I recently completed an assignment for New York magazine, a quick little man-on-the-street piece about the revitalization of downtown Los Angeles. I spent eight hours one Saturday afternoon wandering from Skid Row to Little Tokyo to Bunker Hill, randomly approaching people and hoping like hell they’d have something interesting to say. Fortunately, most everyone did. Unfortunately, due to space limitations, most of what they said didn’t make it into the actual magazine, so I’ve included a lengthier (yet edited and condensed, if we’re gonna get real Deborah Solomon about it) version of the feature after the jump.
(Many thanks to Sye Williams, who allowed me to reproduce his photos here. Hire him sometime!)
MITCH CARRICART (28)
Real Estate Agent
6th and Spring
Right after I graduated from the University of Idaho, I was recruited to sell single-family tract homes 45 minutes to an hour outside of Los Angeles. I’d never been to LA before, never got to live in or experience a big city, but as soon as I visited, I wanted to move here. So I put in my time and eventually got offered a job selling lofts downtown, which I’ve been doing for four or five years now. I just wanted to live and work in a more hip environment with a younger crowd, a cooler crowd. And I wanted to be able to walk everywhere: walk to the gym, walk to the grocery stores, walk to the bars. More importantly, walk home from the bars.
I’m at Staples Center three times a week when it’s in season. Even more if you count LA Live. A few weekends back, I went to see Dierks Bentley at Club Nokia on Friday night; a 1 PM Kings game and a 7 PM Clippers game at Staples on Saturday; and then on Sunday, a 5 PM Dodgers game followed by a 9 PM Talib Kweli show, again at Club Nokia. Which is not an atypical weekend for me. I love doing that stuff. It’s probably why I don’t have a girlfriend, but there you go.
There was initially a lot of skepticism when I first started selling property downtown. A lot of people had a hard time envisioning what the neighborhood could be. And I’d always tell them: the east coast has 200 years on us, but we’ll get there. And slowly but surely, we are. I’d say the majority of all the most popular restaurants and bars that people go to today have been opened within the last three years. But still, it’s taking too long. Way too long. I know it’s partially because of the market, but it’s gonna take two years to fully build the area out anyway: start now so when the market recovers, it’s there. Especially since by then, we’ll hopefully have street cars and a football stadium down here as well. To me, it’s the Field of Dreams thing: build it and they will come.
ERIC OLSEN (33)
SARAH WRIGHT (27)
3rd and Spring
We bought down here about eight years ago, after spending time in New York and Chicago and really being drawn to that sort of urban setting. This guy, Bill Stevenson, was redoing the Douglas, and he offered a tour of the penthouse. The floors had holes that went all the way through but the bones were beautiful: bricks from 1890, 23- foot ceilings, Douglas Fir hardwoods. The corner window looked out over the LA Times building and city hall. It was beautiful, a really magical space. But at that point there were still people sleeping in the building, crazy paraphernalia everywhere. At 5 PM the neighborhood became a ghost town.
At first, the question we got the most was, where do you buy groceries? And trying to talk friends into coming downtown, they’d be like, why would we come down there? But we own cruiser bikes and skateboards, so whenever we’d have people over, we’d open a bottle of wine, then ride over to Little Tokyo, eat the best sushi in town, and maybe cap it off at Staples Center with a Clippers game. Spring Street used to be a tent city; now there are all these amazing coffee shops and restaurants everywhere. These young entrepreneurs — like Ilan Hall, he won Top Chef and now has one of the best restaurants downtown, the Gorbals — can open something without worrying they’ll get kicked out in three months because they can’t afford $14,000 a month in rent. You’ve got thousands of people coming down here for the Art Walk every month, so the businesses are getting tons of exposure. It’s all finally starting to happen; we were just ahead of the curve.
We almost bought a second space down here. We’ve put in offers. It looks like we’re probably going to move to Malibu instead, but we’ll never get rid of the place we’re living now. We’ll keep it forever. It’s like our B-minus version of SoHo.
I’ve lived all over. The ghetto, Compton, Watts, Long Beach. I stayed on Skid Row for three years and I’ve been in this hotel, the Hayward, for eight years, so that’s 11 years downtown, I guess. It’s pretty unique, you got a lot of people down here, new people every day. It’s never boring. You got rich people right down the street from poor people. Used to be a lot of people drinking on the corners, smoking, selling drugs, hanging out. But now, from like, Los Angeles and 5th up to 5th and Broadway, it’s clean. Skid Row used to go all the way to Pershing Square. You could sleep in Pershing Square. Back then it was like a hell, but now it’s like a tourist attraction.
I think Mayor Villaraigosa and them should be ashamed of themselves, putting all this money into something and not creating any sort of improvements or opportunities for the lower class people, the natives who were here before. Because the poor people five streets away aren’t welcome. A lot of the building owners tell their security guards not to let what you’d call “undesirables” — or, in security language, 1099s — even sit down on a bench. I don’t know, maybe poor people need their own space on the moon or something, because if you can’t be on the streets, where do you go? You can’t go nowhere. Either you’re loitering of you’re jaywalking.
And these rich people need to show a little compassion. Buy somebody a loaf of bread or something. It’ll make them look better than wasting hundreds of dollars on iPhones or spending 10 dollars on a cup of coffee or wearing skinny jeans, trying to be cute and fit in. Maybe 2012 is the year they wake up. Maybe some sort of cosmic ray will come into the planet and make ‘em say, you know what? Let’s stop being selfish, let’s stop saying, I’m a millionaire, I bought a couple lofts down here, thinking about opening me a restaurant and getting rich, dying, leaving the money to my kids who didn’t work for it. It’s a messed-up cycle and it needs to end.
And on that note, let the boat float.
I moved here from Toledo seven months ago. I was flown here to shoot the cover of a book and I just never went home. My apartment is the cheapest thing in the world. I would have taken it by myself except my roommates needed a place.
None of us are into the Hollywood thing. Downtown is mostly artists, people who do music or paint or whatever. Hollywood’s mostly models and actors and whatever else. The gentrification downtown, though, it’s almost becoming too much. This homeless guy who sells weed on my street, he’s been in the neighborhood 40 years, and he says I’m the first white girl he’s ever seen living over here. It’s like it’s so super diverse now that no one knows how to act around anyone else.
I’ve seen a lot of crazy things: drugs, prostitutes, pimps, homeless people, tents everywhere. You can’t really walk around at night. It’s scary, but a weird kind of scary. Like in Toledo, people will actually accost you, you’ve got stabbings and kids dying and there’s a huge meth problem. The whole midwest is like that: kinda hopeless and done. Here, as bad as it is in some ways, not much ever happens. And I guess that’s why it feels like there’s a chance things might improve.
CALIXTO HERNANDEZ (39)
La Cita, 3rd and Hill
Something you hear about LA a lot is that it’s a culture of amnesia, because businesses and buildings are turned around so quickly. And it’s kinda true. This bar, La Cita, it’s been around 40 years, 50 years, which is ancient by LA standards. So no, the city doesn’t have that Old World feel, or even that east coast feel. But there’s still a lot of history here. Pre-United States history. The original name of the town was El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles; there’s always been a strong Latin American culture. And downtown is one of those areas where you can still really experience it.
One good thing about what the new owners have done with La Cita is they’ve let it retain the daytime crowd it’s always had, which has been predominantly Latin American blue-collar dudes. And they’ve added to that a younger, hip, more affluent clientele that comes in at night. So it changes over. And in a way, it’s weird, but I feel like a liaison, because I’m native Mexican and I speak Spanish and as I’ve gotten to know the crew over the years, they’ve come to accept me. They’re like, oh, okay, he’s a real paisa, he’s a real Mexican, we’ll go order beers from him. And I would love it if everybody always hung out like that, but there is this stigma where a lot of the guys think there’s a language barrier, or that people think less of them or whatever. Still, on the weekends, we’ll have cookouts on the back patio, maybe one of the Mexicans or Salvies or Guatemalans will have a birthday, or one of the hipster regulars, and there’ll be food for everybody and everybody’s cool.
I wouldn’t say downtown’s the epicenter of culture in LA, but it’s starting to have that feel. It’s vibrant. I live one bus line away, in Echo Park, and when I go out at night, I find myself coming down here a lot more than I used to. I just wish public transportation would run later so people could get home from the bars safely, without worrying about DUIs. I mean, how much money is it really going to cost to keep the red line running two hours past midnight, you know?