L.A.’s Down­town story

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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.





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