EXPLORING DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES: AMERICA’S FORGOTTEN URBAN FRONTIER
Los Angeles is a big valley full of mystery. Most Americans have grown to view Los Angeles as an uncomfortable patchwork of suburbs and expressways. Images of riots, earthquakes, and endless traffic have given the city a notorious reputation throughout the states. Tourists unfamiliar with the city’s physical dysfunction will often make overambitious itineraries and then quickly find that getting around is half the schedule. So, how can you simplify your visit and make the most of LA’s complexities?
One great place to start is downtown Los Angeles, as it is compact, walkable, fascinating, and regularly overlooked in guidebooks and discussion of LA.
As Eastern and Midwestern Americans flocked west to Los Angeles in the early 20th Century, they built the young new city to resemble what they had back home: tight, organized urban grids with well-defined sidewalks, street trees, squares with impressive features such as grand theaters, and civic buildings. The downtown district peaked in importance during the 1920s, but with the suburbanization of the 1950s, along with the destruction of the city’s streetcar system, downtown Los Angeles quickly became a relic, famous less for its urbanity and more for its insanity; with images of skid row and towering infernos representing the old core, while Hollywood and Malibu became the new focus of all the glitz and glamour.
Well, as is happening in other US cities, the glamour is re-centralizing once again. Aging relics are being restored and reappreciated. Trendy bars, restaurants, hotels are popping up little-by-little throughout the streets of downtown LA. Now is as good a time as ever to see downtown Los Angeles in its fascinating transitional period.
Here are some must-see attractions and urban scenes
First things first: put your bag down:
Downtown has the best value in hotels in Los Angeles. (read cheapER, not necessarily cheap). If you want to explore, even for a day, you should consider sleeping here while you do, as getting around greater Los Angeles isn’t always so easy. You’re not far from Hollywood if you choose to go that route, Koreatown’s delicacies (which will be covered in full in another post) are a short cab or drive away, and hip Silverlake is just down the way as well. Choose a smart hotel and book a few nights. If you’re feeling fancy, there are also a few of those options as well.
The Los Angeles Public Library
The showcase of one of the world’s largest library systems, the Public Library, at 630 West 5th Street, between Grand Avenue and Flower Street, is a beautiful art deco building completed in 1926. Obviously, you didn’t travel to LA to stick your face in a book, but the building is also notable for its beautiful mosaics, photography collection and constantly changing exhibitions.
A pivotal central park since the 1850s, it was revitalized in the early 1990s in a sleek, now-outdated style, which today resembles a set of the Arsenio Hall show. When the weather is nice, there are concerts and performances well-worth checking out.
Completed in 1939 and still retaining its Spanish-meets-Art Deco aura, this train station is one of America’s last-standing railway houses.
The Bradbury Building
Recognizable from the film Blade Runner, The Bradbury Building was completed in 1883 and is most noted for its stunning courtyard and unique exposed elevators. Even if you have no business here, you are allowed to explore the courtyard. Rumor has it that Ray Bradbury completed the building himself by hand, but this has yet to be factually established.
Take a walk and explore the eerie streets
The greatest experience of downtown Los Angeles is not the individual attractions, but rather the district’s spooky down-and-out condition. Soon it will be hip and upscale again. For now, you can catch it in its transitional phase.
Downtown Los Angeles in Film
In film, downtown LA is often used to represent blighted neighborhoods. Also, due to its Eastern-style US design, it substitutes for East Coast locations in films shot in Los Angeles.
Some cool downtown LA films:
Bladerunner (1982) – the future is juxtaposed with the past
The Million Dollar Hotel (1999) – The entire theme of this film seems to be based on the cursed feeling of downtown Los Angeles in the 1990s.
Mulholland Drive (2001) – The unforgettable “Llorando” scene was filmed at the Palace Theatre (exterior) and Tower Theatre (interior)
The Omega Man (1971) – post-apocalyptic movie features buildings old and new (at the time)
The Terminator (1984) – successfully captures the tense eeriness of downtown in the 1980s
Interestingly, the population of downtown Los Angeles is split almost evenly between Asians, Blacks, Whites and Hispanics. The various cultural histories can be found in certain sub-districts:
Little Tokyo – though the Japanese American population has dispersed throughout the region, Little Tokyo still remains the heart of the far-flung community
Chinatown – a surprising amount of art-filled attractions
Olvera Street – possibly the true origins of Los Angeles, now a somewhat tacky collection of shops and restaurants