L.A.’s Downtown story
Formerly deemed a ghost town, Los Angeles’s city centre is once more at the core of urban cool, with a rehabilitated arts district, a livelier-than-ever public market, and a fresh wave of buzz-worthy shops, bars, and restaurants. Things are definitely looking up in Downtown, writes Rachel Will
It’s a drive I’ve made hundreds of times before: from suburban Orange County onto the 22, to the 5, to the 101 (as we colloquially refer to the freeways in Southern California, where the prevailing car culture compels such intimacy with the roads). During high school, my boyfriend and I would often make the drive to Los Angeles to visit his cool older sister, who did printmaking for highprofile clients she referred to offhandedly as “Frank” (Frank Gehry) and “Richard” (Richard Serra). One such trip took us to the suburb of Eagle Rock, where she was looking after a stylish single-story home.
“This,” she told us while skewering vegetarian kebabs and sipping a Corona, “is a very up-and-coming neighborhood.” We nodded politely as we looked out over the freeway.
Today in sprawling L.A. it’s neighbourhoods like Angelino, Boyle, and Harvard Heights that carry the “upand-coming” title—neighbourhoods previously reserved for working-class Hispanic families and artists looking for cheap rents. The development of these outlying hoods can be widely credited to the transformation of Downtown L.A., a city centre teeming with bankers and white-collar types who would formerly flee to Westwood and Santa Monica come the end of the workday. While the area remains scruffy along the edges (around
Skid Row, for example), Downtown’s farm-to-table restaurants, whiskey bars, and renewed retail spaces are today rivaling those of traditional Los Angeles destinations such as Hollywood and the Westside—or perhaps competing in a different category entirely.
It’s been a year since I’ve been home to visit my family in California and even longer since I attended the University of Southern California. But the motions feel the same. I drive the familiar route to the apartment of my best friend in college, Jackie, who greets me with a bottle of wine and a flurry of conversation. Jackie was always the pal with the best recs for Downtown Los Angeles, and she promises more finds tonight. After finishing the wine we jump into an Uber cab and make our way across the 10 Freeway into Downtown, and watch the scenery change from the beat-up low-rise buildings of Alvarado to the high-rises of the city’s corporate centre.
Housed on the 15th and 16th floors of the Pershing Square Building, Perch epitomizes the transformation of Downtown. With its bow-tied mixologists and craft cocktails with names like The Hemingway, the bar could be in New York or Paris. But with our backs to the famous hills of the city and the randomly lit windowpanes of office buildings, giving way to an infinite southerly glow, this could only be L.A.
The next day I meet Laura Massino Smith for an architecture tour of Downtown. I’m typically not one for guided tours, but Smith comes highly recommended from my savvy grandmother, who has helped shape much of my knowledge of the city.
We rendezvous on Bunker Hill, where wealthy Angelenos once built stately Victorian mansions during the mid to late 1800s. Now, the historic corridor is lined with such modern landmarks as Frank Gehry’s sculptural Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Arata Isozaki–designed Museum of Contemporary Art, and the latticed facade of The Broad art museum, set to open next year. Smith, a scholar of architectural history, began touring people around in her van after realizing there weren’t many jobs suited to her specialized degree. I buckle up for the three-hour tour, and I can’t seem to write fast enough as we cruise along. She tells me of the Spanish explorers who founded the city in 1781. The oldest surviving buildings cluster around the site of the original village, near the touristic Mexican mercado of Olvera Street and Union Station. She also reminds me of the rise and decline of the city centre, when Downtown’s transit system at one time rivaled the rail lines of New York City—and how the freeways built after World War II enticed residents from its center to far-flung suburbs. The departure marked a flight of investment, demolition of historic buildings, and a splintering of Los Angeles’s historic core.
“I used to come down here 20 years ago when it was scary, scary. Downtown was pretty rough back then,” Smith says, referring to the grainy images seared into every American’s mind when we watched the city burn during the race riots of the 1990s.
We pass familiar Downtown fixtures: the Original Pantry Café that famously allowed patrons to “pay what they could” during the Great Depression; the cascading Bunker Hill Steps, modelled after the Spanish Steps in Rome; and the Eastern Columbia Building, a turquoise Art Deco landmark that was converted into pricey condominium lofts eight years ago (Johnny Depp owns a penthouse). Only once do we exit the car, on South Broadway, to walk around the Bradbury Building, the legacy of 19th-century mining and real estate tycoon Lewis Bradbury. The skylighted central atrium reveals five floors serviced by exposed
hand-crank elevators that move lazily up and down past ornate ironwork. “This is the most remarkable building in Downtown,” Smith says, adding that it has appeared in numerous movies over the years, including Ridley Scott’s 1982 scifi thriller Blade Runner. “It’s a pity that Bradbury never lived to see it completed.”
For lunch I drive to the Arts District, which previously housed much of L.A.’S creative community in an informal capacity—its homeless population and latent crime made for cheap rents. Developers have since bet on a neighbourhood comeback; luxury condos have already begun to spring up nearby. Wurstküche on East 3rd Street is the prevailing success story of the micro-hood, set up by businessschool dropout Tyler Wilson and his industrialdesigner cousin Joseph Pitruzzelli. Opened in 2008, back when the warehouse-lined street was mostly artist studios and a sushi bar that never carded, the restaurant sells hundreds of gourmet sausages per day and has now spawned a new outlet in Venice Beach, with another in the pipeline for Denver. Google “Pitruzzelli,” however, and get a taste of the bitter battle between the artist residents and the sausage joint that is making a little too much noise for their liking. Wurstkuchesucks. com was once a lively domain for the discussion. Neighborhood squabbles aside, the restaurant was a first-mover and major renewal force in the area.
“I always knew that there was a giant infrastructure around here, and that it was vacant and abandoned,” Pitruzzelli tells me from his light-flooded officewarehouse. “We had to have believed that something creative and interesting would emerge to have moved here.”
From Wurstküche, I wander into the newly opened Alchemy Works, which bills itself as a “gallery, retail, and events space concept.” The trendy Warby Parker sunglasses brand has a permanent outlet inside, sharing a wall with tiny espresso bar Blacktop Coffee, a joint venture between Wurstküche and the founder of cult coffee shop Handsome Coffee Roasters.
Stopping in at nearby Apolis I meet Shea Parton, a founder of the social-retailer that sources its sleek messenger bags and slightlyrugged-yet-polished jackets from Uganda, Peru, and Bangladesh. Parton looks straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue rather than a formerly derelict artists’ neighborhood.
“Joseph Pitruzzelli! Man, that guy is a legend,” he enthuses. “When he was opening the restaurant during the recession of 2008 everyone said, ‘You want to open a rare sausage and craft beer garden now? You must be crazy!’” Parton’s business partner and brother, Raan, also happens to be married to the founder of Alchemy works, Linsday Parton. It seems that everyone is connected in this part of town.
People are more open and free and creative Downtown
I chat later with Tony Esnault, the Loire Valley–born chef of Church and State, another early-mover in the Downtown dining scene. He sums up the familial feeling of the city well. “What I like about Downtown is that it’s very much like a village,” he says. “I know every business here like they are family.”
Esnault formerly helmed the basement restaurant at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Patina, where he earned a perfect four-star L.A. Times review before packing his knives for digs deeper in Downtown’s depths and a more casual genre of cuisine. I prod him about the move, his love for the local dining scene—and why he left cushy jobs as Martha Stewart’s personal chef and a position within the Alain Ducasse empire.
“People are more open and free and creative Downtown,” he says. “There’s more of an open spirit here. It should always be like that.”
I check into the Ace Hotel Downtown L.A., the last property opened by Ace Hotels founder Alex Calderwood before his untimely death last year, apparently from a drug overdose. Calderwood was a visionary in the boutique hotel industry, creating a design-driven brand of hotels in youthful, creative cities. Instead of your standard shoe-shine kit, think Pearl + Detox soap-on-a-rope and hooded French terry robes cut in boxing-ring styles. His vision dovetails effortlessly with the Downtown vibe.
Located in the theater district, the hotel inhabits the former United Artists Building, a historic landmark. Before the devastatingly chic patrons of the Ace walked its halls, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks founded the United Artists motion picture studio here. Evangelical pastors later occupied the building, leaving behind a neon Jesus Saves sign.
I’m meeting my former college roommate, Margaux, for dinner. A rap on my hotel room door tells me she has already arrived; she
was always the more prompt of us two. Margaux is a stunning brunette with catlike eyes and sculpted shoulders; even in a city filled with pseudo-models and a generally attractive population, she turns heads. She also happens to be a project engineer for the Ace Hotel’s construction team and has promised me an insider’s tour.
We catch up at the Ace’s L.A. Chapter restaurant over a meal of house-made ricotta and stuffed rabbit loin, which mostly means me listening to her meticulously explain the intersection of the hotel’s avantgarde design and her un-sexy job of making sure safety code was met. In the lobby, a furry wall installation done by the Hass Brothers—whose art adorns the first and second floors—had to be sprayed with flame retardant to pass building inspections. A lighting designer wanted to install an unsupportable installation directly above the Upstairs bar. The water heater failed during the soft-launch of the hotel, requiring an overhaul of the system in the 11th hour.
“Do you want to see the theater?” Margaux adds breathlessly, referring to the reinvigorated United Artists Theater that recently hosted the space-rock band Spiritualized. “I don’t want to make any promises, but I know there is a door that leads there from the hotel.” There appears to be some sort of raucous office party or wedding reception on the second floor, so said door is ajar for ventilation, and no one is sober enough to see two girls slip through it.
The theater is totally dark save glowing green lights near the ceiling. I am suddenly aware of the massiveness of the space as my eyes adjust. I can make out the Gaudí-esque Spanish Gothic
architecture of the space and intricate turrets, like stalactites, dripping from the vaulted ceiling. I shiver next to Margaux, not cold, just in admiration.
We finish the night at the rooftop bar beside the aptly named “spool” (spa-cum-pool.) Men flock to Margaux while I observe the patrons: bearded hipster professionals, well-dressed twentysomethings with Chanel bags, and a lot of people who look like aspiring DJS. Bored and annoyed with her male acquaintances, Margaux has one last idea up her sleeve. We return to my sixth-floor room where she noticed the fire escape open. Kicking off our spikey heels we scale the sloping roof until we are gazing at the back of the iconic Jesus Saves sign. We exhale there for a minute, feeling quite small behind the glowing proclamation.
I pay a visit to Qathryn Brehm, the executive director of Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk. The event was first formed by a few gallery owners wanting to attract attention to what was once a dilapidated area around Main and Spring streets. Now celebrating its 10th year, Art Walk’s Thursday night promenades have long been credited with the revival and celebration of the city’s art scene. “Historically, you can trace the presence of artists to any city that has been successful,” Brehm tells me. “Artists traditionally move to areas that are a little sketchy, but Los Angeles, unlike a lot of cities, does not embrace her artists.”
I mention to Brehm that I’m heading to the Grand Central Market for lunch, and she rattles off a few of her favorite stalls—at least three people have told me to try Eggslut since I have been in town. Always game for an irreverentsounding name, I seek out the stall at the edge of the market. Beyonce is blaring from the speakers and a sweating, ponytailed short-order
cook is singing along. I order the namesake “Slut”—a jam jar filled with potato purée, a soft-boiled egg, and chives is my reward for the hour-long wait. “Make sure you stir the slut up good,” the cook says with a perfectly straight face when he hands me my order.
I spread the concoction on a crostini and indulge in what makes this former food truck a staple of the market. But it’s not the only bustling stand. Around me is the first outpost of sustainable butcher Belcampo Meat Co. outside of Northern California, along with a Salvadorian pupusería and legacy tenants selling Mexican chilies and spices.
I meet Chris Farber, the business developer behind the space and a longtime friend of the Yellins, a pioneering Downtown L.A. couple with hands in real estate development and historic preservation. Ira Yellin passed away in 2003, leaving his widow Adele to carry out his vision of a vibrant downtown core through the Grand Central Market. Originally opened in 1917, the market has seen a few iterations before becoming the 2,800-square-meter celebration of modern L.A. cuisine it is today. About two years ago, Adele saw that Downtown had begun to shift and was finally ready to initiate her husband’s dream project in the famously divergent city.
“It can’t be said how ahead of the times Ira was. People ridiculed him at the time,” Farber says. “Ira and Adele think of the market as having civic responsibility to gather and share ideas and make patrons rub shoulders in a way that is very rare in L.A. They believe human interaction is key to the core of a downtown. If it is vital, the city will be vital. If it’s not, then the city will fragment and fracture.”
Farber walks me around the market, radiating pride. I try to get him to divulge his favorite stall, and he eventually mentions nearly all of his 30plus vendors, like a parent refusing to name his favorite child.
I start my day with a run I’ve done hundreds of times before: Figueroa to 2nd to Bunker Hill, the only elevation in the city. At the summit, I notice a set of stairs at the back of the Walt Disney Concert Hall that I’ve never climbed before and stumble upon a lovely urban garden, centered on a rose-shaped fountain covered with shards of Royal Delft porcelain. An inscription tells me this was Frank Gehry’s tribute to the late Lillian Disney, who donated US$50 million toward the construction of the performing arts space.
I stop to look out at the freeway, the defining veins of the city, and think of all the people— the Yellins, the Disneys, the gourmet sausage makers, the hip hoteliers—whose different visions have helped shape Downtown. I think of all the people and wonder if sprawling Los Angeles has finally found itself again within its historic core.
THE OUTDOOR TERRACE AT PERCH, A ROOFTOP BISTRO AND BAR WITH UNOBSTRUCTED VIEWS OF DOWNTOWN. OPPOSITE , FROM LEFT: LUNCH CROWDS AT THE ACE’S L.A. CHAPTHER RESTAURANT; ONE OF THE HOTEL’S GUEST ROOMS
FROM LEFT: THE REVAMPED UNITED ARTISTS THEATRE, NOW PART OF THE ACE HOTEL DOWNTOWN L.A.; THE ACE’S RECEPTION AREA. OPPOSITE , CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: CHEF TONY ESNAULT AT CHURCH AND STATE; THE BISTRO’S INDUSTRIAL STREET LOCATION; THE CHARCUTERIE PLATE AT...
FROM LEFT: SHEA AND RAAN PARTON OUTSIDE SOCIAL RETAILER APOLIS; GOODS AT THE SAME SHOP; THE VIEW FROM INSIDE, LOOKING OUT OF APOLIS. OPPOSITE PAGE: THE EGGSLUT COUNTER AT GRAND CENTRAL MARKET; EGGSLUT’S NAMESAKE DISH “SLUT”
FROM LEFT: THE UNITED ARTISTS BUILDING, BUILT IN 1927 FOR THE RENEGADE FILM STUDIO COFOUNDED BY CHARLIE CHAPLIN AND MARY PICKFORD, NOW HOUSES L.A.’S ACE HOTEL; THE WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL