Sound, Space, and the City: Civic Performance in Downtown Los Angeles

Sound, Space, and the City: Civic Performance in Downtown Los Angeles

Sound, Space, and the City: Civic Performance in Downtown Los Angeles

Sound, Space, and the City: Civic Performance in Downtown Los Angeles


On summer nights on downtown Los Angeles's Bunker Hill, Grand Performances presents free public concerts for the people of the city. A hip hop orchestra, a mariachi musician, an Afropop singer, and a Chinese modern dance company are just a few examples of the eclectic range of artists employed to reflect the diversity of LA itself. At these concerts, shared experiences of listening and dancing to the music become sites for the recognition of some of the general aspirations for the performances, for Los Angeles, and for contemporary public life.

In Sound, Space, and the City, Marina Peterson explores the processes--from urban renewal to the performance of ethnicity and the experiences of audiences--through which civic space is created at downtown performances. Along with archival materials on urban planning and policy, Peterson draws extensively on her own participation with Grand Performances, ranging from working in an information booth answering questions about the artists and the venue, to observing concerts and concert-goers as an audience member, to performing onstage herself as a cellist with the daKAH Hip Hop orchestra. The book offers an exploration of intersecting concerns of urban residents and scholars today that include social relations and diversity, public space and civic life, privatization and suburbanization and economic and cultural globalization.

At a moment when cities around the world are undertaking similar efforts to revitalize their centers, Sound, Space, and the City conveys the underlying tensions of such projects and their relevance for understanding urban futures.


I went to Los Angeles to see what happened in a city that did not take its centrality for granted. As my knowledge of Los Angeles at that time was acquired through the literature on the postmodern city and its features of sprawl and decentralization (Davis 1992; Dear 1986, 2000; Jencks 1993; Soja 1989, 1996), I had not expected to find a public concert presenter downtown. I was aware of Grand Performances and was in contact with its staff through the music programmer at the Chicago Cultural Center, where I had conducted research and performed (Peterson 2002). Inscribing a process of center-making, Chicago stands as a model for Angelenos invested in making downtown a center for the city in order to make L.A. a “real” city. With a park on the downtown lakefront and a radial organization of streets and neighborhoods, Chicago exemplifies “city” as defined by an urban form of centrality reified by the Chicago School of sociology (Park and Burgess 1925). Though naturalized as “urban,” Chicago’s centrality is continually made, from the initial implementation of the Burnham plan to the recent creation of Millennium Park.

Similarities between Grand Performances and the Chicago Cultural Center were apparent immediately. On the same world music circuit, they also share the primary intention of drawing audiences of diverse residents of their respective cities. Moreover, each of their downtown locations allows them to conceive of their own position as neutral. the differences between the two lie in their conceptions of the surrounding city, of the imagined “cityness” of their respective homes, and their institutional status as public concert presenters. in Chicago, supported by the city, free concerts are unquestioned by the presenters, described simply as “what we do.” in Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization in a corporate plaza must consistently assert the significance of its work. Thus, though the existence of a downtown public concert presenter surprised me, its position in a neoliberal economy of privatization resulted in an institution that did not take itself . . .

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