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By Finn-Olaf Jones | September 29, 2014 | People
Star politico José Huizar is determined to bring old-fashioned flash—and new-fangled cash—to DTLA.
Battling political foes and naysayers, council member José Huizar is finally bringing “uptown” style back to Downtown LA with his Bringing Back Broadway initiative.
“How ya doin’, José?” asks a hunched old-timer who corners Los Angeles City Councilmember José Huizar in the marbled entrance to Los Angeles’s City Hall. Huizar, 46, is already very late for his next appointment, but stops for a long, wonkish conversation with the interloper. Though he’s about as big a glad-hander as President Obama, another politician not known for small talk, Huizar seems cheerful and unhurried as time is wasting away. “Is the gentleman a lobbyist?” one of Huizar’s aides is asked. “Naah, he’s a City Hall groupie,” he sighs. “José always stops to talk to him.”
Huizar has a 3-year-old daughter in the hospital being treated for leukemia, a sexual harassment suit threatening his next reelection, and some of the most expensive civic projects in LA in various states of crisis, but in a town that measures character by coolness, Huizar is as perpetually unruffled as a character from a Raymond Chandler novel. And like those characters, he’s been confronting the mean streets of Downtown Los Angeles for a long time. Unlike those characters, he’s obviously been winning.
A decade ago, Downtown LA was a post-5 pm Zombieland, where the lonely few tottered down empty boulevards and past shuttered Art Deco buildings. Now, Downtown has become one of the most high-profile neighborhoods in the country, a western Soho, with hipsters waiting in line to get into trendy restaurants like Bestia and Alma. Even the derelict United Artists Theatre was recently transformed into the Ace Hotel, where revelers who are lucky enough to get past the velvet rope to the roof bar stare down at the cranes and crowds of pedestrians in what has become a miraculously revitalized metropolis.
José Huizar lights up the marquee at the Globe Theater as part of his Bringing Back Broadway initiative.
Practically everything they can see from up there is the realm of Huizar, who since 2005 has been representing District 14—which includes almost the entire Downtown area ringed by the freeways. In LA’s uniquely decentralized political environment, council members pretty much run their district with the autonomy of a modern Medici, for better and for worse. When Huizar took over the reins of Zombieland in 2005, many would have argued the prospects for gentrification pointed to worse.
“When he was first elected, Ninth and Broadway might as well have been Siberia,” says Steve Needleman, whose family has been running theaters, including the opulent, recently renovated Orpheum on Broadway, for two generations. “Ten years later, it’s a much different situation. José has turned this into one of the most economically powerful neighborhoods in LA. It’s attracting more growth and investment than any other district in the city. But it has not been an easy path.”
Nor a short one. Huizar was born in an adobe hut in the remote state of Zacatecas, Mexico, “where 50 percent of the population has moved to the United States, like my parents did when I was 3,” he says in his smooth, thoughtful cadence, more NPR than East LA. Indeed, the bookshelves cluttering his modest office (“I had a choice, but this works well because it’s got more direct access to the Council Chambers”) reveal a baroque and curious mind: Robert Greene’s tome The 48 Laws of Power, which, from the mottled pages, appears to have been surrendered at page 41; The Joy Luck Club; architecture and design books; several signed coffee-table books on singing Mexican cowboys; and a shelf devoted to the country of Japan. Not the typical library of a man who grew up in Boyle Heights, the Latino neighborhood abutting Downtown, where, according to the last census, only 5 percent of residents graduated from college.
Boyle Heights, which is also part of District 14, is the perch from which Huizar became fascinated with Downtown LA and its eroding buildings, especially its fantastical 1920s movie palaces. “In the ’70s, these theaters were showing mostly Spanish or kung fu movies,” remembers the councilman. “I could watch three movies for 99 cents, and then I’d go to see more movies down the street.”
Under Huizar’s watch, the legendary United Artists Theatre made a H-wood-style comeback as the Ace Hotel.
The drive for education came serendipitously for Huizar. Even though he’d been thrown out of middle school (“it’s been long forgotten” he laughs when asked why), he always had a drive “to make things better.” Recalls Huizar, “I had a delivery route around Japantown for two papers. One day, I passed a guy in a tourist shop who gave me a job for $2 an hour handing out cards in front of his store.” This chance encounter with local entrepreneur Masamichi Kiyomiya proved to be life changing. “Like so many Japanese, Kiyomiya had a lot of respect for education,” says Huizar. “He insisted on keeping me on the clock until I finished my homework.” Later, in college, Kiyomiya continued giving his protégé paid market research assignments, “but I later realized it was just his way of helping me pay for my education,” says Huizar.
A bachelor’s degree from Berkeley, a graduate degree in urban planning from Princeton University, and a law degree from UCLA followed. Suddenly the young man from rural Zacatecas was a real estate lawyer on the move in LA, catching the eye of Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, who encouraged him to run for school council. “Believe me, I wasn’t the first he asked,” remembers the lifelong Democrat. “At the time, it wasn’t considered such a great position. The schools were in awful condition.” Then in 2005, when Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor, Huizar handily took over his District 14 seat in a special election.
The lessons in urban planning and the board of education’s political horse trading took effect right away, with Huizar pushing through tax rebates, exemptions, and other initiatives to attract developers, businesses, and residents to Downtown, or in Huizar’s words “the gem of Los Angeles.” One of these initiatives, “Bringing Back Broadway,” launched in 2008, is a 10-year plan aimed at finding new uses for the movie palaces and other fraying buildings lining Broadway. Sidewalks are being widened to attract pedestrians, tax credits are encouraging the development of upper floors of derelict buildings atop bustling shops, and $750,000 in funding is enticing owners to bring back the floodlights and neon signs of the ’20s and ’30s.
One of the most high-profile successes was the transformation of the United Artists Theatre’s moldering Art Deco fantasy into the Ace Hotel. “We went through so many different proposals for the theater—t-shirt stores and the like—until the group behind the Ace Hotel showed an interest in the property. I knew right away that this was the right sort of business we wanted to attract,” says Huizar. These glittering developments are attracting new life like moths to the flame, and now Downtown is aflutter with construction and brave new projects.
José and three of his four children (from left), Isabella, Simon, and Emilia, at a recent parade.
It’s not all been smooth sailing. Married with four children, Huizar recently had to own up to trysts with a former deputy chief of staff who, years after the affair allegedly ended, sued for sexual harassment after getting married. The case is currently scheduled to come to trial in November, though it’s being whispered that an out-of-court settlement is in the works. With more than $300,000 already raised for next year’s reelection—a whopping amount for a council election—Huizar’s unflappable disposition when lesser politicians would be ducking for cover is perhaps understandable.
Downtown’s future has never looked better. Next up: A four-mile streetcar system that is set to be up and rolling by 2019. High-tech businesses are also taking a peek, as propeller heads continue to seek local spots to grow far from the anonymous lawns of Silicon Valley. “Downtown would be an ideal workplace and residence for people working in the tech industry,” says Huizar, who says he’s hoping to make “a major announcement soon” on the subject.
Not that LA’s core is envisioned to become a high-income Manhattan anytime in the near future. “People fear gentrification of Downtown,” notes Huizar. “But Broadway will still be a street for everyone. We’ll continue to have swap meets and bodegas next to the Urban Outfitters. That’s what everyone, locals and visitors alike, expect… and want.”
photography by elisabeth caren (Huizar in city hall); CoUrtESy oF thE oFFiCE oF CoUnCilmEmbEr hUizar (hUizar); courtesy of ace hotel (ace)