THE FAIRFAX DISTRICT
The Fairfax District is a small Midtown neighborhood with a long history as one of Los Angeles’ primary centers of Jewish culture. The boundaries, like many Los Angeles neighborhoods, aren’t universally agreed upon but I place them as Melrose Avenue on the north, North La Brea Avenue on the east, West 3rd Street to the south and North Fairfax Avenue on the west.
It’s neighbored by The Melrose District (currently a group is attempting to change its name to Melrose Village) to the north, Hollywood to the northeast, Hancock Park to the east, Park La Brea and Miracle Mile to the south, and Beverly Grove to the west. It used to be commonly referred to as The Bagel District but nowadays there sadly aren’t as many bagels around. A more common nickname nowadays, especially in reference to Fairfax Ave, is “Kosher Canyon.” Signs designate the Fairfax Avenue corridor “Fairfax Village.”
HISTORY OF FAIRFAX
The flat, coastal plains that are now the Midtown area were, before the Spanish Conquest, part of the Tongva homeland. During the early years of Los Angeles, what’s now the Midtown area was predominantly pasture and farmlands.
In 1852, the La Casa de Rancho La Brea (later re-named Gilmore Adobe) was built in the area. Farmer Arthur Fremont Gilmore bought the 256 acre Rancho La Brea in 1880 after having moved there from Illinois in 1870. Whilst drilling for water, he struck oil in 1905 but the area remained sparsely populated.
In 1921, Gilmore’s grandson, Earl Bell Gilmore, switched the Gilmore Company‘s focus from dairy farming to gas distribution, founding the A.F. Gilmore Oil Company. Development, in earnest, began the following year when Harvey McCarthy developed the nearby Carthay Center as an upscale neighborhood. As with most of Los Angeles, racist housing covenants restricted home ownership to white Angelenos but eventually many Jews, previously centered in the Eastside neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, City Terrace, East Los Angeles, and Montebello moved to the area around Fairfax Avenue, establishing delis, restaurants, kosher butchers, bakeries and fish markets and giving the area a pronounced Jewish character.
Meanwhile, Earl Gilmore developed the Gilmore Island landmark, which included several entertainment venues.
In May 1934, Earl Gilmore opened the 18,000-seat Gilmore Stadium. It was home to Los Angeles’s first professional American Football team, the Los Angeles Bulldogs. It was also used for midget car racing, donkey baseball, boxing, dog shows, rodeos and cricket. It was featured in the Three Stooges film, Three Little Pigskins (1934).
Gilmore Field was built in 1938 for the Hollywood baseball team, jointly owned by Bing Crosby, Barbara Stanwyck, and Cecil B. DeMille. The Stadium was ultimately demolished in 1951. The Field was demolished in 1958.
THE ORIGINAL FARMERS MARKET
The Farmers Market opened in July 1934. It began with just eighteen farmers. Unlike the stadium, it’s still there, with more than 100 restaurants, grocers and shops. On the day of our visit, we decided without debate to eat at the always delicious Loteria Grill.
The Wurdeman and Becket-designed Streamline Moderne Pan Pacific Auditorium opened in May 1935. It was home to the Pacific Coast Hockey League team, the Los Angeles Monarchs. For many years it was the premiere indoor sports venue. It closed in 1972. In 1975, the Pan-Pacific appeared in Funny Lady (1978) as New York’s NBC Studios. In 1978, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It also appeared in Xandadu (1980), the Devo video “Beautiful World” (1981) and Miracle Mile (1988). Long home to squatters, it suffered from neglect and accidental fires started by transients for years until it finally burned down in 1989.
By 1935, there were four synagogues in the neighborhood. After World War II, many Holocaust survivors joined the older Jewish population and by 1945, there were twelve synagogues. In addition, religious schools and a Jewish Community Center opened. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Fairfax District was the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles but the character changed as established Jewish-Americans increasingly secured white-collar jobs and moved to other neighborhoods. The newly arriving Jews, often from Israel, Ukraine and Russia, more often continued to operate small shops that still characterize the neighborhood.
Canter’s deli originally opened as Canter Brother’s Delicatessen in Boyle Heights in 1931, when it still had a large Jewish population. In 1941 a second location opened on Fairfax. The new Canter’s was known as Canter’s Fairfax and was located at 439 Fairfax. In 1953 it moved to its current, larger location, which had been the Esquire Theatre from 1937 until ’53. The Brooklyn Heights location closed around 1967.
THE SILENT MOVIE THEATRE
The Silent Movie Theatre was opened in 1942 by John Hampton. In 1997 it was in the news when then-owner, Laurence Austin, was murdered in the theater during a screening of F.W. Murnau‘s film, Sunrise, by a gunman (Christian Rodriguez) hired by his lover (and the theater’s projectionist), James Van Sickle. It closed in the following year and was reopened in 1999 by a new owner, Charlie Lustman. By then it was the last purely silent movie theater in the universe. In 2006, Sammy and Dan Harkham, and Hadrian Belove purchased the theater and started showing talkies the following year after renaming it Cinefamily. On the occasions that they did show silent films, they employed the services of master accompanist Bob Mitchell, until he passed away in 2009, aged 96. It is also famous for having the most uncomfortable seating in Southern California.
Meanwhile, back at Gilmore Island, the 850-seat, William L. Pereira-designed Pan Pacific Theatre opened in 1942. It closed in 1984, shortly after it was filmed and featured in Tuff Turf (1985) and was destroyed by an arsonist supposedly under the employ of a shady developer. Nearby, the 650-car capacity, Balch & Bryan-designed Gilmore Drive-In opened in 1948, another Streamline Moderne structure on the former site of an orchard and nursery. It ceased operation in 1977. It appeared in the 1980 film Loose Shoes (filmed in 1977) and the 1977 horror film Ruby.
CBS TELEVISION CITY
Nearby, on the site of the former Gilmore Stadium, stands CBS Television City. CBS bought CBS Studio Center in Studio City in 1963 but Television City is where The Young and the Restless, the Late Late Show and The Price is Right are filmed. Other shows filmed there in the past include All in the Family, House Party, The Carol Burnett Show, The Dinah Shore Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Smothers Brothers, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, and The Twilight Zone.
In 2001, construction of The Grove began on the Farmers Market parking lot and former site of the drive-in. In 1999, old, historic buildings were torn down to make way for an outdoor mall designed to look like a series of old, historic buildings. However, this simulacrum improves on reality with a trolley, a music-fountain show, fake snow at Christmas, and a loud, acrid Abercrombie & Fitch Town Hall.
On the other end of the spectrum, 2001 was also when the Miracle Mile North Preservation Overlay Zone was established… thankfully ensuring that The Grove won’t destroy everything to the east.
While this area of Los Angeles is still home to a large Jewish populace, the current demographic breakdown is 85% white (primarily Russian, Irish, and Ukranian), 6% Latino (primarily Mexican), and 5% Asian. Fairfax still has several Jewish synagogues and institutions including Baba Sale Congregation, Aish Tamid of Los Angeles, Young Israel of Hancock Park, Young Israel of LA, Etz Jacob Congregation, Congregation Tifereth Zvi, Tomchei Shabbos, Congregation Shaarei Tefila, and Congregation Kehillas Yaakov.
We visited the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. It’s a pretty somber and depressing affair, as you’d expect, but eye-opening in several regards. The reproduction of newspapers shows how the Nazis gradually eroded people’s rights, rather than taking them away over night. The old newspapers also show how common racism was in the US as well. For example, one article is about the illegality of marriage between whites and Asians, another casually reports “A Mob of 199 White Men Lynch a Negro.”
The green-roofed museum is located in the Pan Pacific Park, a tranquil area with features including Ed Smith’s Sixty Trees (Planted by Minnie), a statue of Haym Solomon, a Jewish patriot from the American Revolution, a recreation center built to resemble the old Pan Pacific Auditorium, and Renée’s Place, a posh playground with first-class swings.
EATING AND DRINKING IN FAIRFAX
There are several choices of restaurants in the neighborhood, including Almafi Ristorante, Angeini Osteria,Angeli Caffe, Animal, Antonio’s, Bagel Broker, Beverly Elite Cafe, Black Sea, BLD Restaurant, Buddha’s Belly, Bulan Thai Vegetarian, Bungalow Club, Buzz Coffee, Cafe Verona,Canter’s, Cayenne Cafe, Chameau, Cobra & Matadors, Cube Marketplace & Cafe, Damiano Mr Pizza, Della Terra, Diamond Bakery, The Dime, Du-Par’s, East India Grill, Eilat Bakery, Fairfax Fishery, Farm of Beverly Hills, Fiddler’s Bistro, Fish Grill, Frankie’s on Melrose, Fratelli Cafe, Grace, Gumbo Pot, I Love Sushi, Inaka Natural Foods, India’s Oven, Insomnia Cafe, Itacho Japanese,Kazuyo, La Brea Bagel, La Glatt, La Korea, La Piazza, Lotteria, Lulu’s Cafe, Maggiano’s Little Italy,Marmalade Cafe, Melrose Baking, Milk, Nakkara on Beverly, Pita Bar & Grill, Playa, The Rosewood Tavern, Star of India Tandoori, Susina Bakery & Cafe, Terroni, The Golden State, The Tar Pit, The Whisper Lounge, Ulysses Voyage, Versal European Deli, and Wood Ranch BBQ and Grill.
I’ve never been to El Coyote Cafe (because everyone tells me the food’s bad) [UPDATE: I’ve been there several times since and I really like it!] It it’s a neighborhood institution, having opened in 1931. Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski ate their last meal at El Coyote, shortly before they were murdered by the Manson Family. It lost some of its kitsch appeal when it became known that the current owner, Margie Christoffersen, gave financial support to Proposition 8.
The neighborhood is also home to Sante La Brea, which was featured in one of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares most entertaining episodes. Sadly, the restaurant recently announced that it’s closing. They also used to cater all of Amoeba’s functions. For those that, for whatever reason, get excited about celebrity sightings, I once saw Lemonadoligist, 30 Seconds to Mars-singer and TV’s Jordan Catalano — Jared Leto — sharing lunch there with a chihuahua.
We opted to grab a few end-of-blogventure drinks at The Parlor. It’s one of those enormous joints with a gazillion televisions all tuned to various sports that attracts a rather Jersey Shore-esque crowd, which is kind of exciting because Angelenos don’t have that many opportunities to observe bros in the wild.
I don’t readily know of any bands or musicians born in the Fairfax District although there are a handful of independent record stores: Headline Records (which specializes in punk, thrash, straight edge, garage, rockabilly, and psychobilly) and Street Sounds, which specializes in dance music and rather improbably claims to be “L.A.’s most prominent record store.” Turntable Lab has been selling vinyl, compac discs, DJ equipment and more since 1999.
It should also be mentioned that, though not necessarily born in the neighborhood, Brett Smiley, Phil Spector, Steven Adler, Herb Alpert, Flea, Jerome Hines, Jack Irons, Jermaine Jackson, Anthony Kiedis, Slash, Hilel Slovak and Warren Zevon all attended Fairfax High.
Rocket Video is Fairfax’s preeminent video store. It was established north of its current location, in the Melrose District, but recently moved south.
There’s also Family Bookstore, which also has a nice selection of art prints, DVDs and music.
There used to be several movie theaters in the Fairfax District but these days there’s only one, the New Beverly Cinema, one of LA’s several revival houses that primarily screen classic, independent, grindhouse, cult, and foreign films. The theater was designed by architects John P. Edwards and Warren Frazier Overpeck and originally opened as a vaudeville theater. Around 1945 became a nightclub called Slapsie Maxies. It became the Capri Theater in the 1950s. In the 1960s it became The Riviera. In the 1960s it became The Europa and screened European art house films. In its next incarnation, as the Eros, it showed erotic European films and later, gay porn. In 1968 it became The Beverly and showed porn with live strippers on stage. It became the New Beverly in 1978. In 2007, its operator Sherman Torgan died of a heart attack whilst riding his bike in Santa Monica. His son Michael struggled to keep it going until it was purchased by Quentin Tarantino in 2009.
THE FAIRFAX STAGE
There are currently three live theaters in Fairfax, the Acme Comedy Theatre, Zephyr Theatre (which claims to be in West Hollywood but isn’t), and the Greenway Court Theatre.
THE FAIRFAX ART SCENE
There are several art galleries in Fairfax including Melrose Lightspace, Reform Gallery, Specific, Thomas Paul Fine Art, Perrell Fine Art, Project Space, Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Stephen Cohen Gallery, Tobey C Moss Gallery and the Blitzstein Museum of Art.
Special thanks to my featured traveling companions, Darley Street Disco‘s Diana Ward, Moving Units bassist Johan Bogeli, and narrator Morgan Freeman.
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