Downtown Los Angeles goes from bleak to chic

Since The Broad Museum, foreground, opened in downtown Los Angeles, lengthy lines to gain admission (free) have been the norm. Beside it is the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Since The Broad Museum, foreground, opened in downtown Los Angeles, lengthy lines to gain admission (free) have been the norm. Beside it is the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Associated Press

Not even noon, on a weekday no less, and the line for entrance to The Broad is long and lemming-like. It takes up a good two blocks, formidable city blocks, in a town not known for pedestrian traffic. Black-clad, whippet-thin museum workers try mightily to corral this docile yet teeming mass of art-loving humanity, directing the herd northward. It wraps around Grand Avenue, snakes clear down Second Street, then doglegs left onto Hope Street. Finally, mercifully, the queue peters out at the last entrance to an underground parking garage.

Wait time to gain admission? Two hours, maybe three. Who knows? Who cares?

The Broad is new and shiny, the latest jewel in downtown Los Angeles’ undeniable revitalization, so people gladly wait with an intensity once seen only in Depression bread lines. Across Second, the sun glints off the metallic wings of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which looks as if it might levitate and soar off, but few seem to notice. Heads are lowered, not in supplication but at their hand-held screens, a few retro outliers opting to read from text imprinted on emulsified wood pulp. They have brought provisions, too, bulgogi beef from a nearby Korean food truck, boba tea from a joint on Hope, kosher hot dogs sprouting sauerkraut from a street vendor whose jaunty wool driver’s cap seems pilfered from studio wardrobe.

Every few minutes, incremental progress can be detected. The line shuffles forward, sometimes gaining a giant leap of a whole yard, prompting people to look up and, good Lord, actually make eye contact with fellow would-be museum-goers.

“I knew it would be a long line,” says Echo Yang, from the Orange County ’burb of Brea. “But not this big. I’ve been planning this since September, since it opened. They said there’s always a line.”

No line, by the way, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, diagonally across Grand, where Warhol and Rothko, Rauschenberg and Pollock await. But MOCA is old news, so last century. Got to genuflect at the ever-changing altar of the new, this latest gift (yes, free admission!) to the city by Eli Broad, real estate developer and philanthropist, that features Warhol and Koons, Rauschenburg and Basquiat – essentially the same lineup of modern-art icons as at MOCA. Got to literally rub shoulders with The Broad’s perforated white carapace, flippantly dubbed by architecture critics a “supersized cheese grater” (London Guardian) and a “distorted waffle” (London Independent) with the “color and texture of gefilte fish” (New York Times). Got to, you know, make the scene.

“Well, it is new and all,” says Tiana Griego, a Hollywood resident who, with devout patience, had gutted it out to the upper third of the line with friend Jesus Soria. “Everybody’s gonna check it out.”

Visiting The Broad, which opened in late September, wouldn’t be worth it, the sentiment runs, if you could just walk right in. Where’s the exclusivity in that? Where’s the buzz, the social cachet?

These days, nothing bolsters a person’s trend-seeking, social-influencing bona fides like hanging in downtown Los Angeles. This would’ve been a ludicrous, not to mention dangerous, proposition even into the early 2000s. But downtown’s population has swelled from 26,000 in the 2000 census to 52,000 as of 2014. Civic boosters have branded this example of urban renaissance DTLA, and its ubiquitous acronym is attached to streetlight poles, public transit stops and even spawned a mural of a beatific woman, whose ethnicity seems purposely ambiguous, looking down on the corner of Sixth and Spring, a nimbus of golden light swirling over her raven locks adding religious overtones. Its title: “Our Lady of DTLA,” by native muralist Robert Vargas. Its purpose, according to an artist statement on the website for the nonprofit Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles: “She is a celebration of life & love here in downtown poised to host this new incarnation of DTLA into the future.”

DTLA? Old-timers might remember when that could well have stood as an admonition to day-trippers or office-working commuters as the sun sets: Don’t Tarry Long Angelenos.

Now, though, Los Angeles boasts a burgeoning cultural hub (Broad, Disney, MOCA) in its Bunker Hill neighborhood. It offers expensive and exclusive bars and restaurants, some of which occupy erstwhile bank vaults, power-company offices and long-shuttered department stores that look quasi-dilapidated yet somehow still regal in a Norma Desmond way. Live-work lofts, whose ground floors are leased to businesses such as designer pet boutiques and hookah lounges, line once-bleak Spring Street. Charming boutique hotels, such as the Ace, the Standard and the Figueroa, have made strides in attempting to blot out blight, as has the massive Staples Center sports and entertainment complex that anchors DTLA’s far-western flank.

Bling amid blight

Skid Row endures, of course, its sidewalk encampments and high-profile poverty serving as a stark juxtaposition to all the sidewalk seating at bistros mere blocks away. Pershing Square retains its sketchy reputation. Crime has hardly been rinsed clean, like so many coupe glasses at clubs with red-velvet ropes. In September, the Los Angeles Times reported that violent crime in the downtown corridor increased 57 percent, and property offenses almost 25 percent, over the same period the previous year. A new type of crime has blossomed, the paper reported: “Creeper” burglaries, in which thieves will snatch smartphones and purses from tables while heads are turned. Mayor Eric Garcetti has called the rising homeless population a public emergency and taken steps to find shelter for the growing numbers.

Such incidents perhaps are inevitable, given the tension of downtown’s rapid transformation, gentrification being both a boon and a burden.

The boon is obvious: more money pumped into the civic bloodstream, resuscitating its municipal heart. No longer can critics (especially those haughty New Yorkers) whine that Los Angeles has no center. Garcetti, speaking at The Broad opening, called the museum the “crown atop downtown,” his implication being that DTLA now has ascended to a kingdom worthy of such laurels.

The burden may be less obvious to visitors: the economic migration of longtime residents, many Latino, from downtown, priced out of their neighborhood. South Broadway, the bustling retail boulevard once dominated by Latino businesses, eateries, jewelry stores and bodegas, is in mid-transition. Family-run taquerias try to stay open amid the proliferation of trendy bistros, whose wafting aroma of kale and coconut stir fry compete with that of deep-fried chicharrones. Mom-and-pop businesses are pushed out by chains, as the likes of Walgreens are forcing businesses such as Farmacia y Botanica Million Dollar to find other digs. The clatter of construction cranes, razing and rebuilding the western half of Main Street, is the sound of success to civic boosters, but a symphony of sorrow to those bent on maintaining history.

“Let me ask you this: What’s the majority (ethnicity) in California? Hispanics,” said Richard Blitz, owner of Farmacia y Botanica, which will lose its lease at the end of January. “When you gentrify you’re displacing the majority of your population. They make it too damn expensive for people. The developers come in and build. They started in Silver Lake then Echo Park (both neighborhoods north of downtown), moving east. Boyle Heights is next. And, of course, here in downtown. There’s no place for (longtime residents) to go.”

Atwater Village, north of Silver Lake and southeast of Griffith Park, is another nearby neighborhood experiencing gentrification, said resident Monica Chavez. She lingers with her children and friends at the new 24,000-square-foot plaza outside The Broad, shaded by century-old Barouni olive trees replanted by the same landscape architect who designed New York’s High Line public park. She sits on the re-purposed tree-trunk benches, ringed by dymondia, and said she harbors mixed feelings towards DTLA (she didn’t use the acronym, which might be telling).

“Oh, it certainly is a different world,” Chavez said. “Years ago, you didn’t want to be here. We spend a lot of time here now. We also spend too much money here. But there is the problem of people not having anywhere to go because of rent and cost of living.”

Nostalgic ambivalence

Such ambivalence is common among Angelenos. Carol Thompson, in her 70s and a native, grew up playing on Angels Flight, the erstwhile “railway” that ferried people up from Hill Street to Bunker Hill. She can point to most any building downtown and say what used to be there. Change, to her, is inevitable. She does not begrudge “progress,” but does not want to see the city lose sight of its heritage.

“You know, people always think downtown was not a good area in the past, but that’s not true,” she said. “It was very upscale in the ’40s and before that, too. It had a real economy here. The department stores were upscale – Bullocks, Robinson’s and The Broadway – and the restaurants down here had a lot of class, a lot of continental fine dining for the time. About the mid ’50s is when I noticed it changing.”

Now she’s noticed it changing back.

“What they need is more of a mix, in terms of prices for lofts and apartments,” she said.

Her lunch companion at the Grand Central Market, the venerable (since 1917) open-air arcade of dining and produce markets, Shirley Chasin, of Studio City, added a positive note: “At least the development people are embracing the (existing) architecture and history and are no longer just willing to demolish the old L.A.”

Chasin brought up the preservation of the Bradbury, said to be the oldest commercial building in downtown (1893). With its dizzying staircases featuring ornate iron railings and marble steps, as well as a sweeping skylight and open-cage elevators, the building had fallen into disrepair before a 1990s makeover. Before restoration, director Ridley Scott used the building for a key scene in the film “Blade Runner,” cinematically reveling in the Bradbury’s shabby-chic vibe.

To those whose idea of the “Old L.A.” extends only as far back as the 1980s, the idea of preservation might strike a chord of curious incongruity. Visitors overwhelmingly like the changes. They like feeling safer and like the nightlife.

Traveler Tamer Shaaban, from Washington, D.C., was dining at the Grand Central Market’s sidewalk tables on Broadway, in front of the trendy restaurant Egg Slut. As he was talking, a homeless man lugging a bulging Hefty bag rummaged through the trash receptacles for plastic bottles and recyclables. Neither cast the other a glance, though Shaaban later acknowledged that gentrification can’t be all bad if he’s able to enjoy a sunny afternoon al fresco.

“It’s the cost of luxury,” he said of DTLA’s ambitions. “In my opinion, it feels like (Los Angeles) is still on its way, not quite done yet. There’s definitely places where it’s been built up great. But, then, you’ll run into pockets of the old L.A.”

Old and new L.A. meld at hipster haunts such as The Edison (its pitch: “Industrial cathedral crafted from the architectural artifacts of L.A.’s first private power plant”) and the Crocker Club (pitch: “Drink inside the vault … of the old Crocker Citizens National Bank”). Hoteliers are snatching up historic buildings, as well. Two years ago, the Ace Hotel (and performance space) converted a 1920s office building on Ninth and Broadway. Now, the 1924 YWCA building on 11th and Broadway is being molded into the Downtown L.A. Proper Hotel, with rooftop pools, bars, ground-floor restaurants and retail. The developer even plans to keep the full-length basketball court on the sixth floor.

But it’s the new-new of DTLA that has newcomers, mostly the loft-dwellers, downright giddy. Brigham Yen, a marketing and real estate businessman, has started a blog called “DTLA Rising,” which unabashedly cheerleads for the area’s growth. He recently breathlessly reported a rumor that an Apple Store might open in an abandoned theater on Broadway. When downtown’s first Whole Foods Market opened on Eighth and Grand, Yen enthused, “Some might say the opening of Whole Foods means Downtown L.A. has truly arrived – for good.”

Hype rings hollow without results, though. Success stories can be found any evening at any number of nightclubs. These are trendy dance clubs offering artisanal cocktails, not Bukowskian dives serving Schlitz. Pattern Bar, on Ninth Street in the Fashion District, is a prime example. Back in DTLABG (Before Gentrification), the Fashion District cleared out by nightfall. Now, with nearby lofts and reason for those working in the fashion industry to hang around after clocking out, the place is hopping.

“It’s the house music and the DJ curation,” said Eduardo Meza, Pattern bartender and cousin of co-owner Alejandro Meza. “We get the young people, 21 to mid-30s. But we also get people who work here. That’s really what we’re most known for, our drinks, named after fashion designers.” (To wit: The Chanel: “Tequila reposado, orange liquor, fresh cilantro, organic agave, serrano pepper and fresh lime.”)

Pattern Bar has lasted nearly five years, which, given the churn of the restaurant/bar business and DTLA’s short memory, qualifies as real staying power. Soon, it might even graduate to venerable.

On the line

Back in line at The Broad, where that new-museum smell has yet to wear off, the line’s movement is glacial but inexorable.

Lisa Naslund and her two teenage sons, from Torrance, joined the queue back on Hope Street, near the parking garage. It is 2 p.m. now, and they’re halfway up Second Street. They are confident they can gain entrance before the museum closes at 5 p.m. Even if they don’t get a lot of time to take selfies in front of Jeff Koon’s porcelain “Michael Jackson and Bubbles,” even if by some chance the line clogs like the 405 Freeway at rush hour and they don’t get in, their day trip to DTLA would not be wasted.

“I was just thinking that I’d love to come here more,” Naslund said. “Maybe go to the Grand Market or find some great noodles. It’ll be a good experience for the guys because Torrance, you know, is a bedroom community. We need to come to the city more, I think.”

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Downtown Los Angeles

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