City of angels without a heart: building plan aims to give Los Angeles a cultural focus

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When Sir Peter Hall travelled to Los Angeles a few years ago to direct a Shakespeare season, he quickly realised his biggest challenge was not the difficulty of the texts he was presenting, so much as persuading Angelenos to make the journey to a distinctly unfashionable part of the city – its downtown heart. "The people in Hollywood and Beverly Hills don't like going down there," Sir Peter said. "They'd rather go to New York."

In the intervening years, the city has made – literally – monumental efforts to heighten downtown's appeal and give it a life beyond the high-rise office blocks that fall mostly silent after five or six o'clock in the evening.

First came a brand-new sports arena and convention hall called the Staples Centre, now home to the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Then, in 2003, Frank Gehry's shimmering metallic Disney Hall put a distinctive mark on the landscape and gave the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra a permanent home.

Now comes the most ambitious project of all – a multi-year development scheme encompassing hotels, condominiums, cinemas, restaurants, a bowling alley, a museum charting the history of the Grammys, the music industry's top awards, and a 7,000-seat concert venue, all of it intended to create the feel of New York's Times Square, only on the west coast.

Two years into construction, the first piece of the project, the concert hall, is opening next week, with about the biggest audience draw its promoters could think up: a double bill made up of the Eagles, who are about to release their first new album of original material in 28 years, and the Dixie Chicks, the darlings of this year's Grammys.

The Nokia Theatre, as it is called, will keep the big names rolling until Christmas and beyond – Neil Young, Mary J Blige, the former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty, and on and on.

The project, known as LA Live, is the brainchild of Philip Anschutz, the reclusive Colorado-based billionaire who also took on London's Millennium Dome, and his AEG entertainment group. It is perhaps appropriate for a city as restless and peripatetic as Los Angeles that an out-of-towner should be making such a big push for its civic improvement.

But the project has also been enthusiastically embraced by the Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who understands only too well that LA's claim to be a world city will always be compromised as long as it feels empty and soulless at its very heart.

Downtown is where the city began and it remains the heart of LA's business activity. But, with the arrival of the movie business in 1915, the focus of the city started to shift westwards, first to Hollywood and then, with the arrival of the freeways and a big influx of Jewish refugees who were not welcome at the WASPy downtown country clubs and business associations, further out towards the Pacific.

For the past half-century, LA has been a famously decentred metropolis. Downtown turned into an awkward mix of high-rise office blocks, industrial warehouses, shabby older buildings that housed jewellery businesses and clothing sweatshops, and a sizeable area given over to flophouses, missions and the homeless. Some streets, like Broadway, felt more like Mexico City than LA, with their Mexican street vendors, crumbling art deco palaces and taco stands.

The entertainment on offer exists in spite of its surroundings, not because of it. Concert and opera-goers dutifully trekked to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion – a regular home for the Oscars – and baseball fans headed to Dodger Stadium, just north of downtown, dreading the traffic they would encounter along the way. (Downtown's circle of freeways acts as a glorified roundabout for much of the rest of the city.)

Much has improved over the past decade, however. History buffs and hardcore tourists have always known downtown to be a treasure trove of unusual and beautiful buildings, like the gloriously over-decorated Mayan Theatre, an exercise in sham Mexican folklore, or the Bradbury Building, a masterpiece of urban design that was prominently used in the movie Blade Runner.

Downtown's very shabbiness has played to its advantage, too. Many of the old warehouses and factories have been converted into artists' lofts. Last weekend, an old brewery on the eastern end of downtown held its biannual art show – a magnificent showcase of new talent in an intriguing rabbit warren of a venue.

Just like Times Square, LA Live has its critics who fear it will be too brash, too commercial, too out of synch with its surroundings and the history of the area. LA is nothing, though, if not a city that thrives on surface appeal.

If the Eagles and the Dixie Chicks don't make them exactly enthusiastic about getting into their cars and on to the freeways, then here's an even surer sign that downtown is on the up-and-up: it has just seen the opening of its first big supermarket in more than half a century.