A demolition notice recently appeared on the downtown building that houses The Smell nightclub, New Jalisco bar, and the Downtown Independent Theater. A company called L&R (Owners of Joe’s Auto Parks) purchased the property, and adjacent storefronts along 3rd and Main Streets, and may or may not have plans to redevelop the land.
When word got out that the block (especially the Smell) might disappear, culture lovers started gnashing their teeth (#savethesmell) and owners began to explore ways to keep the cool kid club thriving in a neighborhood that is rapidly evolving from skid row to squid ink spaghettini, and skipping all the stages in between.
When The Smell opened in 1999, the city had just passed the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which is what made it possible to convert banks and office buildings closed since the 60s into jazzy loft apartments. I love downtown. I looked into renting a place in the very first building that opened, the San Fernando, a block from the club. The Smell gave the neighborhood life and soul when Pete’s Café, the club-like M.J. Higgins Gallery, and Lost Souls Café were the only places I knew of that were open after dark.
I had been to The Smell a few times with friends of friends in the band, or with a group that included someone under 21, or to see some cool 3D laser show I heard would change my life. It was great and creepy and rundown. It felt dangerous in every way possible – I worried about unreinforced masonry, fire exits, and bathroom germs more than the wandering hobos and alfresco urinal that I imagine gave the back alley club its name. The alley entrance is shared with the pristine Edison Club a block away.
“The Smell is very much part of the incredible creative energy that comes from being in the center of the city,” fellow Smell patron and architectural historian Daniel Paul told me today. “There’s a whole noise culture that came out of there, a new kind of music. I know a guy writing a PhD on it.”
Main Street was the center of life in Los Angeles for generations. The birthplace of the city, El Pueblo de Los Angeles, is just a few blocks north. Before the fanciest restaurants, shops, and theaters moved to Broadway in the 1920s, they were on Main Street. By the Great Depression, the movie palaces had become burlesque houses and the storefronts were filled with pawn shops, liquor stores, and tattoo parlors. There were street fights – and in the spot that would become The Smell – a shooting gallery, and later a restaurant. Social service organizations moved in to help. The Union Rescue Mission operated a shelter between St. Vibiana’s Cathedral and The Smell.
When the corporate crowd relocated from the Eastern half of downtown to Bunker Hill in the 1960s and 70s, the area fell into further disrepair. Efforts to clean up Main Street mostly involved demolition of one-story buildings for surface parking lots.
Look around; try to find something old and small around here. Outside of the Nickel Diner, the Regent Theater, the gallery at Hotel Cecil… Not much. And that’s the problem. In the past old and small might have equaled cheap rent. It might have meant that something fringe like a weird little art theater, or an all-ages music club, or a place with entertainment like Jalisco bar could survive. If the buildings at 3rd and Main are demolished, whatever replaces them will not bring on the funk.
“The awful side of gentrification is losing these special places on the periphery,” says Daniel Paul. “You lose the texture of the neighborhood. Things become detached.” And isn’t that “special texture” why you loved downtown in the first place?