The rebirth of Downtown LA
Written by Mike MacEacheran
Long-time enthusiast Mike MacEacheran convinces us to take a tour of Los Angeles’ most happening area – the can’t miss, new-look spectacle of Downtown.
Los Angeles has always known how to sell what it wants the world to buy. A talking mouse, a killer shark, a pair of ruby-red slippers, even a theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs. And, for most people, a visit to LA starts and ends with a trip to Tinseltown – a place that is a mixture of the spurious and the authentic.
The pride of Hollywood, with its beautiful movie stars, models, and plastic surgeons, however, is the centre of Los Angeles, if not the nucleus of all California. In contrast, the pleasure of Downtown LA – the San Fernando Valley’s actual skyscraper-dominated hub, and the only place where you genuinely feel the buzz and energy of a thriving metropolis – is that it has none of Tinseltown’s self-aggrandisement.
Sure, places like the Millennium Biltmore Hotel (millenniumhotels.com) on Pershing Square have emotional resonance, and may look familiar from the movies; its lobby and entrance have appeared as the fictitious Sedgewick Hotel in Ghostbusters, and more recently in Iron Man and The Dark Knight Rises. Or you may recognise the Romanesque revivalist architecture of the Bradbury Building (laconservancy.org/locations/bradbury-building) at Broadway and West 3rd Streets. That was used to great effect at the climax of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But Downtown LA, or DTLA as locals call it, is for the most part a world away from the carousel of clapper-board film takes. Art, business, and culture, not Marvel superheroes, are its daily bread and butter.
The opening of the beautiful Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall (laphil.com) at 111 South Grand Avenue in late 2003 was a gamble that could have been the biggest architectural raspberry in LA history. Spiralling costs upwards of US$265 million meant civic leaders nearly pulled the plug on the project, but it signalled the first major coup for the neighbourhood and has been an enduring success. Before then, if you mentioned Downtown, Los Angelenos would ask with steeply arched eyebrows and suspicion in their eyes: why would you want to go there?
To an extent, they had a point. DTLA was empty after dark. You only walked through Skid Row if you dared. There was nobody on the street, not even traffic. Cardboard boxes littered sidewalks, strangers glowered, and hassle followed you around: this was the experience of Downtown LA.
The revelation to city officials, though, was that it didn’t have to be this way. In the late 1990s, new laws loosened regulations on how the area’s vacant buildings could be developed. Affordable housing saw people move back from the likes of Malibu, Silver Lake, and Santa Monica, and lofts and warehouses that were once derelict were reoccupied, housing fashion designers, architects, and media creatives. Now prices for loft apartments command what you’d pay for a one-bedroom hipster apartment in West Hollywood, leading to the emergence of hubs within the high-rises.
This turnaround in DTLA is extraordinary, even by Los Angeles standards. Explore the buzzing pockets of Little Tokyo, Fashion District, Artist District, or Chinatown – and you’ll find that each has a distinct personality. One such hive, the gentrifying South Park, is home to the trend-setting Ace Hotel (acehotel.com/losangeles), a storied, hipster property housed in a 1920s-era building built for maverick film studio United Artists. It’s a place so sybaritic that you’d struggle to leave its gorgeous, aquamarine rooftop pool if you tried (which most don’t). Close by, in the Bunker Hill district, sits Grand Park (grandparkla.org), a municipal five-hectare space where bronzed children play in fountains under the Angeleno sun, while their parents take part in free yoga classes or laze on the manicured lawns planning lunch at a farmers’ market.
In a way, DTLA ambushes you. You wouldn’t expect to find one of Los Angeles’ best burgers outside a Metro station in the Financial District. But you will – try The Counter’s custom-topped sandwiches heaped with everything from kale to dried cranberries (thecounterburger.com). And you wouldn’t think that these same boulevards – not Paris or New York – gave birth to the first-ever French dip sandwich (a hot meat sandwich dipped in gravy, created back in 1918 at Philippe The Original, philippes.com). But they did, and it’s not to be missed at the historic deli on North Alameda Street.
Perhaps the biggest statement of intent to Downtown’s newfound sagacity is The Broad (thebroad.org), a one-hectare, US$140 million contemporary art space that just opened in September. Opening up a new frontier for DTLA’s art scene, it houses more than 2,000 works of art, including masterworks by Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein – all from the private collection of philanthropist owners and Fortune 500 billionaires Eli and Edythe Broad. Given time, it’ll rival LA’s other grandstanding art museum, The Getty Center (getty.edu) in Brentwood.
The message is clear: DTLA is rejuvenated, reinvigorated, and – in a town that loves a box-office remake – some would say rebooted. It has the unstoppable force of a blockbuster. So next time you are in Los Angeles, turn off the yellow brick road from Hollywood and head downtown. Who knows where it may lead you.
Film fans are instinctive pilgrims in LA, beelining straight to Hollywood for the ever-popular movie stars’ homes and film location tours (starlinetours.com). These all start from outside the historic TCL Chinese Theatre (tclchinesetheatres.com), where you’ll experience a mildly orchestrated free-for-all of character actors and street entertainers. Here Superman flexes his muscles for iPhone-snapping schoolgirls in the forecourt, Captain Jack Sparrow barks orders at the crowd, Thor gets swamped by Marvel fans, and Michael Jackson moonwalks outside the Dolby Theatre (dolbytheatre.com), home of the annual Oscars party. This is Hollywood Boulevard at full tilt: a tangle of contradictions woven as a consumable whole.
Take a movie tour, and when passing the bright stucco mansions, arcaded verandas, and iron security gates, you’ll be in good company when you ask the guides if you can see a scene from your all-time favourite film. Pretty Woman? Tours pass several locations while whizzing past the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire (fourseasons.com/beverlywilshire) and down Rodeo Drive (rodeodrive-bh.com) in affluent Beverly Hills. Rebel Without a Cause? You’ll be reminded of that when ticking off the Godzilla-sized Hollywood sign and circling the white-domed Griffith Observatory (griffithobservatory.org), a planetarium on Mount Hollywood with the city’s best vantage point over Downtown LA. Or maybe it’s Back to the Future? You’ll be redirected to Universal Studios Hollywood (universalstudioshollywood.com), where, on a backlot tour, you’ll be able to see the 1955-set Hill Valley clock tower and courthouse where Marty McFly and Doc Brown defied physics with the help of a jazzed-up DeLorean. It all has an antique weirdness, just like stepping back in time.
My Los Angeles
The Original Pantry
They say it’s never closed (and never not had a customer since it opened in 1924), which is the kind of Hollywood fiction LA is famous for. But in this case it’s true. Pop into this retro 24-7 diner for Philly cheesesteaks and strip tenderloins with a side of showbiz: a who’s who of diners have eaten here, including Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and Kim Kardashian. For added respect, the owner is former LA mayor Richard Riordan.
The Rooftop, The Standard, Downtown LA
Just because it’s owned by multimillionaire hotelier André Balazs, and was a pet project for Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio, doesn’t mean that this hipster hangout is reserved for A-listers. It’s now an institution (which shows how fast the city is changing) and is crowned with a swimming pool, red AstroTurf deck, dance floor, and waterbed pods. If that wasn’t enough, wait for the lung-emptying views.
Grand Central Market
Downtown’s modern take on the old-fashioned food court, the Grand Central has been a landmark since 1917. It’s a riot of the old and new, where you can try ceviche, tostadas, and Thai street food. The vendors change, but two that aren’t going anywhere are Chef Mark Peel’s Bombo and Wexler’s Deli from local food champ Micah Wexler.
Downtown LA for families
Picture a place where you can see movie stars, chart-topping songstresses, and a world-beating basketball team all within a nickel’s throw of each other and you’ll get this mammoth US$2.5 billion dollar entertainment and dining complex. There are cinemas, concert venues, and sports stadia, but for the ultimate LA experience, take in an LA Lakers game.
Located around the corner from the Staples Center where the annual Grammy Awards takes place, this interactive and educational museum is dedicated to pop music history. While the kids go gaga for, er, Lady Gaga, oldies can celebrate the life and times of Ol’ Blue Eyes; the current big-ticket exhibition is dedicated to Frank Sinatra (until February 15, 2016). It features ephemera, never-before-seen photos, and family mementoes.
Engine Co. No 28
This restaurant, housed in a historic, renovated fire station dating back to 1912, serves up firefighter favourites from across the USA. Junior firefighters will love the mac and cheese, and fudge sundaes.
Los Angeles, USA
Distance: 13,366 km
Flight Time: 16 hours, 25 minutes