As many people have pointed out, LA is different than most major cities. New York, Chicago, and San Francisco all have suburbs surrounding them, but people still go downtown for work, shopping, entertainment. Years ago that was also true of LA. When I was a kid my dad worked downtown, and we went there regularly for one reason or another. But over time the suburbs kept spreading farther outward, and many of them gradually became self-contained communities. There are a lot of people who live in LA who have never been downtown. What’s more, they don’t ever want to go there.
I love downtown LA. I go there often. Last month I made a couple trips downtown with a camera. What follows is a record of my ramble through the city center. So if you’re too busy or too tired or too scared to make the trip yourself, this will give you a taste of what you’re missing.
I started by taking the subway to Union Station. The photo above shows the main entrance. I was hoping to include a link with photos of the interior, but I couldn’t find a single site that did it justice. You can, however, just search for images of Union Station. There are many of them on the net. Trust me, it’s worth taking a look.
Right across from Union Station is Olvera Street. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but it’s the coolest tourist trap I know of. You may have to fight your way through the crowd, but there are some restaurants that are worth the trouble. And it’s part of the historic core of LA. Among other things, you’ll find the Avila Adobe, the oldest building in the city.
Right next door to Olvera Street is the plaza that sits at the center of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, a state historic park. The plaza is surrounded by a number buildings that date back to the nineteenth century, when this was the center of activity in the city.
It won’t surprise you to learn that Chinatown got its name because it was home to a large Chinese community. These days, though, the name may be misleading since the area seems to be mostly drawing immigrants from Vietnam and Thailand. Now the largest Chinese communities are located in the San Gabriel Valley. Walking along Broadway, I have to say my impression was that the area is past its prime, but I see that some interesting events are taking place there in the next few months. Maybe I just caught Chinatown on a slow day.
This is an image of a woman playing traditional Chinese music. I passed another street musician, an older man, singing songs that sounded like they must have come from the old country. Sadly, these people are part of a dwindling minority. My impression is that even in China traditional music is quickly being forgotten as people rush to embrace pop, rap and techno. It’s frightening how Western pop culture buries everything it can’t market. When this older generation dies off, will there be anyone left to sing the old songs?
A tent settlement on Spring Street. Homelessness continues to be a problem all over LA.
Little Tokyo is one of my favorite places to go, partly for the food, but I also just like the vibe. This is a row of shops and restaurants along First Street. And just around the corner….
….is the Japanese American National Museum. The building on the left is the historic older building which I believe houses the museum’s offices. The newer building on the right is the exhibition space, and I have seen some very cool shows there.
As I was walking down Second, I looked up and saw St. Vibiana. It’s one of the oldest buildings in the city, and we’re lucky it’s still standing. During the nineties, the Archdiocese made a deal with the City of LA to tear the cathedral down. The process was stopped by preservationists, who managed to get a court order which halted the demolition. Today it serves as a performing arts center and event venue.
I was walking down Broadway and passed this doorway and it caught my eye. The stairs lead up to an organization called SHARE! which provides services for people dealing with a variety of issues. I looked up their web site and found this.
SHARE! empowers people to change their own lives and provides them a loving, safe, non-judgmental place where they can find community, information and support.
Walking through some parts of downtown there is definitely a sense of desperation. While gentrification is rapidly turning some neighborhoods into upscale enclaves, just around the corner you’ll find people living in total despair. I guess happening across this stairway I felt like I’d found an unexpected message of hope.
I fell in love with the Bradbury Building years ago, and I try to visit it whenever I can. It has been standing at the corner of Third and Broadway since the end of the nineteenth century. The interior is gorgeous, but unfortunately these days only people who have business with one of the tenants can go above the first floor.
The Bradbury Building was designed by George Wyman, and the story of how he got the job is pretty unusual. To learn more about how it was created, and to get a glimpse of the inside, click here.
Broadway used to be the original theatre district in LA. In the photo below, the Bradbury Building is on the left, and on the right hand side you can see the Million Dollar Theater, which is where Sid Grauman set up shop when he first came to LA back in nineteen eighteen.
Farther down Broadway you’ll find the Los Angeles Theatre. This spectacularly gaudy movie palace was designed by S. Charles Lee, who designed many other theatres during his career. The first film to play there was City Lights. I’ve been inside only once, years ago, and I have to say it was pretty amazing. The lobby alone was worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, it’s only open for special screenings these days, but if you get the chance I urge you to check it out. The Los Angeles Conservancy sponsors a series every summer called The Last Remaining Seats, during which they show films at some of the old movie palaces. The bad news is that this year’s screening of All About Eve at the Los Angeles Theatre is sold out. But you can check out photos of the interior on the theatre’s web site. Use the menu on the left to see images of the lobby, auditorium, etc..
The Music Center is another mid-century classic by Welton Becket and Associates. It’s comprised of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum, and was completed in nineteen sixty seven. Becket believed in “total design”, meaning that he encouraged his clients to have the firm create not only the structure, but also furniture, carpeting, signage, dishes and flatware. Originally the Music Center did have an amazing unity of design, but in recent years there have been a number of additions to the plaza, and I feel like they’ve messed the place up. Still, the individual buildings are stunning. In nineteen ninety four, Ellerbe Becket Architects supervised some alterations to the Ahmanson, and the end result actually works pretty well.