Formerly deemed a ghost town, Los Angeles’s city center 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.
By Rachel Will
Photographs by Jessica Sample
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 high-profile 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 neighborhoods like Angelino, Boyle, and Harvard Heights that carry the “up-and-coming” title—neighborhoods 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 center 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 center.
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 center, 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, modeled 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 sci-fi thriller Blade Runner. “It’s a pity that Bradbury never lived to see it completed.”