I remember the panic that filled my veins when I saw a man get shot. I should run. Run. Run. My friend’s house was 100 yards in front of me. The man was lying on the ground 50 yards ahead of me, his blood already steeping through the sidewalk like water over bathroom tiles. My house was 500 yards in the opposite direction. The car with the guns was driving away. Run. I ran forward. I called 911.
I had a few moments like that, living in University Park on the northern skirts of USC, though never so close again. I’d hear gunshots. There were stabbings in the news. Helicopters became so common we simply called them “ghetto birds,” and one time I watched a car full of gunmen go blazing past my house on Menlo Ave with LAPD in hot pursuit. The only reason I felt safe in my neighborhood at night was the constant presence of university security personnel and regular police patrols, and even then, many of my friends were held at gunpoint.
To the north was Downtown LA. I didn’t feel safe in Downtown LA.
This was nearly eight years ago. Eight years ago, and the May Day Melee in MacArthur Park (one of the largest violent conflicts with police since the dawn of the cell phone) had seen but an anniversary. The LAPD were on edge. The crime rate in the area, though lower than it had been in years, was still up to three times higher than the national average, higher than the border neighborhoods of Echo Park, Boyle Heights, and Koreatown, and roughly on par with the traditionally violent Watts and Compton areas.
In 2008, LA Live was only just gaining traction with its first phase of development, it’s neon lights fading into haze a block away. If you go through a list of noteworthy restaurants and bars in the downtown area, you’ll be hard pressed to find any with foundation dates pre-2009. Half of the buildings in Downtown stood empty and the streets were littered with dried gum and trash like tumbleweeds in a wild west. People wandered about aimlessly, or slept in what little alcoves they could find. They found ways to camp in Pershing Square even as new bars went up on the benches to keep them out. A sour, bitter smell permeated the air, mixed with exhaust and fragrance, like the stained outline where the rotten carcass of roadkill had been recently scraped up.
There were places that earned attention in DTLA, to be fair, but east of Los Angeles Street and north of Pico were essentially no-fly zones to the hipsters and the students whose presence has signified the onset of gentrification for just about every low-income area since Christopher Columbus first stepped foot on American soil and thought the place could really use a Coffee Bean.
Back then, we only went to DTLA when we were craving a French-dipped sandwich from Philippe’s, or breakfast at the Pantry. It wasn’t the kind of place where you drank too much and stumbled home no worse for wear.
The future was in sight, but not in grasp. There was a mystique to the place, an unexplainable mist of malignant emotion that drove us away. That panic I felt when I saw someone get shot was always waiting around the corner for a reason to emerge, and I never particularly saw fit to give it one.
I’m back in town for the first time in years. I’m here with LEVEL Furnished Living, one of dozens of developments creating a new skyline for the city. There are at least a dozen of these new skyscrapers popping up on the eastern side of the downtown area, pushing a gentrified face right into the ass-side of Skid Row, where the tent cities aren’t going anywhere fast. Determined to develop DTLA no matter the economic obstacle.
They bill themselves as “short stay furnished apartments,” meaning it’s perfect for longer stays than hotels would allow without necessarily settling down. It’s a branch of a similar setup in Vancouver (another city that, as it develops, has put some of the most popular nightlife areas within pissing distance of their version of Skid Row; the odds aren’t astronomical that at some point in either city, a drunkard on the walk home has attempted to sleep in a sidewalk tent), and they cater primarily to the people who aren’t quite settled in the city but don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
Businesses moving employees into a new office. Artists on a break in their tours. Transplants who’ve decided that in 2015, LA is the place to be, and they simply can’t wait to have a permanent living situation before they get right down into the thick of it.
The rooms are coldly luxurious, like white-collar prison cells, all white and plastic and marble with floor-to-ceiling windows and matching furniture that blends into the backdrop of the windows with entirely too much ease. The bed is gigantic, a California king, adorned with a matte grey comforter tucked mechanically underneath the mattress. The pillows are thick enough to require some dedicated contemplation on whether or not you’re actually going to use the damn things.
It all feels calculated to appear ostentatious without necessarily reeking of comfort: you’ll remember that this isn’t your home, which is probably the point when the idea is for tenants to move out eventually, but you’ll be proud to live there while you do.
I could never have imagined much of a market for this kind of living, but Downtown Los Angeles really is attracting enough people for Level to carve out a niche of the incoming population. The creative types are moving back in.
Really, the area is simply returning to its prime. Downtown was once a haven for both business and Bohemian, with extraordinarily designed buildings like the Million Dollar Theatre, the LA Theatre, and the Tower Theatre being erected to cater to the rising film industry, their intricate facades covered in reliefs telling stories of everything from the evolution of mankind to Greek mythology. Artists (including, for a time, F Scott Fitzgerald himself) flooded to the area, eager to take part in the growing scene.
This changed in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the Pacific Electric streetcar system that once thrived in the city was bought out and destroyed by the rising automobile empires that still control it to this day. Los Angeles became a city of sprawl, and this drove out a large population of small artists who fled to New York and San Francisco at a time when their communities were more tight-knit and conducive to creativity. New York became the Launchpad of the Beatnik scene and the home of American folk with the rise of Bob Dylan. San Francisco gave birth to the Summer of Love and the Hippies of Haight-Ashbury.
Los Angeles became a wasteland.
Now, however, New York faces an affordable housing crisis, and even the mayor’s half-hearted attempts at reformation have done little to stem the rising price of rent – this at a time when Billionaire’s Row on 57th Street is seeing more Ivory Towers sprouting every year. San Francisco, likewise, has been engulfed by the onslaught of tech companies and their buses, torn asunder by the conflict between the original dreadlocked purists and the Silicon new school. The two cities sit right at the top of the most expensive cities in the world.
Meanwhile, Downtown Los Angeles has marinated in its own misery for the better half of a century, with rent prices faltering due to a lack of development. Now, it’s reaping the rewards. As the New York Times noted this summer, “New York is becoming vastly more suburban and Los Angeles is becoming vastly less suburban.”
I notice this fairly easily as I walk around downtown.
I remember walking down East 7th Street eight years ago, and how bright the Angeleno sun was – I had to borrow sunglasses that I promptly lost. Today, I have flashes of zebra stripes as the shadows of cranes pass my eyes, dotting the buildings all around me. They stretch like the legs of an overturned millipede laying the length of the avenues and boulevards that crisscross the grid.
There are over 100 new developments in downtown alone going up, including the new Korean Air building on Wilshire. When it tops out, it will be the tallest building west of the Mississippi.
Filling in the Cracks
The folks at Level take us to Bottega Louie for breakfast on the second day of my visit. I’ve been there before – it actually opened in 2009, during my Sophomore year of college. It was the place we’d go on Sundays, when a particularly shameful hangover necessitated a classy brunch to heal our pride while simultaneously crippling us out of the long drive to Misfit’s in Santa Monica. Its vaulted, cream-white ceilings are crowned with Flor de Liz. The minimal brass metalwork makes the restaurant almost indistinguishable from the best patisseries in France, though it’s located on the corner of what was once a dead business center, at the foot of the Brockman Building.
A pretty brunette woman in a form-fitting suit and tie comes to take our order, while dropping off a rainbow galaxy of macaroons and chocolate tarts. She smells of bacon and strawberries. Behind a low glass barricade, the chefs are dressed the same.
The Brockman Building was built in 1912 and was the first building in Los Angeles to reach the city’s 150-foot height limit. Despite this, real estate value dropped with the rest of the area and hit a low until Bottega Louie moved in, founding a new “Restaurant Row” on 7th that now includes the 7 Grand Whiskey Bar, Sugarfish Sushi, and Soi 7. In 2012, just three years after its foundation, Bottega Louie was named by Yelp as the most popular restaurant in the country.
That same year, the Brockman Building was sold. It fetched the second highest price-per-unit in Los Angeles history.
There’s a trend in all these old buildings, left empty by the artistic diaspora from the area mid-century. All were built with the intention of creating a new New York, a centralized forest of architectural wonders. That dream didn’t survive the test of the mid-1900s, but it did create the perfect environment to revitalize itself when the time was right, with grand spaces being filled by hip, upstart businesses that ordinarily would not have been able to afford such primo real estate. The combination of high-class setting and street cred-heavy tenants has created a positive feedback loop bringing more and more people into the neighborhood.
I spend much of the next few days simply walking around Los Angeles, marveling at how it’s begun to develop, how these cracks have begun to fill.
There’s Cole’s, a sandwich shop operating out of the empty husk of the Pacific Electric building. It survived the collapse of its home’s patrons on the strength of its French Dip sandwiches, pulled pork or lamb on crunchy bread with a bowl of sweet au jus drippings on the side, served with a spicy pickle. It claims ownership over the invention, though the nearby Philippe’s The Original does as well; the jury’s still out on which one is better, though Cole’s does have the added benefit of a speakeasy in the back that serves the best cocktails in the entire city, made by true mixologists, though you didn’t hear it from me.
I walk north on Grand. Up ahead is the Broad Museum, the newest modern art gallery in the city. It only opened two months ago. It looks like a building wearing a cardigan, the veil that envelopes the vault inside, porous and soft, though hiding a block of flowing, water-like concrete underneath. Its first major exhibit is a piece by Yayoi Kusama, a room of mirrors and darkness and lights and water called The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away. It’s a disorienting piece, calm and chaotic, and it forces you to examine your place in such a beautiful and vast universe, though more than anything it’s an opportunity for basic bitches to get new profile pictures.
It makes sense that the building is directly next to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, itself a giant metal anemone apropos of nothing in particular. It was one of the first new buildings in DTLA to herald in its renaissance, built in 2003 and kicking off the development of art culture that now includes the Broad and the MoCA on that block alone. Over 50 galleries have opened in the past few years.
I never knew Los Angeles as a walking city before now, and I don’t think the current residents have caught on yet – passers by stroll in broken-in Chuck Taylor’s, their flat feet beginning to ache more and more as the day wears on without realizing why. But as the need to drive further out of the center diminishes, their habits change. Their footwear will catch up.
It’s gorgeous out. The sky is an azure blue, and the shadows of the buildings create a wind tunnel effect that makes my hair stand on end, grateful for the relief from the typical December heat. It’s 80 degrees, and I realize that somewhere, twenty stories up, new tenants are relaxing by rooftop pools, golden flesh in the sun, sipping cocktails no resident could have afforded fifteen years ago.
Such is progress. Cracks get spackled, and if need be they get replaced.
I live in Brooklyn. The housing crisis is a real issue, and gentrification has become so pervasive in the local culture that it’s cycled through serious headlines, to buzzy thinkpieces, to YouTube comedy fodder, and back to serious headlines. It’s easy to feel detached when you’re one of the people doing the gentrifying. The issue remains the same: people are being priced out of neighborhoods they’ve occupied for decades simply because those areas have become hip.
Brooklyn is ahead of the curve, and Los Angeles is catching up.
Nobody will advertise it, of course. You’ll see these grand construction projects, these cranes crisscrossing the sky across Olive, but nobody will talk about what is being lost in order to bring in a new economy. The artists moved out in the ‘50s, but people moved in, too.
On my last day in Los Angeles, we walk down Broadway to the Grand Central Market. Built in 1896 as the Homer Laughlin Building, the market underwent the same life cycle as the rest of the area. It grew out of the Angel’s Flight area and in the 1920s served as the office for Frank Lloyd Wright before the downturn. A few years ago, this was a dedicated, low-budget market that sold fresh produce, flowers, meat, and more. As the the real estate became more valuable, the cost of doing business rose.
Today, the most popular stall in the building is Eggslut. The little bar is modest enough to blend into its neighbors, but the line to the register wraps through the entire building as what appears to be a high school field trip, a professional football team, the Spice Girls and their entourage, and the entire population of North Korea turn out to eat the signature Eggslut – a tiny bottle of egg, potato and chives cooked sous vide. There are maybe four people working behind the bar, and by the time the day is done, they’ll have slung out 2000 eggs. The restaurant may look modest, but Alvin Cailan has turned the place (which started as a food truck) into a movement. They’ve since been featured as one of the best new restaurants in the country and have built on that fame with appearances as far away as Coachella.
A rising tide lifts all real estate prices. Today, more small stalls are closing to make way for specialty coffee shops and an oyster bar, and recent renovations have created luxury apartments on all sides. How are the locals supposed to compete? Can they?
Down the street is another storefront that sticks out like a sore thumb. The windows are dirty, like somebody smeared soap on them and forgot to wash it off, and the Spanish signs are faded, though the name – the Million Dollar Farmacia – is still visible.
The Million Dollar Farmacia is operated by a tiny Mexican woman who barely speaks English and features a giant shrine to La Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death, so I can only assume that the whole place is actually a supervillain hangout, and if I were to pull on one of the giant scented candles on the back wall, the whole thing would rotate and I’d find myself face-to-face with the Night Stalker, Chris Dorner, and Darth Vader, all back from the dead and playing poker.
The owner calls it a Farmacia, but I don’t think the FDA has really held an inspection in quite some time. They’ve got Advil and condoms by the register, but most of the product comes in little plastic bottles labeled with hand-drawn imagery of various ghouls and goblins and ghosts. They’ve all got names like “Curse Destroyer” and “Run Devil Run” and “Smite Death” and “Terror Upon Your Enemies.” Frankly, it makes me doubt that the Advil and condoms by the register actually do what they say, though “Smite Your Headache” and “Vanquish The Baby” actually would sound like cool brand names.
It’s a fun little shop, and the owner follows me around, asking me to sniff every candle she can find. I buy a few spells to try when I get back to the hotel.
This is the last year the Million Dollar Farmacia will be open. They can no longer afford their lease.
I used to be afraid of downtown Los Angeles. Walking those streets gave me a sense of unease because I didn’t feel like I belonged, like the places that were open weren’t for me, and there was somebody around every turn waiting to take advantage. Today, I’d be hard pressed to find a shop that didn’t appeal to me. But I can’t help but feel like there were roses lost in the trimming of the thorns. As the city barrels full-throttle towards its role as a new New York, as it slips easily into the future, it sheds its excess weight. Crime is dropping. Artists are moving in. The area is returning to its status in the ‘50s by forgetting about the five decades in between.
I used to be afraid of downtown Los Angeles. I’m not afraid of what it’s become. But I’m willing to bet some people are.
The author’s travels were sponsored by LEVEL Furnished Living.