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In Chinatown, What's Old is New Again

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Tuesday, June 24, 2008, at 12:48PM
Old Chinatown Ed Fuentes

East Gate at Broadway

It's an original mixed-use development, with ground floor retail, upstairs offices for business and levels of high density residential space. It was built around pedestrians, creating a neighborhood while allowing plenty of vehicular access down a major thoroughfare. It contains public art that responds to cultural ideologies without ignoring the environment.

Is it an 21st-Century architectural experiment in new processes?

Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown. And it turns 70 years old on Saturday.

The “L.A. Chinatown 70th Anniversary Party” will have big band “The Jonathan Stout Orchestra” performing, a 1930s & 1940s costume contest, or you can enjoy 1940s cocktails and sodas.

The festivities are keynoted with the dedication of two plaques. One is a replica of an original plaque and the other is a recently discovered Central Plaza plaque found in storage. The plaques were first dedicated by California Governor Frank Merriam in 1938 and were inscribed with the words “Dedicated to the Chinese Pioneers Who Participated in the Constructive History of California”–-becoming an important symbol to the history of Chinese Americans of the time.

Admittedly, as an early commercial interpretation of a culture, Chinatown's design may have struck early critics as neon-garish. Yet, by being designed by those living two cultures––being Chinese and living life as an 1930-40's Angeleno––it has earned real authenticity through time. It adds to Los Angeles' ethos as noir, then surviving abandonment before becoming utilitarian.

On the recent MONA Neon Bus Tour, guide Eric Lynxwiler noted the use of Spanish tiles, rather than wood, on sweeping roofs. The design has now become a standard for the commercial zone next to the hills. “New Chinatown” has the distinction of being one of the first pedestrian malls in the U.S. designed to handle earthquakes and be fire safe.

Somehow, Chinatown's Central Plaza could be a model of what urban planners research, debate, propose, and sometimes build–– only to see their work become obsolete within 20 years. Chinatown itself has galleries and new coffee/tea houses, mixed with cafes and bakeries that have served generations of locals and tourists. Even some of the tourist stops have become more sophisticated with their inventory.

And of course, it has neon. If there was ever a time to visit Chinatown at dusk and into the evening, it's this Saturday.

L.A. Chinatown 70th Anniversary Party: Celebrating the 1938 Founding of “New Chinatown” / Saturday, June 28, 2008 / 7pm to 11pm / Free Admission and Dancing / 943-951 N Broadway, Central Plaza, Chinatown L.A.

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