LA's downtown makeover

LOCAL ICON: Frank Gehry's futuristic, steel-clad Walt Disney Concert Hall has popped up in movies, such as Spike Jonze's Her, Iron Man 3 and Celeste And Jesse Forever.


    Apr 16, 2014

    LA's downtown makeover

    WHEN The New York Times named downtown Los Angeles in its list of 52 Places To Go In 2014, there were a few raised eyebrows, not least among Angelenos themselves.

    Even The Times acknowledged the unlikeliness of its No. 5 pick, an inland area defined by its protrusion of densely packed high-rises, the only one of its kind in Los Angeles and a landmark visible from across the sprawling metropolis, which most visitors associate with just a handful of Hollywood landmarks and the odd beach.

    "Downtown? Really? Yes," the paper argued, "thanks to a thriving food scene."

    Add to that an influx of other trendy new businesses and residents, many of whom have set up shop in spaces stylishly converted from vintage commercial buildings, and you now have one of the most trendy, architecturally rich and walkable neighbourhoods in Los Angeles.

    Not too long ago, though, it was largely dismissed as a down-at-heel, best-avoided- at-night sort of place, thanks in part to its homeless population, one of the biggest in the country.

    It was not always like this, of course. Downtown Los Angeles had its heyday in the early 1900s, when it became a railway hub and a thriving civic and commercial centre.

    The construction boom that followed led to many of the architectural treasures still standing today, including the Spanish Colonial and Streamline Moderne-style Union Station (800 North Alameda Street) and an impressive collection of Art Deco office buildings, hotels, department stores and theatres.

    The area began to decline after World War II and the advent of cars and freeways - the large highways that precipitated an exodus from downtown to the suburbs.

    In the last 15 years or so, however, the neighbourhood has witnessed a quiet transformation, thanks in part to a 1999 "adaptive reuse" law that made it easier to convert its dilapidated-but-lovely office buildings into housing.

    Its population has more than quadrupled since then, with new residents and entrepreneurs drawn by its low rents and retro-cool spaces, as well as the LA Live and Staples Center entertainment and sports complexes, which opened in 2007 and 2009 and now bring periodic infusions of crowds to concerts and basketball games.

    Yet, many Angelenos remain only dimly aware of this renaissance - a by-product of living in a geographically dispersed city where the charms are spread thin.

    Unlike the instantly loveable New York or San Francisco, Los Angeles requires more work - and more of a carbon footprint - to get to know, and neighbourhoods such as this, longer to discover.

    That said, artists and film-makers beat everyone to it decades ago, and were the first to see the possibilities in downtown Los Angeles' low rents and urban landscapes.

    Priced out of Hollywood and Venice Beach, a band of artists blazed a trail when they moved in the 1970s and began turning empty warehouses into home studios.

    For a lucky few, downtown's architectural masterpieces are home. The turquoise, clock-towered Eastern Columbia, a 1930s commercial building converted into lofts, is an Art Deco stunner that has become one of the most desirable residences in LA, its penthouse the one-time pied-a-terre of actor Johnny Depp.

    Of course, the proximity to Hollywood means that the entire city frequently pops up on screen, but downtown is particularly prolific in this regard, offering one of the best chances of stumbling across something being filmed.

    That no one walks in this car-loving city may be an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Downtown is an anomaly because of its high concentration of people and sights, and the fact that it is one of the few neighbourhoods well served by the Metro Rail system, all of which make it that rare thing in Los Angeles: a walkable area.

    This is great for visitors who are unwilling or unable to drive. The metro rail system is surprisingly cheap, clean and punctual. It also runs into the wee hours of the morning, is rarely overcrowded and feels less sketchy than the city's bus services.

    Once downtown, many attractions are within walking distance of one another.

    As a result, while Los Angeles can often appear like a ghost town to those accustomed to dense metropolises such as Singapore, downtown is one of the few places that actually bustles, with many coming for the food and staying for the nightlife.

    The eating options reflect the liveliness of Los Angeles' culinary melting pot, which former Los Angeles Times and New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl recently declared "the most important place in America to eat right now".

    Highlights range from the modern Peruvian delights of Mo Chica (514 West 7th Street), with its imaginative cocktails, ceviches and culinary curiosities (Alpaca stew, anyone?), to the modernist conceptual creations at Alma (952 South Broadway), crowned the Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appetit magazine last year for offerings, such as its seaweed and tofu beignets and sunchoke soup, served over an egg yolk and smoked-date paste.

    After dinner, there is a wide assortment of nightspots to move on to, from the achingly hip to the wilfully seedy: gussied-up dive bars, such as Melody Lounge (939 N Hill Street), which pours craft beers in Chinatown, and Seven Grand (515 West 7th Street), whose waistcoated barmen mix some of the best whisky-based cocktails in town.

    For a drink with an unbeatable view, there is the Upstairs Bar on the roof of the new Ace Hotel (929 Broadway), which has been tastefully converted from the 1930s Spanish Gothic-style theatre and tower built for the United Artists studio.

    The opening of the Ace, one of a global chain of posh hipster havens, underscores the neighbourhood's newfound cachet, as does the steadily expanding cluster of high-end retailers, including Swedish clothing Acne Studios (855 Broadway), sprouting up down the street.

    So while it is far from completely gentrified, it is fast approaching that point where it could easily become a victim of its own success, with some businesses and artists already complaining that they are being squeezed out by these new arrivals and rising rents.

    For tourists, however, it is a prime time to visit - and a rare opportunity to beat a good many locals to discovering one of their city's hidden gems.