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Downtown 2.0: Loft Living

A house with a lawn? Feh. She’ll take her urban loft any day

Photograph by Lisa Romerein

I live across the street from an armored car garage and a fortune cookie factory. Garlands of razor wire adorn the barbed fence beneath my window. Power lines festoon the sky. On weekdays, above the bakery, white condensation floats heavenward, as exquisite as frozen breath on a winter morning.

Since arriving in Los Angeles a decade ago, I have set up house near the beach, in Benedict Canyon, and on the shores of the La Brea Tar Pits. But nothing can eclipse the jagged beauty of the downtown Industrial District—or more accurately, the Arts District. Thanks to a recent compromise between the city planning commission and the city council, my hood will soon receive a designation more welcoming to residential development.

I own a loft, a word that through misuse has become at best a cliché, at worst a slur. In the movie Juno, it is an emblem of irresponsibility. When an immature husband balks at parenthood, he ditches his wife and moves to a “loft.” In Manhattan, where the term arose, “loft” refers to an industrial space reworked as a home or an art studio. Here it can mean anything, from a pleasure pad in Marina del Rey to a Koreatown high-rise gone condo.

My place is in a genuine landmark—Historic Cultural Monument No. 888—a seven-story factory erected by the National Biscuit Company in 1925. Linear City, which developed Biscuit, as we call it, took pains to conserve original details—heavy copper stairwell doors, two-tone terrazzo, hardwood floors with the stains and gouges that only 80 years of rough wear can impart. The developers did this for aesthetic reasons but also to gain landmark status. Under the Mills Act, home owners in historic structures pay lower property taxes.

I didn’t plan to buy downtown. Without the nagging of my realtor, I would never have embarked on a hard-hat tour of Biscuit. Dust was everywhere; the fire alarms wore pink shower caps to shield them from the debris. Yet when I padded down the hallway from the elevator, I felt as if I were in a Dan Flavin sculpture. Golden neon tubes, installed vertically, lined the walls. I gazed in awe at the 13-foot ceilings. In a corner of my future loft, an ancient patch of pockmarked terrazzo beckoned. I fell to my knees, caressing the gray-green floor as if I were Scarlett O’Hara and it were the red earth of Tara. I planned to tell guests that Nabisco placed the terrazzo beneath its ovens to protect the floors. But my visitors guessed the truth. My pride and joy was once the employee washroom.

Within days of my unpacking, Biscuit delivered a shock: silence. On weekends trucks from the nearby warehouses clear out, and all one hears is the wind. Some visitors find this disconcerting. My friend Rodney, a Benedict Canyon resident, described the short drive from my house to the 10 freeway as “a cross between I Am Legend and Omega Man. There was nothing—nothing—but an occasional plastic trash bag blowing across the street.”

When you live among the factories, however, the quiet just seems peaceful. I feel safer here than I ever did in a detached house. We have a guard downstairs, guards in the building across the street, and a couple dozen closed-circuit cameras monitored by guards. The home owners association essentially funds a private army.

Downtown is as much a set of neighborhoods as is Los Angeles itself. South Park, near L.A. Live, features sparkling new towers that are almost suburban in their cleanliness. The Historic Core contains exquisite old offices freshly engineered into lofts. The Arts District hugs the river. Sliced by train tracks, the area, east of Little Tokyo, has since the ’70s been home to artists who bristle each time a developer resurrects a crumbling warehouse. They fear, I suppose, an onslaught of hyena-like lawyers moving in. But if Biscuit is a litmus, they needn’t worry. Owners here tend to be creative types—actors, sculptors, Web designers, musicians, filmmakers. Some are moms and dads. They are straight, gay, married, single, and as ethnically diverse as a space shuttle crew. Even their dogs are hip. My next-door neighbors serve as DJs at clubs and parties. Their poodle has a Mohawk.

When I invite Westsiders downtown, they often ask, “Do I need a passport?” (no), “Gamma globulin?” (no), and “Are you near the new Ralphs?” (sort of).

Located in the Market Lofts on the corner of Flower and 9th, Ralphs is the first supermarket to open downtown in 57 years. I initially ignored it, loyal to the plucky Food 4 Less in Boyle Heights. But when I needed free-range chicken, sorrel, and a wedge of Saint André on short notice, I succumbed—and was I ever blown away. The store has a wine cellar kept at 51 degrees—slightly lower than the optimum 55 because people are always shuffling in and out. It has a full-time wine steward, Mike Berger, who proves that “oenophile” and “snob” are not synonymous. Outside the cellar is a locked glass liquor case. “Look at these fingerprints,” Berger told me, sweeping his hand across its front. “This is what everybody wants to see.” Beneath the smudges was a squat, dusty bottle of Rémy Martin Louis XIII cognac that was $1,549.99 (or $1,499.99 with Club Card).

Retail has changed a lot in the 14 years since Blooms’s General Store provided bare essentials to the district’s earliest settlers. Some say the change began in 2003, when the monthly Downtown Art Walk took its first shaky steps, with three galleries and a handful of lookers. In April the event hit its stride, with 35 galleries and more than 3,000 lookers.

The district Crime Walk also started around then, and it, too, has seen changes. At first it was more about “crime” than “walk.” Accompanied by the area’s LAPD senior lead officer, participants braved broken bottles, discarded needles, burning trash, used condoms, and the humans who produced them. The idea was not just to see what was wrong but to have the officers address it. Today the walk is more of a social outing, a weekly stroll with Jack Richter, the current senior lead officer.

Not long ago, after a night class I teach at USC, I caught up with Kim and Warren, new friends and Crime Walk regulars, at Royal Claytons, a pub across from Biscuit. “Monday I saw a woman alone at night walking her dog,” Kim said with amazement. As recently as 2006, women out after dark were usually prostitutes—and could sometimes be a problem for the guards at residential buildings. Kim is a chic but conservatively dressed librarian who is married to an artist. Last winter, around dinnertime, she accompanied a friend from her car to another friend’s loft. The building’s guard, mistaking the two women for hookers, told them where to stand to avoid being arrested.

Until 2007, homeless people camped under the 4th and 6th street bridges. Although the ACLU secured their right to bed down anywhere, they have in practice migrated toward the city center, where they can access services. Consequently, I have rarely seen sleeping homeless—except once last January when a bus of not-so-merry vagrants dropped anchor outside my window. The bus soon moved on, but not before I mentioned it to my students. One offered a solution, courtesy of a South Park- episode—rent a bus, buy a bullhorn, and pied piper them to the one true promised land: Santa Monica.