rejectomorph (flying_blind) wrote,


At the mention of the Cecil Hotel, the first thing that comes to my mind is the experience of one of my friends, back in the early 1960's. Arriving downtown one day, he walked south along Main Street from the bus depot. As he was passing the Cecil, a few doors south of the depot, he heard a whoosh and thump behind him, and saw horrified looks on the faces of recoiling pedestrians who had been approaching. He turned and saw a body crumpled on the sidewalk immediately behind him. Someone had jumped from an upper floor window of the hotel and had missed landing on him by three or four feet.

I used to pass the Cecil myself now and then in the days when I was a frequent visitor to downtown and, after hearing that story, I always cast a wary eye upward when I did so, and walked a bit faster. There were plenty of other downtown buildings from which the despondent could have (and sometimes did) jump, but the anecdote had aroused in me that sort of mental association which is the likely source of all manner of superstitions. Yet it's also true that the Cecil was indeed a more apt choice of location than many other downtown buildings for anyone seeking a quick end through that particular mode of suicide.

Except on the occasion of some widespread financial disaster, the inhabitants of tall office blocks are far less likely to be candidates for a terminal plunge than are the occupants of a hotel, a place to which the public has easier access. And among hotels, I suspect that those with the lowest priced rooms are more likely to attract those bent on suicide. True, some discriminating depressives possessing appropriate wardrobes, knowing that they will not actually have to pay the hotel's fees, might prefer to make their exit from the opulent surroundings of a suite in the Biltmore, and to land on the tidier sidewalks of Olive Street, but your average jumper is probably not concerned about such things.

In addition, older hotels, especially those located in neighborhoods long past their prime, as was the Cecil, typically become less attractive to transient guests and gradually become more and more the abode of those people of limited means, and few or no family connections, who pay for their rooms by the week or the month, and people in these circumstances seem more prone to suicide than the general population. The old Rosslyn Hotel, once a fairly fashionable medium-priced transient hotel, but long since decayed into little more than a long-term flop house, is a block and a half north of the Cecil. The Rosslyn was, in Wim Wenders' movie "Million Dollar Hotel" a few years ago, the scene of a sad and oddly poetic suicide which, when I saw the movie, reminded me immediately of the real event which had occurred so long before at the Cecil. Main Street has long been that sort of street.

The long decline of the eastern section of downtown began decades ago, and as far back as the 1930's it had become obvious that Main Street would be the location of the cheap cafes, the second-hand stores, the bargain outlets, the 24-hour grind movie houses, the burlesque halls and, once prohibition ended, the rowdy bars. By the time I first knew it, even the shabbily genteel were beginning to abandon it, as were enterprises such as used book shops which depended on more fastidious customers who would no longer tolerate the increasingly threatening atmosphere brought by belligerent drunks, cheap hookers and (perhaps worst of all) wild kids from the suburbs and small towns looking for excitement in the big city.

Still, even in the 1960's, the Cecil, the Rosslyn and a couple of other old but fading hotels along the street were recommended by guidebooks for budget-minded, somewhat bohemian or would-be bohemian travelers steeped in the sentimental romanticism of Jack Kerouac and his fellows. But when, in the 1970's, coinciding with the downward descent of younger people caught in the drug fad, the state of California closed its mental hospitals and released onto the streets (with insufficient provision of outpatient care or supervision) a vast number of patients dependent on public support, even the bohemians would not longer tolerate the area's rapid decay, and the remaining hotels became the state's default mental wards, collecting the welfare and disability checks that Reagan-era society considered an adequate substitute for proper care for the broken people among us.

There followed almost four decades of un-building, as the city of Los Angeles (like so many others) attempted to reclaim the area by destroying it, demolishing SRO hotels for parking lots, displacing private sector buildings with vast, fortress-like office bunkers for various branches of the government itself, de-licensing bars, condemning the old movie theatres which served primarily as flop houses, and maintaining a police presence little short of that which one would expect in a totalitarian state. Gradually, the area nearest Main Street was largely depopulated, though a large number of the homeless continued to find various alleys and alcoves in which to sleep, and the ever more dangerous street was never entirely empty, though it became a mere shadow of its former self. Only the largest old hotels remained occupied by the welfare class. This state is apparently coming to an end.

Recently, I've heard much about the renaissance of downtown Los Angeles. Many of the old office blocks, which have been vacant for years as a result of the westward shift of the financial district, are being renovated and converted into pricey residential lofts, and there is even a great deal of new construction of loft-like apartment buildings in the area, so that the resident population of downtown is now higher than it's been at any time since the late 1960's. Main Street has not been left out of this trend. I knew that the Pacific Electric Building, the former bus depot with an office building above it and the former quarters of the Los Angeles Athletic Club on the top floor, had been converted to residential use, and a few days ago I heard that the north tower of the Rosslyn itself was being converted to lofts. Thus I don't know why it came as a surprise to find that, after decades as a SRO hotel filled with pensioners and people on various forms of public assistance, the Cecil has been renovated and is once again serving as a moderately priced visitors hotel.

The Cecil I remember is unrecognizable in the photograph on that page. In fact, my memory of the place is quite vague. I was never inside the building, and I only dimly recall seeing through the grimy windows a large and worn lobby in which an assortment of mostly elderly and obviously not well-heeled people sat on faded divans reading newspapers or watching the passing crowd. It was the sort of place where men once probably dapper clung to a shred of their old style in suits a few years out of date, and topped their gray or balding heads with the fedoras or trilbies of an era as much abandoned by even the middle-aged as were the styles of the eighteenth century. I have vague images of eccentric elderly women still affecting a touch of the flapper modes of their vanished youth in turbans and inexpensive fur stoles. I remember the smell of cigar smoke drifting out to mingle with the diesel fumes spewed by busses and trucks. I remember only a rather plain building, increasingly grimy as the years passed, and the overall dowdiness into which the place had sunk. I have no doubt that those vanished ghosts would be as astonished at the sudden revival of their decayed backwater hotel as I am. Who would have guessed what glamour was hidden under all that grime?

I have to say that I don't share the optimism that Los Angeles currently appears to feel about itself. I know the city better than most of its residents do, and I know their capacity for self-delusion. The builders of Los Angeles, the planners and financiers and agents, the architects and magnates and officials, generation after generation, have been far more dense than the cityscape itself. Though I have sympathy for the genuine urbanites who (as I long did when I lived there) hope for a genuine urbanity to take root in that city, I wouldn't recommend to them that they hold their breath waiting for it. Hold your breath for the smog, but not for the day when the movers and shakers of that naive metropolis quit screwing things up. While there have always been those Angelenos (the Don Quixotes of California) who do have some understanding of how a city really works and what it takes to make one, few of them have ever possessed any real power. From what I've seen so far of the new works being done there, this has not changed. As alluring as that picture of the renovated Cecil is, it is a mere anecdote in the long, depressing saga of Los Angeles- an ageless tale which has brought me decades of disappointment.

Despite my low expectations about the city's prospects, I would of course like to see it again. It wouldn't be like seeing and old lover I've learned to hate, but more like seeing an old nemesis I've always loved as well as hated. As infuriating as I find the place, I've always missed it. If I get the chance to go back for a visit, I surely will. However, I don't plan on staying at the Cecil. It may have changed, but the space it occupies in my mind it continues to share with that dusty crowd of its former residents, ghostly denizens who wander through my memory, trailing clouds of cigar smoke and Woolworth's perfume, and scraps of yellowed newspapers scribed with faded promises and dire tales about which no one any longer cares. And, although the hotel's present day guests might be possessed of greater financial security and more stable mind that those of the past, I just know that every time I went out the door, I'd remember, and feel compelled to glance up, just in case.

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