In 2004, when we published our first big issue devoted to downtown, mixology wasn’t a word and the area’s most happenin’ happy hour was at McCormick & Schmick’s. The real estate boom was just kicking in as those gorgeous old buildings in the city’s historic core were being rehabilitated into lofts and condos. But good luck finding basic amenities. By 2008, a high-end Ralphs Fresh Fare had opened on 9th Street, Comme des Garçons had a pop-up shop, and the storefronts were filling up with yoga studios, art galleries, and pet boutiques. Of course, downtown real estate has cooled in recent years, and many folks who bought high are taking a bath. Still, not even the financial meltdown has halted the forward march of restaurants, clubs, bars, and Staples Center-adjacent glitz that has made downtown the city’s most exciting nightlife destination. Which is to say, the neighborhood remains hot even if the market isn’t.
In the history of Los Angeles development, downtown is somewhat of an anomaly. While the orange groves of the San Fernando Valley were dug up to build ranch houses and pony rides were replaced by the Beverly Center, downtown was only partly lost. Mayor Tom Bradley and the developers of the ’80s didn’t bulldoze the grand theaters of Broadway or the banks and office buildings on Main in favor of the new. Instead most of the eastern half of downtown was abandoned but left intact, and the western half—the Victorians of Bunker Hill—gave way to skyscrapers. Even today costly projects like Disney Hall, L.A. Live, and the planned Broad Art Museum are situated away from the historic heart, which pulses with cafés and bookstores and apartments renovated mostly by local real estate mavericks and a few private equity firms.
For this month’s cover story we interviewed the artist Gronk, who in 1977 took a room in a tumbledown hotel on Spring Street and has lived in downtown ever since, bearing witness to the filming of Blade Runner, the waxing and waning of the punk-driven art and music scenes, the ravages of the crack cocaine epidemic, and the rescuing of the Grand Central Market and the Million Dollar Theater by visionary developer Ira Yellin. The long-promised revitalization is finally sticking. Though the neighborhood may have a ways to go, I don’t think it’s too early to say that L.A. has begun to reclaim both its center and its past—which means downtown is not only redefining its own identity, but the entire city’s.
Illustration by Leif Parsons