The dream factory

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The Independent Culture
Think of Los Angeles and inevitably you construct a giant movie set in your mind. The very names of the districts that make up the sprawling metropolis - Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Burbank, Pasadena - are so steeped in film lore that you half-expect them to be facades, buildings that are really just hardboard slats propped up from behind by wooden beams and snaking lines of black cable.

Mostly you will think of Los Angeles playing its favourite role, itself. The tight bends and oppressive mansions of Sunset Boulevard that even in real life seem to have been directed by Billy Wilder; the view over the city at dusk from Mulholland Drive that served as Robert De Niro's living-room vista in the slick cops-and-robbers thriller Heat; or Santa Monica Pier, the Hitchcockian end of the line for any half-decent chase scene - these are the settings that have fuelled LA's sense of flawed glamour for decades.

But they tell only the most visible portion of the story. The most intensely filmed part of Los Angeles is actually the least recognisable and, arguably, the least glamorous: downtown.

To a location manager, the dark, dense and relentlessly dingy old heart of the city does not look like Los Angeles at all - at least, not the re-imagined movie version. Its great advantage, though, is that it can be made to look like just about anywhere else. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia - you name it, downtown LA has stood in for it, combining a feel for period authenticity with the benefits of reliable weather and proximity to the big movie studios.

When the makers of Armageddon, last summer's disaster spectacular, wanted to depict cosmic doom on a busy traffic intersection in New York, they knew they would never be allowed to cordon off a chunk of Manhattan and blow up several hundred cars in broad daylight. So they did it at 4th and Main Street - a near-derelict corner of Skid Row with just enough surviving chunks of turn-of-the-century high-rise architecture to look convincing.

Downtown LA is good at providing such slivers of ersatz authenticity. It has art-deco buildings, beaux-arts buildings, street markets, skyscrapers, warehouses, vacant lots and disused railroad tracks. It has the gleam of a thriving business district at one end and the body-odour stench of flophouses at the other. As the LA Times columnist Patti Morrison wrote recently: "It is a testament to our wonderfully hodgepodge architecture that these few square miles can masquerade as anyplace else ... every angle a different city, a different era."

The Pacific Electric building on 6th and Main - vacated by its last tenant in 1989 - has turned into little short of a mini-studio, including a detective office built for the thriller Seven and later modified for L.A. Confidential; a mock-New York apartment used in Grace of My Heart; a chemistry lab featured in the talking-parrot film Paulie; a children's bedroom constructed for a pilot television series; and a much-exploited basement restaurant called Cole's.

Overall, downtown accounts for more than a third of all shooting locations in Los Angeles. Many of its buildings only survive thanks to the revenue generated by film permits. In fact, there are grounds for believing that the much-trumpeted revival of downtown never materialised because the film industry - no insignificant player in Los Angeles politics - prefers it the way it is.

In a sense, it was the film industry that destroyed downtown to start with. It was the wild success of Hollywood that fuelled the massive postwar expansion of Los Angeles. Urban sprawl, in turn, created such a diffuse web of suburban settlements and roadways that the centre could not hold. The defiantly WASP-ish downtown establishment, which initially spurned the film industry because it was too full of Jews and foreigners, found itself eclipsed by the new wealth of Hollywood and the West Side.

When Angelenos think of downtown, they like to use a film reference of their own, Blade Runner. Ridley Scott's hellish sci-fi parable refashioned the venerable architecture of downtown, notably the Bradbury Building on Broadway and 3rd, into a striking dystopian vision of the future that many local wags suspect may foreshadow Los Angeles' own.

Perversely, the City of Angels may be flattering itself. Scott initially wanted to shoot his film in New York, and only switched to LA on cost grounds. The change is telling, since Blade Runner's vision of the future is far too dense and urban to be fully convincing in LA. The real dystopian hell of Los Angeles is not downtown at all, but rather the faceless, endlessly expanding suburbs that are destroying what is left of southern California's natural beauty and eroding any city-wide civic sense.

Downtown may be dingy, but at least it has character. It will never hurt anybody. After all, who could be afraid of a glorified movie set?