There is something about the dynamics of the unstoppable force meeting the still object in the story of Eli Broad and Los Angeles. As a young man, Eli came to Los Angeles full of conviction, ambition and certainty, and arrived in a place that was known – yesterday and today – to resist leadership.
Broad would have been a leader wherever he landed. He was strong and visionary. He founded not one, but two hugely successful businesses, both determined to give baby boomers what they needed as they grew older: their first home, then insurance and retirement services. But he was attracted to the opportunity, and he was the head of a homebuilding company that thrived on urban sprawl. Where else than LA?
If Los Angeles matched his business ambitions, however, it called into question his emerging sense of leadership and power. He wanted to be big, and Los Angeles, unlike San Francisco, treats its leaders with suspicion. In today’s California, a former San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom, presides over as governor, a position no Los Angeles mayor has ever held. Last week, former San Francisco District Attorney and now Vice President Kamala Harris sat next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the place of honor behind President Biden as he sat down was addressing Congress for the first time. It was widely noted that this was the first time that two women had occupied these seats; it was also a showcase for San Francisco – not for Los Angeles.
Broad did not accept that Los Angeles could not be ruled. This was most evident when the 1992 riots that followed the state’s Rodney King verdicts drained Los Angeles of its self-confidence. In the fear and anger exhibited by the riots, it seemed plausible that Los Angeles was doomed to collapse. Time magazine wondered aloud if Los Angeles was “going to hell.”
Broad had supported his friend Richard Riordan for mayor, and Riordan’s election in 1993 was based on the idea of transforming Los Angeles. Once in office, Riordan asked Broad to lead what would become the most symbolically significant effort in this work: the completion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Until then, Disney Hall was a garage without a building at the top, a failed project and a symbol of the city’s inability to get things done.
Joined by less advertised but equally important Andrea Van de Kamp, Broad set out to prove the project could be done. He trained the city’s billionaire class in the business of supporting downtown and Los Angeles itself. When he was done, the city had its tallest building. Most importantly, he had regained the confidence that great things could actually be accomplished here. Frank Gehry’s masterpiece is also a monument to Broad’s determination to make Los Angeles work again.
This was not the start of Broad’s place in civic life – he had supported Mayor Tom Bradley and Senator Alan Cranston, among other leaders; helped found the Museum of Contemporary Art, among other institutions – but it catapulted him into the head of the city’s reinvigorated business and philanthropic community.
He championed cultural tourism and steered the city’s museums towards this idea, making a strategic donation and using his own collection as a lure. He worried about the effects of a poorly performing school system and believed charter schools were an important tool for improvement, so he supported their supporters in the ballot and in their ground game. He worried about the endless changes in ownership and leadership at the Los Angeles Times, a topic we’ve discussed dozens of times.
A city that resists leadership surely must have had issues with Broad, and he had a lot of criticism. He could be abrupt – it seemed like his natural state at times, despite his easy, often photographed smile. The teachers’ unions were suspicious of him and some of his benefactors resented the conditions he attached to donations. The criticism was ridiculous at times – Broad never forced anyone to accept their money – but power draws resentment, and Broad attracted its share.
It didn’t seem to bother him. I once asked him what his response was to those who perhaps did not share his taste for architecture, for example, since he consciously tried to impose his sensitivity on buildings in the city. He looked puzzled.
“I haven’t heard a lot of people complain about the contemporary downtown architecture yet, whether it’s our museum, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the cathedral, etc.,” he told me. in 2017. “It is the art of our time. I mean, if people want to have a colonial house or something, that’s fine.
He plowed forward, giving, demanding, building. It was this last idea, of himself as a builder, that he seemed to enjoy the most. And today’s Los Angeles, from its schools to its political leaders to its skyline, reflects Broad’s grand construction project.
The defining figures of the past 30 years in Los Angeles have made different contributions. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher was a wise and soft-spoken adviser in the wake of the King’s Troubles; State Senator María Elena Durazo was and still is a powerful organizer of workers and immigrants; Father Greg Boyle is a generous spiritual force.
There is no ranking of such people – this town owes each of them – but Broad was in a class of its own. In his case, the unstoppable force pushed the immovable object and the object moved. We’re better at it.
Jim Newton, former editor of the Times editorial page, now edits Blueprint magazine at UCLA. His most recent book is “The Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown”.