Sunday, May 9, 2010

The many worlds of downtown Los Angeles

I'm staying this weekend in downtown Los Angeles, as my local friends advised me that this is the new, hip part of town. Having spent my teenage years in the Los Angeles area, I am stunned by the transformation. Back then, downtown completely cleared out after office hours. There were no homes in the downtown core, and the closest thing to residents were the homeless on the city's very real Skid Row. 

Skid Row is very much still here, made even more depressing by the resurgence nearby and by the darkness of the street left as the Greyhound bus depot has been shuttered. The bus depot was always a depressing spot, but at least it was bustling and relatively safe around the clock. Now, the buses arrive and depart from Union Station, the hub of Southern California's rather remarkable, new transportation network. 

Literally steps away from a street lined with makeshift tents in which society's forgotten try to stay warm, hipsters line up for the hottest cocktail lounges, artisan food and musicians helping drown out the loud conversation with dulcet tones. Former bank branches are finding a new purpose, with hours completely opposite of traditional bankers' hours.

Many of the buildings in downtown are the originals. Walking around, it's easy to see the merchant history here. I think most of the stores were already closed by the time my family moved here in the 1970s, but building after building has the distinct design of a grand department store. Only a couple of them have historic markers on them. 

Many are sadly run down. The other category of building that is hard to miss is banking. Right now I am looking at the Bank of Italy building, which I believe was built in 1921, back when A.P. Gianini was running the bank that would become Bank of America. The building is in bad shape. Its artful metal doorways are in disrepair, windows are boarded or tagged with graffiti. It even looks like an upper window or two may be missing. There is so much potential, but apparently not enough money to make this historic building part of downtown's transformation. (For an interesting article on why the Bank of Italy building remains in decay, see

One of the other striking aspects of downtown's transformation is the bustling shopping district that has emerged, primarily catering to Latinos, and ranging from discounters like Big Lots and Payless Shoe Source to jewelry stores. Walking around on a Sunday morning, I encountered well dressed men and women, lots of children, and a few sidewalk preachers.  It felt very much like a real neighborhood, not like a downtown business district at all.

The city still has a long way to go, and there are many people here who need help, but I think Los Angeles has grown beyond the old description of it as "suburbs in search of a city."

Posted via email from Doug's posterous

No comments:

Post a Comment