This is part of a series of profiles on each of our Spirit of Downtown honorees, being recognized at this year’s Celebrate Downtown event on February 25. For more information, click here.
Long before becoming a planning guru and serving as our city’s Vice Mayor under a definitive decade-long tenure, Suja Lowenthal watched her father do what no one in Madras (now known as Chennai) did: gracefully hold the hand of a man with leprosy to let that person know that though they are suffering, he will not treat them like a social leper.
“My father always helped the less visible—and this was one of the most vivid memories I had of that,” Lowenthal said. “My school was at my [Catholic] church; it was a Catholic preschool and school that was part of the church property. A lot of homeless people congregate around the church and they sleep there, including this man with leprosy… Every morning when my father would take me to school, he would not only say hello but hold his hand.”
These profound memories that were spearheaded by her father’s legacy—from becoming a leader for the poor in Madras to dedicating his entire life to public service—had driven Lowenthal’s desire to do what her father did: provide a voice for those unheard, a space for those less visible.
The life of a public servant—especially one whose life spans from one of the largest cities in India to a trek to the United States when she just 7 years old—is one that is a delicate balance between having a voice that is reasonable enough to be respected but definitive enough to evoke change.
For Lowenthal, her now signature calm demeanor, paired with eloquent and sophisticated explanations behind her reasoning for anything from a protected bike lane to a new Civic Center, is one that found its footing when she first started serving the 2nd District.
“In my very first public debate where I became angry was during the marriage equality issue,” Lowenthal said. “I felt hot, I had to take my coat off, I was feeling a genuine physical reaction. And I remember Bonnie [Lownethal, then ending her last term as 1st District Councilmember] reaching over, placing her hand over mine, and saying, ‘Do this your way.’”
And doing it “her way” is not the angered activist way, through yelling and screaming, or through some acquiescent passerby, where silence is preferred, or even just the simple tactic of being loud. For Lowenthal, the more calm she is, the more calm her audience become—and that’s where valuable work, in her eyes, gets done.
This isn’t to say that anger hadn’t influenced her. Far from it.
In fact, it was through an incensed view of their handling of city planning—to the point where she “wasn’t sure who let me down: my education or the City because I am disappointed with what I think should happen in Downtown and what I was reading in the Downtown Plan.”
Lowenthal hadn’t always eyed City Hall. Her initial plan after serving on the LBSUD School Board was to follow Alan Lowenthal’s footsteps into the Assembly. But her frustration with the City’s planning led her down a different road.
“Hearing things like, ‘Long Beach isn’t ready for this,’ or having civic leaders with this inferiority complex tell you, ‘Well, next time,’” Lowenthal said. “It was a city-wide thing. Board members of the DLBA and CVB would say the same thing: ‘Next time.’”
Lowenthal found this ideology not only inefficient but outright wasteful, leading to projects that lacked sustainability and failed to cater to the residents and stakeholders who depended on them. It resulted in lackluster projects that were destined to be demolished—rather than stellar projects that can stand the test of time—all in the name of placation because “Long Beach wasn’t ready.”
“Sometimes you have to get really angry and irate to find out the things that really move you and what you are destined to do,” Lowenthal said. “Had that not have happened, I would have taken a pass.”
Had she have taken that pass, it would be largely suspect that the city’s largest project in decades—building an entirely new Civic Center—would not be happening. And for Lowenthal—beyond the other marks she’s left on both the 2nd District and the City with her projects and initiatives—it is this particular project that holds the most weight for her.
The 1978 Civic Center, designed by a supergroup of Long Beach architects that included Edward Killingsworth and Don Gibbs, currently sits in the heart of DTLB has many issues: structural analyses deem the City Hall building subpar, many elements remain unused (like the closed-off library rooftop that was once a garden) or unwanted, and the space’s late modern/brutalist style are what some—Lowenthal included—consider the opposite of inviting. Large slabs and blocks of concrete create wind tunnels that in turn create a place devoid of activity—and once again, it brings Lowenthal back to the basic lessons she learned growing up.
“It’s the public’s living room,” Lowenthal said. “It takes me back to the quad in front of my church and school in India. What I remember about that quad was that it was a theatrical space—that function was provided by the church. Because in a dense space like Madras, you don’t have space like that—so where else are people going to congregate? Rich, not-so-rich, the homeless… They sat together and watched theatre together. That’s what the public living room is.”
Commonality and a sharing of the same experience defines a civic space for Lowenthal—and these indelible memories where she didn’t feel the need to distinguish herself from, say, a child who lived on the street, spoke volumes in her advocacy with altering our own Civic Center.
Even more, providing spaces and structures in Long Beach that last—the places like Bixby Park, the Lafayette building, the Walker and Kress buildings…—with the common respect that, despite the era, it is a part of our history and culture.
And where does the history of Gibbs and Killingsworth’s structure lie for Lowenthal?
“Planning in general should be a very emotional experience,” Lowenthal said. “If you sit a planner or an architect down and get them comfortable, all these things don’t come together because they look good on paper; someone’s emotions went behind it and they thought through it… We are in no place to make someone’s art unimportant and if I can make sure that happens, I will. The issue with something as important as the Public’s Living Room is that, unfortunately, those who tackled it did so at the wrong time and place… For the better part of the past ten years, I’ve driven in, gone to City Hall, and driven out—the only time I, a councilmember, stays is if we have an event. And that’s weird.”
Touching people’s lives through public projects has been an essential cog in the work of Lowenthal and the Civic Center is what she considers her biggest—both in heart and purpose. Going back to her first frustrations with disposable developments and pessimistic politicians, Lowenthal is comfortable that the new Civic Center will “last for a century” while altering our skyline and continuing Downtown’s upward momentum.
“We now have the public installing its footprint on the skyline,” Lowenthal said. “It’s going to be amazing—especially since money follows good public investment… I have this vision, sitting on a park bench in my senior years, looking at the Civic Center, as this old lady that will be able to look around and say, ‘Not bad.’”
Not bad indeed.