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Faces of Downtown - Cheryl McDonald

By Jeannine Denholm
Published: Monday, June 02, 2008, at 09:14AM
CMcD Ed Fuentes

Cheryl McDonald outside the Higgins Building

In the next installment of Faces of Downtown we meet Higgins Building resident Cheryl McDonald who shares her memories of Downtown as a child, her hopes for the future and describes an active urban life that is never boring.

When did you move Downtown?

I moved Downtown in October, 2003, when I returned to L.A. after 5 years of living in North Carolina. But I was born at Queen of Angels (now the Dream Center) and Downtown was my hangout place as a teenager. So for me, moving Downtown was really coming home.

What are your best memories of Downtown as a child?

When I was little, one of the beloved rituals of Christmas was the family trip that began Downtown, coming to see the magical windows at those department stores. They outdid each other creating fantasy tableaux that had our eyes popping - especially the ones that moved! Then we'd all pack into the car and drive down Wilshire. The lights and the colors took us to a different world. We would stop for peppermint ice cream at the Carnation Building (at Crenshaw, I think), then continue the wonderful journey all the way to the beach.

In high school, several of us got great volunteer gigs ushering at the Philharmonic Auditorium (diagonally across from the Biltmore at 5th and Olive). We didn't get paid, but we were able to see symphonic concerts and (best of all) the major musicals that came to town. I was lucky enough to be a regular volunteer usher when the Music Center first opened. Every time I walked into the Dorothy Chandler, it was hard to believe the skeptics (and there were a lot of them) who thought no one would come Downtown to frequent the place. WRONG! I didn't move in to the Higgins in time to watch opening night at Disney Hall, but having followed its rocky path to fruition even 40 years after the Music Center has become an institution, I celebrated nonetheless.

Those are some of the things I best remember about Downtown. I can barely remember my own name most of the time these days, but I do remember the taste of the Jello at Clifton's when my grandmother took me to celebrate my birthday every year. And while it was a very different place then, it can sometimes be startling to come around a corner and encounter something I know so vividly from that other time and place.

Where did you hang out and what did you do?

We'd start at the library, where we did token homework. Then down to and through Pershing Square, with its green lawns and trees. There was almost always a soapbox preacher under the trees. Not infrequently it was a woman - usually dressed in white, with her husband in a dark suit, and the children standing quietly in stair step arrangement for hours (it seemed to us, though we didn't stay for the whole thing). They'd hold their Bibles fiercely and stare out solemnly as their wife/mother exhorted anyone passing by with incredible (and embarassing) passion. It made me wonder at the many ways there were to be "Christian". We would go on to one (or more) of the big department stores to see what there was to see, even though we couldn't afford it. Bullocks, May Co. Broadway, and Robinsons kept us busy.

Why did you choose to make Downtown your home?

Moving back to LA was hard – I’d really come to love NC. I knew I would need an environment with some character to make up for the lush green that I was leaving. In Durham, I had begun to think about living in the middle of my “work” and surrounded by issues I feel are important – OK, not at all green, but engaging. Apartment hunting online was really depressing until I saw that some of the beautiful old buildings Downtown that I had known growing up were being converted to living spaces. As soon as I got home I came down to look and fell in love with the Higgins Building.

Describe the changes both positive and negative you've seen since moving Downtown?

Maybe it’s a case of focusing hard on one’s own navel, but it does seem to me that there has been a great deal more attention paid to Downtown since I moved here. Surprise! - that’s a mixed blessing. The streets are cleaner and I’m glad to see the port-a-potties disappearing. There’s been more engagement with problems we, as a city, have managed not to see for years. We’re able to save and cherish some treasures of our history. And we’re almost at the point where you can go out and buy a banana at 7 a.m. on a weekend! Downtown is no longer a dead zone after 5, even if you’re not just interested in drinking. On the other hand, more people and more activity highlight the difficulties of moving around this city.

What do you do for a living?

I work for a nonprofit that does workforce development with low income workers in the public sector.

What is your favorite thing to do Downtown?

That can really vary, depending on the day or the season. For example, a few weeks ago it was sooo HOT! By Friday, I didn’t feel like doing much of anything, but when I got home I decided to walk up to the Music Center with some of my neighbors. The temperature was going down and it was a beautiful evening for a walk. We ate hamburgers and drank wine on the plaza while we listened to the live salsa band. My friends stayed to dance, but I was tired and walked home alone. It was lovely!

What is your favorite restaurant, coffee shop, bar, etc.?

I love The Wood Spoon and Banquette. I am eternally grateful for Pitfire, Groundworks, and Liliya’s just downstairs. Pete’s is clearly my “neighborhood place” for all occasions (I had my daughter’s bridal shower there.) And I really enjoy having lots of places to explore.

What does Downtown still need?

A compassionate and responsible strategy to address truly affordable housing and to eliminate homelessness. Better cheap/easy transportation. More convenience stores open beyond 8-5, M-F. GREENSPACE (I haven’t completely given up!) A farmer’s market into the evening. Decent and reasonable parking proximate to where people are now living.

Do you plan on staying Downtown?


What is the biggest misconception about Downtown?

That you are in constant and imminent danger anywhere off Figueroa, Flower, or Grand – and maybe there, too.

When and how do you think that will change?

When it becomes easier for people to come down and experience it for themselves.


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