A City Revived
A new era dawns for Downtown Los Angeles.
Step onto Broadway in Los Angeles’ historic downtown, and it can feel as though you’re entering the hyper-reality of a big-budget film set: Steam rises cinematically from manholes, obscuring the Beaux Arts facades of former factory and office buildings. Larger-than-life murals of hometown heroes, such as the late actor Anthony Quinn, smile beatifically at pedestrians below. Neon signs peddling businesses long since closed recall a sense of film noir.
Below, a more contemporary street choreography takes hold, with distinctly urban sights and sounds separating this LA district from its more sprawling siblings: Young, hip residents walk their dogs alongside a full cast of city life, from tourists and panhandlers to construction workers on break; vendors hawk cheap deals on jewelry as city buses hiss and heave open; and crumbling shops endure alongside sleek boutiques serving an international, fashion-conscious crowd.
But even the hippest boutique cannot detract from the vintage feel of the streetscapes, with their vestiges of the movie theaters, cafeterias and luxury stores that made Downtown Los Angeles one of the most exciting places to be in the early half of the 20th century. For though Los Angeles is most likely to evoke visions of palm trees, modern mansions and beaches these days, the city’s true heart — and history — can be found in this dense and storied urban area just west of the Los Angeles River.
Indeed, for much of the city’s early life, all roads (and more than a few commuter train tracks) led to the six square miles of downtown, far from Santa Monica’s sands and Beverly Hills’ glamorous homes. It was here that the culture of Los Angeles — its emphasis on artistry, entrepreneurship and dreams rewarded — was really cemented.
And it’s here that — after decades of abandonment, poverty and degradation — a new generation of Angelenos and experimental enterprisers are flocking anew. They bring with them a distinct reverence for the old, as well as the energy and capital to raise the beleaguered district from its ashes.
The way it was
If Hollywood is where movies have always been made, Downtown Los Angeles was historically where they met their audiences. In its heyday of the 1920s and 30s, downtown was where early film luminaries were introduced, with such greats as Mary Pickford, Doug Fairbanks, John Barrymore and Charlie Chaplin all choosing to premier their films in the district. Just a decade earlier, the Marx Brothers made their LA debut on downtown vaudeville stages. Film power players such as United Artists set up their offices in this area of town.
Not only was the burgeoning entertainment industry based here, but so too was commerce, civic life and just about any job-creating industry. A complex and efficient trolley system brought secretaries, bankers, lawyers and others to work from other neighborhoods and towns into the offices throughout downtown. By the 1910s and through World War II, the area was emblematic of California’s glamour and enterprise: a place for entertainers, yes, but also eccentric restaurateurs and hoteliers who created places of leisure and whimsy.
The legendary Walt Disney himself, at the time a little-known animator and entrepreneur, allegedly took inspiration for Disneyland from a progressive downtown eatery. Known as Clifton’s Cafeteria, the fanciful establishment boasted a recreated Redwoods forest inside — complete with woodland creatures greeting incoming diners.
But in the post-war boom, as young people fled to the suburbs, the district fell prey to a decades-long decline. In 1963, cowing to the car lobby and ownership trends, the Los Angeles Railway shut down its commuter lines, excluding anyone without a car from the area. Developers sought their fortunes in nearby Culver City, Santa Monica — pretty much anywhere but downtown, which grew impoverished and dilapidated.
Over the years that followed, the homeless and drug-addicted population grew into a high-crime encampment of the truly destitute called Skid Row, right in the center of downtown. Except for a small section of skyscrapers filled with financial and law firms, there was little work to be found in the area. Downtown was dead.
“All the buildings were unoccupied above the first floor,” recalls Adele Yellin, the owner of Grand Central Market, a popular mixed-use space that brings dozens of gourmet food vendors under one roof.
Yellin is an unusual leader among today’s downtown revivalists, most immediately because of her age. A glamorous and worldly woman in her 70s, Yellin has been involved in business here since 1984, when her husband, Ira, bought the market. “He had written his thesis on cities and how you have to reinvest in your inner city,” she says, “because if you don’t, it deteriorates from the inside out and the whole city will deteriorate.”
Five years ago, Yellin inherited control of Grand Central and decided it was time for a makeover. She hired consultants to find what was new and exciting in LA’s burgeoning food scene and bring it to market — celebrating the city’s cultures and cuisines while preserving a historic landmark. On a recent busy weekday, she weaved among tourists and lunching families, exchanging greetings with each shop owner, whose businesses run the gamut from traditional produce stalls and hearty lunch counters to urban hipster havens (with wares of pour-over coffee and grass-fed beef).
Down Broadway, the market’s influence is immediately apparent, as if its freshness were a Technicolor liquid that spilled west: A riot of new galleries, boutiques and restaurants cluster within a couple of blocks, growing more interspersed with faded or empty storefronts as the blocks go on.
“Look what happened 30 years later!” says Yellin, reflecting on when she and Ira first bought the place. “I used to say: ‘We should only live so long!’ And unfortunately, Ira did not. But I am lucky enough to see it all happen and to be having a great time.”
To understand this area’s resurrection requires a look back to 1999. In that year, Los Angeles’ city council passed the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, allowing many of the historic buildings that were sitting empty, zoned exclusively for business use, and tied to preservation requirements to be converted into housing.
Tom Gilmore, a prominent real-estate developer who had previously helped transform New York City’s SoHo neighborhood from industrial to ritzy, now set his sights on building luxury lofts and revitalizing the area’s businesses. At the time, he told the Los Angeles Times Magazine of his desire to bring street life back to the city’s center: “If our plan works out, people will want to walk downtown streets again.”
A few short years later, experimental restaurants, bars and hotels began to take the risks that only real-estate developers had been taking. In 2009, high-end Italian pastry shop and restaurant Bottega Louie eschewed presumed locations such as Beverly Hills and instead chose a desolate corner of Downtown Los Angeles.
“That was the first big restaurant to come to downtown,” says Brigham Yen, a local real-estate expert and the founder of the neighborhood’s largest news blog, DTLA Rising. “They took a chance, and they became one of the most popular restaurants in the city.”
Since then, the transformation has been rapid-fire: The Varnish, a cocktail bar and speakeasy, also opened in 2009. Bäco Mercat, a cavernous restaurant with its own proprietary, Spanish-influenced sandwich, came in 2011. In 2014, the Ace Hotel — part of the hip chain that serves as the harbinger of a neighborhood’s cultural relevance — bought the United Artists office building, restoring original details as it transformed into 182 rooms, a popular restaurant and a trendy rooftop bar. Even Clifton’s Cafeteria is slated to reopen in its original location at the end of 2015.
On a recent evening, hundreds lined up for Los Angeles Film Festival screenings inside the Ace Hotel’s lobby theater — one of downtown’s original movie palaces. Inside, near the art deco bar, film posters from the 1930s offered a glimpse into the United Artist’s previous life.
“The exciting part about spending time downtown is that you are interacting with buildings that have been here for so long,” says Yen. “You walk through it, living that history, that continuity of development.”
Here, and throughout the district, the new stands proudly with the old. In fact, the newneeds the old; it references and draws energy from the area’s original identity. The most dynamic and popular places downtown respond to the needs of a changing population while maintaining what has come before. In this way, a visit to Los Angeles’ downtown is as revelatory of the city’s past as it is of its future.