. “Bands that normally sell out massive rooms suddenly have nowhere to play and will still want to perform,” says Dave Neupert, who co-owns Gold-Diggers as well as the Short Stop, Melody Lounge, and La Cita. “If we can create a safe environment where a record label or management company wants to have a band perform in an intimate setting, they can play a real live show before close friends and family; we can stream it from the 32-channel board in our studio and eventually turn it into a live album, too.”

As with all things in this circumspect new world, caution will be paramount. In the same way that 9/11 fundamentally altered all things aviation, our future might be closer to what South Korea already looks like post-COVID. Security will take your temperature and scrutinize your antibodies card when you enter buildings. Nothing will be simple or linear, and no one’s life will be unchanged.

In the case of the celebrated
composer and producer Adrian Younge, disruptions have
occurred across multiple industries. The 41-year-old musician has cut solo records and
produced for Kendrick Lamar,
 Jay-Z, and the Delfonics. And
as with many local musicians,
film and TV scores helped support his noncommercial artistic pursuits. But in the wake
of the novel coronavirus, such
work has dried up. A creative
force behind the popular Jazz
Is Dead concert series, Younge 
was forced to indefinitely postpone a year’s worth of shows.
His record label has had to shift
release dates. Artform Studio, 
his Highland Park beauty salon
and record shop, closed its doors in March, one of countless “nonessential” businesses that have been sidelined by the plague.

“With less revenue coming in and no foreseeable notion as to when things will normalize, all I can personally do is put myself in the position to have an advantage when things do return to normal,” Younge says. “I’ve been telling all my friends and fans to get out of their slump. You might not be in a better financial position than you were before, but you might be able to have a creative vantage point that you didn’t have prior.”

For Younge the constant stream of work in the past led him to place dream projects on the back burner. During this break he’s working on one of them: a solo political project in the vein of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. “There’s a lot of negative things to focus on right now, but you can’t let yourself be consumed by it,” Younge says. “If anything, people will become more creative because they have a little more time to reflect and find themselves. A silver lining in these trying times is that everyone’s broke together. And as artists we all know what it’s like to be broke.”

Barring a world war or a cataclysmic natural disaster, this might be the most transformative moment of our lifetimes. Thousands of Angelenos will be dead, beloved landmarks and cultural treasures will shutter for good, and innumerable residents will be impoverished and desperate. Yet there’s a certain solidarity within a communal struggle. The Renaissance emerged from a Europe decimated by the bubonic plague, the New Deal derived from the capitalist failings exposed by the Depression, and the firebombing of Dresden yielded Slaughterhouse-Five.

los angeles after covid-19

In Los Angeles there is the opportunity to collectively organize against the blight of unwanted luxury condos and predatory landlords in favor of a public and egalitarian use of our soil. The dystopian excess of the 21st century, the helium-brained reality show delusions—all these could be subverted in favor of something that recognizes and reimagines the underground forces that have benevolently shaped this city: the Watts Prophets and the Ferus Gallery, the culinary wizards and gifted line cooks who saw the food truck as a form of salvation, the art punks on Main Street at the Smell, the eccentric fast-rapping poets at Project Blowed in Leimert Park, the underground filmmakers and skate kids who flourished outside Hollywood’s gates, the Low End Theory beat scene that lit up Lincoln Park. Gentrification has left entire neighborhoods on the verge of losing their essential character and spirit. Maybe it is time to rip it up and start again.

As for those unable to find catharsis in acts of creation—or at least sourdough baking— there remains the distinct possibility that many years from now we’ll vividly recall this moment not only for the weltering pain and bewildering uncertainty. There is also an opportunity to view the city as it once was, with vehicular poisons cleared away to reveal a delirious blue sky and the ability to see farther than anyone ever thought possible. The hushed absence of traffic. The coyotes, rabbits, and deer reclaiming their natural habitats. The forced grace of having to pause everything for a little while before the breakneck velocity and dehumanizing grind of urban living restarted. This time much faster than ever before. It has to be all that, too. The alternative is too bleak to consider.

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