October 10, 2011
The effort to attract people to downtown Los Angeles, surely one of the seediest city centers in America with a large homeless population and nightmarish Skid Row, always struck me as hopeless, especially when I moved to L.A. in 1998 and looked at loft apartments in the neighborhood. Everyone said it was about to become the next hot place; I couldn’t wait that long.
I settled instead on the fringes of Hollywood, but for the next six years worked on Spring Street downtown. Lined by once elegant early 20th century bank buildings, hotels and theaters with exceptional bones, Spring and neighboring Main Streets made the National Register of Historic Places; the occasional European tourist found downtown, pausing in front of the Renaissance Revival Bradbury Building or grabbing a Cuban sandwich at the Grand Central Market before looking for a bus to Universal Studios in Hollywood; architecture devotees explored the district with the estimable Los Angeles Conservancy, which still offers a “Downtown Renaissance: Spring and Main Walking Tour.”
But, me, I couldn’t find a decent place for lunch downtown.
I guess it just took longer than expected for the neighborhood to transmogrify because when I went back recently, after moving away in 2003, things were starting to look up. Coffee shops, dozens of galleries that open their doors for Downtown Art Walk on the second Thursday of each month, hip restaurant-bars like the Edison on W. 2nd, even a grocery store for urban dwellers had opened up. People were out walking dogs. The vibe remained edgy, but that’s the attraction.
Still, I wasn’t too eager about joining a friend for dinner at the funky-chic Nickel Diner on Main Street downtown. After dark, the area looked as unappetizing as ever. Not so the menu, featuring moderately-priced American comfort food, along with desserts to-die-for, like the imponderably delicious peanut butter potato chip cake. It was so good I took my niece and her boyfriend for a slice the next night.
They’re my two favorite twenty-something Angelinos, presumably the perfect type for downtown. But they live in another gentrifying neighborhood around Echo Park, heading to the old city center on Art Walk Thursdays to eat from gourmet food trucks that cluster in parking lots along Main and Spring Streets.
Begun seven years ago by a handful of downtown trades people, Art Walk now attracts as many as 30,000 people. But increasingly, most of them show up more for the party rather than for art connoisseurship. With them come traffic, noise, disorderly conduct and other problems now forcing organizers to rethink the event that has done so much to put downtown on the map.