Gentrification in Downtown Los Angeles: Upon Seeing Placido Domingo at the New Catholic Cathedral

It’s a rare opportunity to get to see Placido Domingo.  It is rarer still to see the great artist in a beautiful venue like the newly consecrated Catholic Cathedral in Downtown Los Angeles.  It’s especially rare to see him for free.  But all three of these factors converged.  So off I went to get me some culture.


I’ve never been to this Catholic Cathedral, which to many detractors, looks less like a place of worship and more like a prison.  In fact, its tower-like façade, stretching 11 stories, with its long thin windows, bears more than a passing resemblance to the nearby jail—a jail that the critic Mike Davis immortalized in his apocalyptic treatise, City of Quartz.  This may have something to do with the concrete, which lends it an institutional appeal, even as its fabrication (its beige tinting) is supposed to suggest a whispered connection to the adobe–the mud brick–of the indigenous population.

Catholic Cathedral

The Cathedral is an intimidating structure but, inside, it is surprisingly intimate.  I took my seat among beige tapestries of saints who lined the chamber, all appearing to be walking endlessly in procession to the sanctuary.  The saints were machine-embroidered in a hyper-realistic manner to make them also look like murals that were distressed–rusticated–flaking and peeling.  And in that evocation of ruination there was also the expression of great wealth and power:  for it costs a lot to make mechanical reproduction look like a piece of handiwork; it costs even more to produce an algorithm that takes into account a pattern of decomposition that appears random.

The choir filed in, dressed in shiny black, and then the maestro himself–Placido Domingo with his silver mane of hair–arrived to a standing ovation. I looked around me at the upstanding citizens of Los Angeles in their suits and dresses and shawls and immediately realized I was under-dressed in my jean jacket with its biker patches.  I closed my eyes like a child who thinks he is invisible because he cannot see.

The moment before is my favorite part of any concert–the din of the instruments tuning up–it reminds me of Abstract Expressionist paintings from the 1950’s–all color and texture and noise.  If you close your eyes when that chaos separates into order, you can imagine seeing the ruby mouth of the soloist opening like a rosebud just for you.  Listening to the stillness of that music makes your mind contemplative, allowing it to draw associations, to entertain speculations.  I could not help but keep returning to how this building had something in common with its prison doppelganger—a building that is as much a work dedicated to God as it is a mighty civic project.

Mike Davis

I only opened my eyes after the chorus, which was by far the best part of the mass, and was shocked by the warm light.  The Cathedral’s interior is airy and bright and uplifting:  the soft chanting voices–Gloria in excelsis Deo–could be heard in every corner of the building, bouncing off the beige walls and bumping off the wood paneled ceiling—the acoustics were that good.

The program was a favorite of Placido Domingos’, a mass by the 19th composer Gioachino Rossini. Sung by soloists of the LA Opera who stepped away from the spotlight and formed its choir, the mass was accompanied by the Colburn Orchestra from the local arts high school, and anchored by four young unknown soloists—proteges–whom Placido Domingo was mentoring.

The legendary tenor did not bless us with his voice that night.  It was a solemn occasion, one dedicated to his deceased sister Maria Pepa and it would have been unseemly to draw attention to himself in the manner of an opera luminary.  “My sister was a remarkable woman who loved music as much as I do and I miss her tremendously”–this the opening remark to a paragraph tribute to his sister on the back of the program.  It is followed by pictures of her with him, in various stages of life, in black and white, arranged like the squares in a traditional mosaic.

It is fitting that the singer chose not to sing.  It was proper.  But the hipsters in the Cathedral promptly left after the first Chorus ended.  They had not done their research on the event, drawn like moths, only to the megawatt star power of Placido Domingo, the tenor.  They neither had the manners to stay once they realized their mistake, nor the appreciation of good music that transcends the electric thrill of a celebrity sighting.  They had long ago snapped the selfies that could be posted onto their Facebook accounts.

My wife, a lapsed Catholic, whispered, “This is a really weird cathedral.  Everything is assymetrical.”  She was right: the floor tilings were like those avant garde dresses by Japanese designers—studies in wabi sabi–that are cut aggressively against the bias. There is no stained glass.  You lift your eyes to the ceiling and there are just panels of thin white stone—stone that is back lit by electric lights as strong as the day sky.  The only stained glass is in the basement, a relic on display near the bathrooms.

Stained Glass

Not many people were happy about the new Cathedral, which replaced the cherished St. Vibiana—a much smaller Cathedral built in 1873 in an Italian Revival style with the kind of old-fashioned scrollwork and vaulted passages that you expect in a venerable house of worship.  St. Vibiana’s is a more appropriate setting for the repetition of that marvelous phrase that forms the third part of the mass:

Credo:  Credo in unum Deum;


Et resurrexit.

But the structure was badly damaged in the last major earthquake and the Diocese planned to demolish it.  Preservationists, however, wanted to keep this relic of the church intact because it is a symbol of history.  They’ve got a point:  St. Vibiana’s served the city of Los Angeles for over a century when the city was a provincial town–a time when Our City of the Angels was a nowhere place with a smaller population and a laughable national profile.

Saint Vibiana

But I can see the Catholic Church’s position, too—a point of view that is otherworldly, forward-thinking:  St. Vibiana has served its purpose and, after its work is done and it is deconsecrated, it is no longer a work of holiness but just another crumbling stone building.

The struggle over this architecture stands in counterpoint to the struggle that is happening in Downtown in general, which is itself struggling to remake this City of Quartz so that it can move into a future where it can take its place among what urban planners call “supercities”—cities that not only service a single country but function as the hub in a webwork of commerce that links the capitals across the globe.

Downtown must house all the people who will work in concert to build this status and so the developments that are occurring in this so-called wasteland that once belonged only to the homeless–the towers and condos and live-work lofts–are necessary as the city remakes itself into a portal to the Pacific Rim.

The homeless—they are simply collateral damage.  Like the indigenous people who once occupied humble adobes (people who find themselves hemmed in to smaller parts of a downtown that was once all their own) the homeless are slowly displaced by the web developers, designers, actors, accountants, lawyers, dentists.

Los Angeles' Skid Row contains one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in the United States.

Los Angeles’ Skid Row contains one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in the United States.

All of this was rumbling through my head as the soloists completed their incomprehensible Latin loveliness and my thoughts wandered.  What is an Agnus Dei? I wondered.  To this, I had only the speculations of elementary school Latin.  Placido Domingo is dedicating the concert as a tribute to his dead sister whom he loved dearly, I thought to myself in my most stern mother-voice–the voice that I unlock when I want to lock myself down.  But I kept dwelling on the profound irony of this fact:  that in this space dedicated to looking forward, here was a spectacle that was all about the act of looking backward.

As we walked out after the concert, we joined the throngs of people who milled around  the paintings of the many missions that are the legacy of Father Junipero Serra, the man who settled California, the man who only last week achieved sainthood during the Papal visit.  Serra built his missions strategically near water, a precious resource in a climate prone to drought conditions, but this meant that he placed his long network of edifices upon land that was already in use by the native people of the region, placing his cities upon their cities. Then, he enslaved them–a story that is all too easily forgotten.


And what has happened to St. Vibiana?  The Preservationists got their way.  The Church let the building stand.  There is a little plaque to commemorate its previous incarnation as a Cathedral.  And now it is a high end restaurant and nightclub that can be engaged for movie shoots.  It can also be rented out for special events.

Junot Diaz at Occidental College: An Inspiring Reading

This past week, I beat the apocalypse that is LA traffic and waited in a line for an hour, enduring a capacity crowd of almost 800 people to witness Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, speak.  It was well worth the time.  It was an inspiration.  And it made me want to go home and write and write and write—the sign of an uber-successful reading.


The reading was in my neighborhood, Highland Park, which occupies the Northeast corner of Los Angeles–an area so renowned for its gritty urban vibe that Richard Ramirez, the infamous serial killer known simply as The Night Stalker, was apprehended in this very barrio when he tried to steal a get-away car. (And by “apprehended,” I mean beat mercilessly until the police arrived).

Highland Park is also the home to one of the bastions of the white-washed ivory tower, Occidental College—a highly selective liberal arts college whose most recent claim to fame is that President Barrack Obama elected to transfer from it.


This is a long way of saying that I was surprised to see so many brown people at a reading—half coming from the community, half from the student body—who stood in line clutching their books to their chests as if they were waiting to see the Pope in his white robes among a sea of minions.

Junot Diaz appeared on stage in jeans and a dress shirt designed to be untucked.  He refused to stand behind the podium but preferred to pontificate full-frontal upon a wide range of topics from comic books to nerd culture, from feminism to postcolonial theory.  When it came time for him to read, he confessed that he forgot to bring his own books but borrowed them from the audience.

He did all this in a brilliantly funny way, speaking not so much as an authority but as a wise-cracking comedian.  And while almost all the audience came to bask in his knowledge, he was the first to say repeatedly, “Gang.  I don’t know anything.  I’m just a fucked up guy and you’re treating me like a guru.”

Diaz speaks like that, codeswitching in a vibrant display of language that makes him something of a linguistic sphinx:  he alternates between bits of Dominican-inflected Spanish and liberally sprinkles a layer of profanity throughout his speech, profanity that testifies to a rough childhood in rough neighborhoods.

And yet he doesn’t appear vulgar or flat or one-note in his “fucks” like the average guy at the bus stop with a potty mouth.  Rather, he appears surprisingly sincere and tender, as if he is whispering to you a very convoluted secret that requires the presence of profanity to make it meaningful (as became evident when a young child, accompanied by her mother, stepped up to the mike and asked if Diaz would ever write a children’s book, and the author kneeled down to get close to her height and told her that he was not a very good writer, that his one attempt at a children’s book was panned by his friends and, somehow, he let that word—“fuck”—insert itself into his speech and he clapped his hand to his mouth and his eyes became as large as saucers and everybody laughed and everybody forgave him, even the child and the mother, because he had said that “fuck” so sincerely).

Junot Diaz also sprinkles high theory into his speech, the language of Marxism and postocolonial philosophy—language that can often sound like gobbledygook and have the mouth-feel of thrice-warmed-over meat loaf.  So somewhere in his one-man comedy monologue are fancy words as crisp as two dollar bills:  hegemony, subaltern, ideology.

And yet it doesn’t come off unnatural.

To one student who asked advice on why her mother (a Dominican) didn’t claim her black identity (while the student did), Diaz gave a history lesson: he pointed out that back in the old country,  the years 1937 and 1938 were the staging ground for two major massacres that followed the rise of a maniac dictator who machete’d citizens who appeared to be black.  And that fact is something that hovers around the racial landscape for Dominicans, even if they have no awareness of this history.

“When you talk about the question of blackness to your mom, all she hears is the sound of the machete.  But I bet if you ask her the question in another way, you will get the response you want to hear.”  Then without missing a beat, he points out the elephant in the room:  that Dominicans who go off to college–prestigious colleges like Oxy–often return home with a lot of privilege; in trying to make a connection with their community, they can unwittingly be perceived to use the baseball bat of knowledge to beat up on their parents who are not so well-educated.  “But we would never think to treat our friends or our children that way. We don’t say ‘Hey Jose you don’t know what counterhegemonic means.  You’re one stupid motherfucker.’”


Junot Diaz was like a B-52, dropping knowledge bombs all night like that.  And I found myself fishing out a manila folder to write elaborate notes that were sprinting beside him like a fan-boy who is following a star marathoner during a small stretch of a long race.  “You spend your whole life surviving the fact that you survived”–this just one of the many epigrams he let loose like a rap star who’s spit out a choice line:  these word explosions, seemingly spontaneous but also highly choreographed.

I came home and couldn’t stop talking about the reading.  I couldn’t sleep–that reading was a raven perched on the branch of my mind.  I haven’t been able to stop pondering that manila folder, which is worn with my cursive graffiti.  So I’m writing this a week later, because writing stuff down, writing stuff of significance and interest, is the only way I know (the only way I have ever known) to make my racing thoughts stop.