By Mike Piellucci
INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The great sporting arenas of Inglewood's past are now officially defunct. The Fabulous Forum and Hollywood Park Racetrack were once the city's beacons, iconic venues for basketball, hockey and horse racing that made an otherwise anonymous town the mecca for professional sports in Southern California. Now, following the December closure of Hollywood Park and the January re-launching of the Forum as a music venue, Inglewood faces life without pro sports for the first time in 75 years.
It has been a quarter-century since the Forum hosted a championship team, 15 years since the Lakers and Kings decamped from Inglewood for the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, leaving the Forum in a sort of purgatory. It remained in use as a mega-church sometimes, as a concert hall or filming location other times, with a host of other short-term bookings in between. In the bigger picture, it was purposeless, a full-time monument to the idea that Inglewood's viability as a city left along with its sports franchises.
That changed on Jan. 15, when the Forum emerged from a $100 million renovation as the largest indoor performance venue in the country, already earning praise from big-time acts like Justin Timberlake and the Eagles. Over the next several years, it will be joined in stages by the Hollywood Park Tomorrow project, a commercial development that includes housing, retail stores and a movie theater. Together, they are the would-be center of Inglewood's rebirth as a destination town.
James T. Butts Jr., the city's 60-year-old mayor, is the man shepherding these initiatives. On the day before the Forum's re-opening, he gave the gathered media and distinguished guests a sobering review of the conditions he inherited upon being elected in 2011. He told them about the unadjusted water rates, the $18.6 million structural deficit, the slashing and burning of the city's financial reserves -- all so they could understand the desolation he intends to pull Inglewood out from under.
"This project, and the Hollywood Park project next door, are the genesis of the new Inglewood," Butts declared. These two buildings will help him revive the city without ever having to host another sporting event. To save its future, Inglewood, a city built by sports, has divorced itself from them.
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Unless you live in the greater Los Angeles area, chances are you've never been to Inglewood, a suburb of just over 100,000, located about 10 minutes from Los Angeles International Airport. But you've probably heard of it, for one of two reasons.
The first is West Coast rap, which counts Inglewood as one of its birthplaces, alongside Compton, South Central and Long Beach. Like those other towns, Inglewood has a penchant for crime, with a seemingly flame-retardant gang problem, and a poverty level of 20 percent, well above the national average. There is reason for the defining Inglewood lyric, from Dr. Dre and 2Pac's "California Love": Inglewood, Inglewood, always up to no good.
As is often the case with popular culture, though, some hyperbole is involved, and a quick survey of the area surrounding the Forum and Hollywood Park reveals as much. To drive down Century Blvd., Hollywood Park's southern-most border, is to be subjected to the usual starter kit of suburban retail chains -- Home Depot, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Michael's -- while nearby Crenshaw Blvd. is lined with leafy trees and modest homes, revealing that the real Inglewood is mostly a quiet, working-class town. Take Manchester past Kareem Ct., on the Forum's northeast corner, and there's a pair of gated communities, filled with upscale condominiums.
Yet there are also streets like Prairie Ave., the western border for both venues, that give credence to the image of a rundown Inglewood, with its pockmarked roads, dilapidated apartment buildings and MSG-soaked Chinese joints. Prairie Ave. is the reason that a cluster of racetrack old timers mention a friend who worked security at Hollywood Park, carrying a pistol in his jacket for the walk back to his car after the last race of the night. Sue Greene, president of the California Thoroughbred Association and a frequenter of Hollywood Park for more than four decades, calls that same walk "frightening."
"It's not a warm and fuzzy place to go," she says. "It's just a really tough neighborhood."
Real or imagined, Inglewood at night connotes danger, and the music helps that concept germinate, even if the music is more likely to fetishize the violence than document it. Even as crime rates decline across the board, the idea of Inglewood as a lawless place trades on itself, informing the larger consciousness. No one ever got rich from dropping West Covina in the hook, after all.
Which made the second reason you've heard of Inglewood -- sports -- all the more important. The same city immortalized in rhyme was also where the Showtime Lakers and Wayne Gretzky plied their trades. Inglewood has six NBA championships to its name, on top of hosting a Stanley Cup and countless important horse races. "They represented the pride and soul of the city," Butts says, "and those two buildings were the economic engine for the city."
Until they weren't, that is. The racetrack may have only just closed its doors, but it was economically finished sometime before that. Its live gate was shriveled by simulcast wagering in the early '90s, and its amenities were emaciated by underfunded maintenance. When the Lakers and Kings left town in 1999, it dealt two seismic blows that Inglewood is only now beginning to recover from.
"First of all, there was the obvious economic impact of the cars and people that flowed into the city that spend money, and the ticket taxes and the parking taxes that came from the cars being parked," Butts says. "But much more significant than that, it basically took the city's identity away. That's what we were known for. So in addition to the crushing economic impact, there was the loss of community pride."
Butts has lived and breathed Inglewood long enough to understand both periods. Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, it is easy to imagine him as the police chief he once was, though his facial features make him a dead ringer for CBS Sports' James Brown. He joined the city's police force in 1972 and worked Lakers games for almost two decades, eventually graduating to floor duty as a sergeant during the team's later championships. When he accepted a position to become Santa Monica's chief of police in 1991, it came during what he terms the city's "zenith," three years after its last Laker title and one before the LA Riots.
Twenty years later, Butts returned as mayor to face the full brunt of its infrastructural decay. He calls it his "Wizard of Oz moment" -- as in, "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." There was no way for him to bring Inglewood back home to what it was, not with the track bleeding out and LA's pro franchises rooted to long-term leases in better venues. So Butts, who has an MBA, instead chose to view sports not as an irreplaceable commodity, but as a replicable equation: Revenue equals entertainment plus traffic.
"Entertainment is the issue," Butts says. "It's not that it's just music, it's not that it's just sports. For any city, you need to draw people and cars to your town, because they spend money while they're here." To do that, he needed what he terms an "entertainment anchor," something unique to entice those people and cars back to Inglewood. So he took the very sports shrines that failed them before and moved them in the opposite direction, collaborating with the Madison Square Garden Company to purchase the Forum from Faithful Central Bible Church, who originally bought the property in 2000, and laying the initial groundwork for the Hollywood Park Tomorrow project.
The anticipated economic impact -- tens of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in revenue -- derives from a one-two punch: The Forum draws people into the city, and Hollywood Park Tomorrow keeps them here.
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Watching any sport can be a solitary experience, but horse racing is perhaps the loneliest one of all. Witness the old Hollywood Park on a gray-streaked Friday morning, two days before its final race. Hardly any of the small crowd scattered across the building travels in packs. There are clusters of two or three, and the occasional clump of four, but by far the most prevalent sight is a solitary figure, usually male, hunched over a table combing through research materials, his hair either streaked with gray or shocked totally white. What passes for interaction among them is the ritualized shouting at a row of televisions for some horse running in some far-flung place. When the national anthem is sung a little before noon, a segment of those on the ground level don't even bother to stand, their eyes instead transfixed on their dirt sheets in studied desperation. The handful of cheers from those paying attention to the early live races are easily discerned, as though they were taking place in a half-full high school gym.
At the track's lowest, it would coax little more than a thousand people to a venue 45 times that large, only to greet them with asphalt speckled with stamped-out cigarette butts, empty thimbles of coffee creamer and hallways half-lit with busted filaments. An audience of more than 13,000 showed up to see its last race, the highest attendance in three years but still a pittance compared to the glory days of four decades ago, when movie stars dotted the concourse and a stand of flamingos elicited an air of glamour. Still, it was a relatively happy ending for a story with too many nondescript chapters, when the crowds were empty and parts of the building cordoned off, almost tomb-like in their silence.
In the end, Greene, who felt the grandstand rumble and sway during the inaugural running of the Breeder's Cup in 1984, couldn't bring herself to go back and say goodbye. Decay had stripped too much dignity away from one of horse racing's crown jewels. "It was like watching a dear old relative being put in a home," she says.
Ever since studio head Jack Warner founded the track in 1938, it was always as much about spectacle as substance, and investors like Walt Disney, Bing Crosby and Al Jolson were recruited with image in mind as well as capital. Gambling was preordained, and eventually Hollywood Park pioneered now-ubiquitous bets like the Exacta and Pick 6 before opening the country's first racetrack-based casino in 1994. Such is the state of horse racing that these will be the venue's most pervasive legacy in the sport, instead of, say, Seabiscuit's win in the inaugural Gold Cup.
Hollywood Park struggled with modernizing competitors, like Santa Anita and Del Mar, operating far away from Inglewood's stigma. "I think it goes back to that old phrase: location, location, location," Greene says. "Santa Anita is in a nice place in town, and Del Mar is in a beautiful location, so it attracts a different genre of people. They got the picture, and that picture is [that] we can't continue to cater to a generation of older gamblers who are dying off, without making way for newer audiences to come in."
Though just a niche business, the adjacent casino is far livelier and densely populated than the track, and its patrons come across as comparably sentient, if not downright happy, amid the hollow clinking of casino chips. Instead of bolstering the live gate, the casino has had the opposite effect, siphoning more people and cars -- more potential consumers -- away from the place it was intended to save. Racetrack gambling, the very thing that Hollywood Park pioneered, was the parasite that killed it off. It is only fitting, then, that Hollywood Park Casino will outlast the track itself, settling into life alongside the new real estate development.
"The casino is a tasty side order," Butts says. "What the casino does, that kind of finishes it off for people who say, I don't have to go to Vegas to gamble. There's all these things to do in Inglewood. Instead of going to Gardena or The Bicycle Club or Compton, let me go to Inglewood."
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From the outside, hardly anything appears fabulous about the Forum's re-launch.
It is timeless, certainly. The film reel-shaped building looks as distinguished as ever, with its trademark accordion of narrow pillars wrapped around a circular band of stop-sign red (now re-branded as "Forum Red") and a restored marquee sitting off of Prairie Ave. If the aim was to make the building feel every bit as important as it was on the day it was first built, in 1967, then the visuals have done their job. But nothing at first blush suggests that this is the country's best concert venue, as Butts boasts to the assembled crowd during its unveiling, nor is anything immediately evident that he could, in fact, be right.
That work is done on the interior, with a degree of plush with which Inglewood has been unacquainted for quite some time. Hardly any of the amenities housed inside are necessary, strictly speaking. There is no need for 10,000 feet of sky deck, or for a one-of-a-kind LED light system that blinks and gleams like a web of constellations, or for a VIP area so lavish that only Caesar's Palace will suffice for a sponsor, or for a dream menu of LA cuisine as snack fare. A great concert hall, even a world-class one, doesn't require an enormous floating stage, never mind one so impressive that audience members literally passed out, according to Butts, when Timberlake used it.
And yet, there's an argument to be made that all these superfluities ultimately are essential. Few cities boast more entertainment options than Los Angeles, and fewer still more quality venues for artists to perform. Having hosted musicians across five different decades, the Forum has plenty of historical cachet; it is a legitimately awesome experience to peruse the loading dock walls and see the names of nearly every important act since LBJ. But Inglewood is too well acquainted with how little history can afford on its own -- lest we forget, one of the most decorated championship sports towns in America is now bereft of actual sports -- for that to be its main selling point. Even standing out is insufficient, when a venue is pitted against international tourist destinations in its own backyard. The Forum could not simply be impressive, or even resplendent, for people to take the bait and return to Inglewood. It had to be spectacle unlike anything even Los Angeles had ever seen.
For Butts, the building's greatest early success has little to do with music. The night before his opening address, the Forum hosted a private function for pancreatic cancer research, the kind of event that solicits six- and seven-figure donations. He indulged the crowd with information they already knew: This is the kind of event fit for a ritzy ballroom in Beverly Hills or an oceanfront hotel in Santa Monica. Instead, white-collar socialites took their checkbooks to Inglewood, at night, to hear the Eagles preview their opening night set. Inglewood, recently struggling to pay its bills, helped raise nearly $12.5 million for charity.
The new, sports-secular Forum already has given the city more than sports has in years. The early concerts have been packed, and during one of the Eagles' sets, Glenn Frey felt compelled to tout the building as a game-changing force in the music industry. "It's going to become the premier large venue (in North America)," he said. "It's about the only face lift I care for in Hollywood."
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The party line in Inglewood is that sports are never off the table. The racetrack may be gone, but the Forum's renovation means that a first-rate basketball or hockey arena with a 17,500-seat capacity is just one floor change away. "Any place that was the home of champions, you'll always be remembered for the sports championships that you had," Butts says. "The reality is, because you had the reputation and history, that always leaves the door open for sports to come back, particularly when you have something of this caliber in your city."
MSG Co. will handle the Forum's bookings, and boxing is already in the offing, with Bob Arum keen to dip his fetid beak into the Forum's newly inviting waters. Yet there is a difference between a town that hosts sporting events and a sports town. It is one thing to break sports down to an economic formula -- revenue equals entertainment plus traffic -- and something entirely different for a town to feel sports in its very soul, the way Inglewood once did. It is science versus religion, fact versus dogma. Sports can't break your city's spirit, or its economy, when you only keep them on retainer. Meanwhile, Butts' plan is making steady and unyielding progress. Property values are appreciating, and the next wave of development is being lined up. An abandoned hospital site is being targeted for million-dollar homes, and proposals have been requested for a $100 million-plus upgrade of the city's Market Street neighborhood. It all stems from that one-two punch, the revamped Forum and Hollywood Park Tomorrow, even before ground is broken on the latter.
There is maybe one thing that can radically alter that plan: the NFL. It is LA's brass ring as well as its biggest turf war; everyone wants professional football back in the Southland, but no one agrees on which city deserves to harbor it. Inglewood is no exception, and Butts lays out its case: the weather, the proximity to four major freeways and the airport, the rehabilitated infrastructure. A new stadium could be built on some of the Hollywood Park Tomorrow acreage, a move that would likely scrap the plans for housing, but one that Butts says would be well worth it. Inglewood could have its cake and eat it, too, regaining all the perks it once enjoyed as a sports town without the same dependence and vulnerability. Inglewood, he says, does not need sports this time around, even though he wouldn't say no to them. "I believe our anchor for success has been laid, but it's a matter of degree," he says. "You're talking about doing very well, as opposed to doing explosively well."
He's been in contact with NFL teams, though for obvious reasons he won't say which ones. Perhaps one of them is the St. Louis Rams and their owner Stan Kroenke, who conspicuously purchased a 60-acre lot next to Hollywood Park in late January. Or maybe that move is just a leverage ploy to negotiate a new stadium in the team's current city, a scenario LA has repeatedly found itself in ever since the Rams and Raiders skipped town together in 1995.
For a moment, Butts lets himself imagine the possibilities. Not too long ago, it was a dream just to balance the city's books. Three years later, he can ponder what would happen if Inglewood became a sports town again. "It may end up being the Miami Beach of the West Coast or something," he decides, smiling at the thought. "That's the degree."
Then he drifts out of his reverie, just as quickly as he'd lapsed into it. "But we're doing just fine," he says. "We're going to be fine."
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas, based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeLikesSports.