RENT Part II: Looking Forward at a Rapidly Changing Downtown

Last night Rent Downtown Los Angeles (#Rent dtla) ended it’s 4 week run in a far off Broadway abandoned warehouse in Boyle Heights. Rent debuted on Broadway in 1996 - a story of love, artists trying to make it, and of course, the gentrification of NYC. What was at stake some 15 years ago in New York is still at stake today, in a new city set in the future. Tonight’s finale of Rent Downtown left my group and the rest of the audience in tears and joy because, yes, we love Rent, and of course New York in the 90′s; but mostly because we love downtown LA. Performing Rent in the Arts District is powerfully symbolic as the play’s core message still applies to what is at stake today in downtown LA as the city’s dormant core awakens.

Rent is rife with story lines and we all have our favorite, but I’m calling on a certain favorite of mine that Rent breathes such powerful life into. We all know this story of artists moving in, developers on their heels. In the end, creatives are priced out and move, making room for a flood of consumers. As I sat there watching Rent for the first time in an urban arts district that I have just recently come to love after 28 years as an Angelino, I asked myself, As downtown changes, what is at stake? What will happen if all of the amazing people who have resurrected downtown leave?

These people, these cultural creators, breath life into “places.” They drive and embody the vibrant iterations of the times. Through art, music, food, and cinema - their work allows us to understand urban places and invites us to play a role in their future. So when developers get a whiff of the energy that’s brewing and build high-end lofts for cultural consumers - who do not actually produce art in and of themselves - you can end up with a place frozen in time like a museum. Like a movie set people flood in, put on their costumes and wander the streets as if on an art safari - snapping pictures of one another. Eventually, this gets old and people move on to the next place, as the current locale is no longer capable of producing the next hot thing.

When we cannibalize our creators we end up with places lacking vitality. Leaving Rent tonight, feeling the energy of the people of New York who strove to keep their art alive, I saw with clarity my walk on part in this saga. As the Hub readies itself to open downtown in the fall, I ask myself how we can create an environment that while professional, actively embodies the creative vitality of the artists who pioneered downtown’s revival? How can we be more self-aware of The Hub’s role in downtown’s gentrification, so that we collaborate with, rather than replace, existing communities?

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