The Renaissance Of Downtown Los Angeles

24 October 2015
Read Time: 3.8 mins

I am staring up at the curved ribbons of stainless steel against the bleach-blue sky. Frank Gehry ’s boat-like structure glitters in the beaming California sunshine. My guide, Mary, a former violinist for the LA Philharmonic, beckons me to hurry on inside to join the group.

Los Angeles is often criticised for having no real centre, but the Walt Disney Concert Hall – 11 kilometres south-east of the Hollywood sign – represents not only the geographical centre of the city, but also – as Mary, a long-time resident of Downtown proudly tells me – its nucleus.

 The neon signs on Broadway are being relit and preserved on buildings such as the Orpheum Theatre (Image: Matt Marriott)

She says of the structure, built in 2003, “Gehry wanted the concert hall to act as the city’s living room.”

He certainly had foresight. Last month saw the opening of the contemporary art museum The Broad, designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (of New York’s High Line ).

It was a gift to the city by philanthropists Eli and Edyth Broad, who wanted a place to house their art collection, as well as urbanise another patch of the once lacklustre Downtown.

As Joanne Heyler, Founding Director of The Broad comments, “Eli recognised early on that LA could have a vibrant centre. Downtown was there, but needed to be re-envisioned.”

The bright, white honeycomb-like structure, known as “the veil”, provides both architectural decoration and function – it diffuses light as it enters the gallery.

 Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall (Image: Travis Conklin)

Once inside, guests take a escalator up through cavernous, curved grey walls to the third-floor gallery, which holds a black book of contemporary art through the ages, including colourful sculptures by Jeff Koons, a huge Roy Lichtenstein print and 60s works by Andy Warhol .

On the way back down guests can glimpse through windows into “the vault”, the storage space which houses more art.

Downtown Flophouses Have Been Gentrified

That The Broad is next door to the concert hall is no coincidence. It is a continuation of Gehry’s vision of a thriving community centre. Pavements were widened around the building to encourage footfall and a metro station is planned for 2020.

Grand Avenue is well on its way to becoming the Museum Mile of the west coast. The streetscape includes the postmodern, red sandstone Museum of Contemporary Art, while farther up is the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (golden-hued home to the LA Opera), as well as the Ahmanson and Mark Taper theatres, which show everything from classic theatre to musicals.

After my Grand Avenue tour, we veered south-west on foot, through the high-rises of Bunker Hill – another reminder of the gentrification of Downtown, whose 30s flophouses featured in Raymond Chandler ’s noir novel The Big Sleep – and arrived at Grand Central Market.

 The Broad on Grand Avenue, Downtown Los Angeles (Image: Iwan Baan)

The market, which opened in 1917, is popular with the hipster contingent, but I noticed that for every skateboard-wielding twenty-something ordering from the market’s most popular stand, Eggslut (prepare for a queue, their eggcentric menu has won awards), there was a family enjoying ice creams from O’Connells, a businessman on lunch polishing off a $3 taco, or a local buying mole from Mexican store Chiles Secos, the latter opened in the 70s and is still run by family members.

Much in the same way as the market, Broadway, the one-time epicentre of entertainment, is also undergoing a revival.

The council-run Bringing Back Broadway initiative has seen heritage buildings along the strip conserved, such as the Bradbury building (as seen in Bladerunner) and the relighting of the neon signage belonging to venues such as the Million Dollar Theatre, Orpheum and the 1927 United Artists Building, now the Ace Hotel (my home for the weekend).

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Drinking Dens With Queues Outside

It is perhaps this final revamp which best represents how Downtown has remoulded itself: the tall Gothic-style structure, a former film studio, is now a 182-room hotel with a buzzing rooftop bar, overflowing restaurant and full working theatre.

The renaissance of Downtown has also prompted a flurry of new food and drink openings. As one taxi driver, Miguel, who moved Downtown for its cheap rent, moaned, “You have to queue to get into local bars these days!”

An example is the reopening this month of 1935 restaurant-meets-party pad Clifton’s Cafeteria. Its new incarnation, in the hands of Andrew Meieran, will pay homage to its glittering history throughout its four storeys.

If Meieran’s other local drinking den Edison, a former power plant turned speakeasy, is anything to go by, it’ll be a success (much, I’d imagine, to Miguel’s chagrin).

 This is the new beating heart of the city

Add to that a roll-call of restaurants by creative young chefs and long-established ethnic communities, and you have a rival for New York’s pumping, high and lowbrow culinary scene.

The city is home to a selection of “fine dining” establishments – which here usually means a casual atmosphere and locally sourced sharing plates – such as Bestia, which serves modern Italian cuisine in a former factory in the Arts District.

 Inside the Broad (Image: The Broad)

If you can’t bag a seat there, try progressive Californian restaurant Faith and Flower, an ode to the culinary influences of the city, with a cocktail list that packs a punch.

But for the most exciting culinary discoveries, head to the city’s ethnic neighbourhoods.

You might visit Café Dulce in Little Tokyo for breakfast treats – such as green tea and spirulina doughnuts – or visit in the evening to join the throngs queuing for the ramen bars which line East 2nd Street.

Alternatively, there’s Little Korea, put on LA’s culinary map in no small part thanks to chef Roy Choi, who popularised Korean cooking through his former food truck. Nowadays, you can try his pork chop rice bowl at his restaurant POT at The Line Hotel.

 The urbanisation of Downtown LA continues

Back on the spired rooftop of the Ace Hotel, I got a final view of Downtown’s changing skyline. To one side: the gilded Art Deco lettering of the Eastern Columbia Building, designed by Claud Beelman; to the other, shiny skyscrapers and building sites framed by those legendary hills.

LA might be impenetrably large, and of course Hollywood drips with international glamour, but it’s down here you want to be, in the new beating heart of the city.

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This article was written by Jade Conroy from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.