As regular (and probably irregular) readers of Eric’s Blog know, I’m a bit of a Southern California wonk and a big part of my focus is writing about the culture, character and history of the many diverse communities of Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Although so far there have been around 800 votes from readers I thought it would be fun (and hopefully entertaining) to focus on the regions and provide a brief summary of the districts within with the hope of encouraging informed voting. First I’d like to focus on the center of the southland, Downtown Los Angeles.
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES
Before I moved to Los Angeles, a Chicagoan told me that LA had no downtown. I could see the cluster of buildings although it wasn’t that much different from the many others that rise above the sprawl. Having visited it in the late ’90s I disagreed with my acquaintance but could see her point. During the day the western portion was a commotion of be-suited bankers and accountants. The middle was absolutely bustling with Latino businesses and I found a great source for white denim and pupusas. The eastern portion was covered with tents and I saw people performing acts in exchange for crack that should only be done in private… and not for crack. When the sun set, metal doors and gates closed and it was desolate. I was occasionally threatened although I never was robbed or assaulted and to me it seemed that most visitors were from safe middle or upper class backgrounds who needed a bit of danger and prescribed, structured, punk rock rebellion to feel alive.
El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles was founded by the Spanish in 1781 in a small neighborhood colloquially known as “El Pueblo,” between Chinatown and the Civic Center. In the 19th Century the area around it evolved into Sonoratown and later Little Italy, Dogtown and (old) Chinatown.
In 1894, architect John Parkinson moved to Los Angeles and opened an architecture office on Sprint Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets. In 1896 he began designing many of the buildings in what’s now known as the Historic Core. In 1904 he designed the city’s first skyscraper, the Braly Block. In 1905 his new firm, Parkinson and Bergstrom, became the dominant architectural firm in the city. In 1920 he was joined by his son, Donald B. Parkinson and Parkinson & Parkinson designed many of the structures of the era. Numerous banking institutions moved into the new digs around Spring which came to be known as the “Wall Street of the West.” At the same time, many grand hotels also sprang up, as did the entertainment districts along Main and then Broadway. Just a little east, nearer the LA River, several railroads encouraged the development of Downtown’s industrial core.
Efforts were made by the downtown establishment to bring life back to the region. In 1930 Olvera Street in El Pueblo was redeveloped as a sort of Mexican theme park. A similarly touristy Chinatown opened in 1938. Where Chinatown had been, Union Station opened in 1939. Many of the older, increasingly non-white neighborhoods like Dogtown and Bunker Hill were razed in the name of slum clearance and the latter was redeveloped with skyscrapers to entice financial institutions to return (height restrictions were lifted in 1957). Partially successful, the “New Downtown” became home to a new Bunker Hill and Financial District. Meanwhile in the rest of downtown, the region evolved more organically. Broadway became a bustling Latino shopping and theater district. The gay scene found a degree of sanctuary around main and east of Skid Row, artists squatted in then-empty warehouses in what came to be known as The Artists’ District.In the 1960s, several high culture institutions were added to downtown. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was completed in 1964. The Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum both opened in 1967. MOCA‘s new home on Grand was built in 1986. The helped make Grand Avenue a somewhere that visitors would head after work. The Los Angeles Mall and Triforium, installed nearby in 1975, were less successful in attracting tourists.
The Downtown Los Angeles Arts District was previously just another corner of the large, old Warehouse District. After much of the industry left the area, in the 1970s it began to attract artists and became known as the Artists District. Venues like the now-gone Al’s Bar and parties held in abandoned buildings coexisted with drug abuse, homelessness and prostitution. Around the turn of the 21st century, real estate developers began to convert many of the old buildings to attractive (and expensive) residences that commodified a slightly gritty, artist lifestyle whilst pricing out many of the area’s resident artists. To read more about The Arts District, click here.
BROADWAY THEATER DISTRICT
The Broadway Theater and Commercial District is located in downtown’s Historic Core region. Within six blocks there are twelve former nickelodeons, vaudeville theaters and picture palaces, making it the first and largest historic theater district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today most of old theaters operate as churches, swap meets and flea markets, although several of the theaters participate in special movie programs and are open to the public as part of LA Conservancy‘s walking tours.
Bunker Hill is a small hill that was originally covered with lavish Victorian homes in the 19th century. After most of the neighborhood’s wealthy moved further from LA’s center, the homes were subdivided and rented by large numbers of Native Americans, Filipinos and other disenfranchised Angelenos. In the 1940s the hillside slum was a frequent setting for many film noirs. In 1955, the neighborhood was demolished and replaced with skyscrapers. Today it’s an important center of LA’s fine arts scene, home to the Ahmanson Theatre, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic, MOCA, Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, Walt Disney Concert Hall and Redcat. To read more about Bunker Hill, click here.
Modern Day Chinatown is located at the former site of LA’s Little Italy. The first Chinatown was demolished to allow for the construction of Union Station and the new one opened in 1938. Although most of LA’sChinese-Americans now live in the sprawling San Gabriel Valley, Chinatown is still the cultural heart of the Chinese-American community where several Chinese festivals take place throughout the year. It’s also notable for the large number of art galleries. To read more about Chinatown, click here.
The fancifully named Civic Center is LA’s administrative core and beaurcratic core; a complex of city, state, and federal government offices, buildings, and courthouses. Civic Center has the distinction of containing the largest concentration of government employees in the United States outside of Washington, DC. Nestled amongst the large buildings are a number of public art pieces and… I guess you’d call them office gardens or something.
Civic Support is a district north of the Arts District… It’s kind of the Roger Clinton to Civic Center’s Bill, the Lore to the latter’s Data, the Evan to yours truly. Although it’s home to beautiful Union Station (and lots of train tracks), it’s also where visitors can find the less glamorous Twin Towers Correctional Facility,Housing Authority of the City of LA, the LA Recycling Center, the LA County Public Defender, the Los Angeles County Jail and the art gallery, Jail Gallery. Oh yeah, there are lots of bail bonds places for some reason.
DOWNTOWN AUTO DISTRICT
The Downtown Auto District was officially designated in 2010. It refers to a stretch of Figueroa that’s home to a whopping five car dealerships. This wasn’t the result of a grassroots effort or organic development. Rather, the fact that auto sales are the city’s top sales tax revenue generator ( $3.3 billion in revenue in 2009 — netting $271 million for public coffers) convinced Mayor Villaraigosa and First Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner to play booster for big car companies.
DOWNTOWN INDUSTRIAL DISTRICT
The Downtown Industrial District is, along with Skid Row, part of what the city refers to a Central City East. Bordering Skid Row, Little Tokyo, The Arts District, The Wholesale District, The Produce District and The Fashion District, its character is predictably a hybrid of wholesale, lofts, homeless andJapanese-owned businesses.
The design, distribution and warehouse center of the clothing, accessories and fabric industries used to be known variously as the Textile District, the Fabric District and the Garment District. In a bit of clever re-branding it became known as The Fashion District. While counterfeit goods, bootleg DVDs and the illegal trade of animals that happen around Santee Alley seemingly have little to do with fashion, events likeUnique LA at the LA Fashion Market reflect the other end of the spectrum. Still, it’s not exactly Milan orParis.
The Financial District is a gleaming neighborhood to the south of Bunker Hill that’s dominated by upscale corporate office skyscrapers and grand hotels. It’s also home to the Los Angeles Central Library. The 73 story US Bank Tower is the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.
The Flower District is the country’s largest wholesale flower district; a six block area consisting of nearly 200 wholesale flower dealers. In 1910, 54 Issei organized a flower market that was incorporated in 1912. It usually opens around two in the morning with flowers arriving from around the world and is a site of hectic activity until the later hours of the morning, usually winding down around 10:00 am.
Gallery Row is a district in the historic core that began with the existence of three art galleries in the area:Inshallah Gallery, bank and 727 Gallery. Artists Nic Cha Kim and Kjell Hagen as well as members of theArts, Aesthetics, and Culture Committee of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council(DLANC) lobbied for the official establishment of Gallery Row, which was designated as such in 2003 by City Council. Today there are many more art spaces in the area and frequent Downtown Art Walks attract art and wine enthusiasts.
The Historic Core was the original center of downtown LA. After World War II, the center shifted west. Within the Historic Core’s borders are the more specific neighborhoods of The Old Bank District, Gallery Row, Broadway Theater District and the Jewelry District. In the 1950s it was a center of Latino business and entertainment. Since 2000, it’s undergone significant redevelopment, reuse, revitalization and restoration although there are still millions of square feet of unused property in the upper floors of many buildings. Click here to read the California Fool’s Gold exploration of the neighborhood.
The Jewelry District is a neighborhood of downtown that, according to the Los Angeles Convention Center and Visitor’s Bureau, is the largest jewelry district in the US. Nearly 5,000 businesses report a combined annual sales of almost $3 billion. In the middle of the bling is the hokey and charming St. Vincent Court, an almost hidden block of Middle Eastern and Persian shops and patrons in a Disney-like simulacrum of an old European street.
Little Tokyo is one of only three official Japantowns in the US (all in California and with several unofficial ones in SoCal). Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, it was a large neighborhood and home to thousands of Japanese-Americans. During World War II, the residents were relocated to concentration camps and the vacated area became home to many black Angelenos and was known as Bronzeville. After the internment of Japanese-Americans ended, they returned in much reduced numbers to Little Tokyo. Even though most Japanese-Americans moved elsewhere, its status as the cultural heart of Japanese Los Angeles was restored and in 1995 it was declared a National Historic Landmark District. In more recent years, many of the businesses and residences have become increasingly Korean-American although they’ve, for the most part, preserved and even restored much of the neighborhood’s Japanese charm and character. To read more about Little Tokyo, click here.
The Old Bank District is an Historic Core neighborhood of early 20th century commercial buildings, most of which have been or are in the process of being converted to residential lofts. The bottom floors often boast fashionable eateries and boutiques. The 1999 passage of the city’s adaptive reuse ordinance was followed by the 2000 opening of the first repurposed lofts, which sent ripples throughout downtown and spurred much of the area’s revival.
The Produce District centers around the massive 482,258 sq. ft. 7th Street Produce Market. One of the largest produce markets in the US, numerous vendors and markets within provide most of the fruits and vegetables for Southern California‘s restaurants and stores.
El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, centered on Olvera Street, is the oldest part of Downtown and is often referred to as “La Placita Olvera.” There are 27 historic buildings including the Avila Adobe, thePelanconi House and the Sepulveda House. In 1930, the area was opened as a tourist-targeting Mexican marketplace, much in the manner that nearby Chinatown was eight years later. It’s the setting for many Mexican and Mexican-American holiday celebrations and observances.
This small but smelly Seafood District is home to several Asian fish markets, canneries and commercial fishing warehouses near Little Tokyo. When the wind is right, the fishy smell carries to the expensive lofts of the Arts District.
The area contains one of the largest stable populations of homeless persons in the US, estimated to be around 7,000 to 8,000. It’s long been a nexus of poverty and, despite the squalor, is full of small, beautiful residential hotels built around the turn of the 20th century that contrast with the numerous tents and cardboard boxes on the sidewalk. There are also many missions and other services targeted toward the homeless population. To read more about Skid Row, click here.
(NEW) SOUTH PARK
The Wholesale District is a group of warehouses (and strip clubs) located in the southeast part of Downtown Los Angeles. Most of the warehouses within it are industrial in nature and serve the greater Los Angeles area. Few people live in this neighborhood now although it historically had a large black population. It stretches south to the industrial city of Vernon. Recently, the expansion of the Arts District from the north had encroached on its old borders. [I forgot to take a picture. 😦 ]
To vote for downtown or other Los Angeles neighborhoods to be the subject of blog entries, vote here. To vote for Los Angeles County communities, vote here. To vote for Orange County neighborhoods, vote here.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, or listicles and jobs must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
117 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — A Downtown Los Angeles Primer”