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Downtown: The Only Town For Me
Brian La Belle

717 S Flower St
"You live downtown? Oh I didn’t know people lived there, it must have changed a lot over the years because I haven't been down there since ..."

For years downtown Los Angeles was a place people went to school, worked, or visited for a few hours when the Lakers were in town. It was definitely not a place to call home, or somewhere you wanted to hang when the sun went down.

Gone are the days of tent-lined streets of homeless and brazen drug deals in the middle of the sidewalk in broad daylight. Throughout the past five years, an enormous influx of residents, small businesses, and organizations find themselves calling downtown Los Angeles home as the city center searches for an identity while reinventing itself as a place to live, work and play.

Living Downtown

With the help of legislation, community organizations and grassroots initiatives downtown is finally a community of residents.

In 1999 the Los Angeles City Council passed an adaptive reuse ordinance, clearing much of the red tape for developers to move into once neglected buildings and turn them into mixed use housing and businesses in the downtown core. The success of initial conversations helped spur the massive building cycle currently taking place downtown including numerous high rise residential buildings.

According to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, since 1999 more than 9,200 units have come to market, 7,900 are under construction with another 17,000 in the pipeline. During these challenging economic times, many developers are launching their buildings as rental units until the market comes back around, at which time they will once again package them as condos and put them on the market. In relative terms it's a great time for those considering the move downtown.

Bank of America Plaza

Condo units are coming on the market with attractive incentive packages offered by developers; credit is tight and these fabulously styled units are no longer going to sit and sell themselves. If renting is your thing, congratulations! You’re in luck! Unit owners are charging hundreds less than just a year ago. Of course a bargain in Los Angeles is not exactly a bargain anywhere else, unless you’re comparing to New York City. One or two bedroom soft lofts will run you anywhere from $2,000-$3,000 a month depending on the area and how desperate owners are to have someone in their place. Most if not all housing downtown is described as "loft living," though few resemble the artist loft image that pops into your head upon hearing the phrase.

So who lives here? Living downtown makes you feel as if you are part of a large social experiment because people from every income and age bracket, an uncountable numbers of races, people of various sexual orientations, young singles, couples, retirees and students all call downtown their home.

To give you a sense of the enormous influx of residents living downtown, look no farther than the area's only grocery store, Ralph's on 9th Street between Hope and Flower. Opened in June 2008, downtown LA's first major grocery store in more than 50 years is already the busiest store in the Ralph's chain. Of course being the only game in town means you pay more for food across the board at here but it's the trade off for not having to drive fifteen minutes for deli meat and milk.

For those who work and live downtown living close to your job means you aren't sitting in the world famous LA traffic. Many downtown residents simply walk to their place of employment or take some form of mass transit, thereby saving on fuel costs and sleeping in a little later than they would if they had to battle the commute.

Entertainment and Personal Time In the City

One of downtown's most popular events comes at a great price: free. The second Thursday of each month, the streets come alive for LA’s Downtown Art Walk. Started in 2003, the art walk is a self-guided tour through the Historic Core neighborhood, in particular Gallery Row. Artists and their galleries are open to the public and display works of art from 12-9 pm. There is always entertainment somewhere along the route, while restaurants and cafes offer discounted pricing throughout the day and night. The Art Walk currently welcomes more than 3,000 people into the neighborhood each month and is quickly becoming an event for residents throughout Los Angeles.

Next door to the Staples Center, LA Live is set to open in December 2008. This 2.5 billion dollar entertainment area aims to become the "Times Square of the West." Already open and in use is the Nokia Theater, home to concerts and television events such as The Grammy and Emmy awards, American Idol finales and other extravaganzas. LA Live will feature hotels, residences, the Grammy Museum and the west coast headquarters for ESPN. For residents and visitors alike at least a dozen restaurants will call LA Live home in addition to a bowling alley, clubs and movie theaters. It's also one more spot for free entertainment and people-watching when award shows make their way into the area. Where else can you see Ron Jeremy walk the red carpet along side big time Hollywood actors and actresses?

And as more people move into downtown Los Angeles, they’re bringing their four-legged friends along with them. A monthly gathering to check out is the Downtown Dog Walk which takes place the second Wednesday of each month at 6 pm in Pershing Square. Dog owners and pets from all over the core gather in the so-called park to chat and let the dogs interact before making their way as a group to a randomly selected park, store or other downtown attraction. In addition to being a great place for downtown dogs to play with one another the monthly gathering is an opportunity to meet some new and old residents of downtown who all have one thing in common--living in the area with pets.

More and more grassroots events like the Art Walk and Dog Walk continue to emerge and serve as a sign that downtown Los Angeles is rapidly becoming a community. Recently FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise; where most of the Project Runway winners graduated from) and downtown businesses hosted a Halloween event for kids and their parents in Grand Hope Park. Such events are sprouting up more often as downtown becomes home to people from all walks of life.

Grand Hope Park
Something to Eat and Drink

Eating downtown can be a chore at times, especially if you just want a good meal without having to dress up in your finest club clothes and dump your entire paycheck. Downtown is home to some great old time institutions and some new offerings with great food at reasonable prices.

Angelenos love their breakfast--you can head into a restaurant at 2 pm and there are still people eating pancakes and eggs. One breakfast choice you must check out is The Pantry Cafe. Opened in 1924 and considered a downtown treasure, The Pantry now finds itself surrounded by brand new residential high rise buildings, office towers and the mammoth LA Live project. Serving breakfast 24/7/365, little has changed throughout the years at The Pantry including the line (always snakes out the door and around the corner) that seems to exist at all hours of the day.

The number of restaurants opening downtown continues to multiply and there really is something for everyone, and the same holds true when the sun goes down and it's time to hit up a bar or two.

Downtown has its fair share of clubs and places to be seen, but sometimes you just want a cool place to hang out and grab a drink. If you weren't looking for it you may never come across Seven Grand in the heart of downtown. Offering up more than 150 different whiskeys, Seven Grand is the kind of place you would see in a movie, complete with a 150-year old pool table and a decor that screams manly including taxidermy on the walls. The new hipsters, college kids and business people can be found mingling amongst one another not only at Seven Grand but downtown's Golden Gopher or the resident dive bar, Hank's.

LA Live
The Other Side of Downtown

Of course living in the middle of the second largest city in the United States is not without sacrifice.

Despite the efforts of city and business improvement district workers, downtown Los Angeles is dirty; not dirty in the sense of seedy scariness, but actual dirt. Certain parts of downtown could stand a giant air freshener, like those automatic ones in public toilets that go off every 10 minutes. Of course much of this is caused not only by the sheer number of people and garbage in the area, but public urination can't be helping either and unfortunately it happens more often than you care to believe.

Don't expect lush green parks to walk your dog or play with the little ones if you live downtown because those haven't been developed yet, and may never be. Unlike other urban centers such as Chicago which require developers to include green space and parks into their plans, the City of Los Angeles makes these heavy hitters drop a certain percentage into a fund (Quimby Fund) in lieu of doing the work themselves. Money from the Quimby Fund is supposed to be spent on defining the landscape around new developments but it never happens. The cost of purchasing land to develop a park is incredibly expensive and the red tape the city has wrapped itself in makes it nearly impossible to get anything done. The net result thus far: Downtown is a lot of concrete and very few places to relax and enjoy the West Coast weather. One favorite secret spot, however, is Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall. Believe it or not, there is a multi-tiered public space hiding behind those stunning curved panels that decorate the concert hall--complete with benches, sculpture, fountains, plantings, and folks getting their wedding photos taken.

Homelessness remains an issue for Los Angeles and the reasons and solutions for this tragedy cannot be explained in a few sentences. Don't be surprised if you are asked for money on a consistent basis while walking the streets or to occasionally run into someone with something to say. Recently a man approached my wife's co-worker, got right up in front of her and yelled "fajitas!" before continuing his walk down the sidewalk. Annoying, but then again, worse things have happened.

Union Station

A heavy police presence and security patrols have made downtown into a very safe community. The "Purple Patrol": people who look like cops on bikes with purple shirts but aren't cops, work with real downtown law enforcement to provide safety throughout the core. In addition to curbing minor incidents before they escalate, the Purple Patrol provides free escorts in the downtown area during the night should they be required. (But not those kind of escorts.)

Downtown is also home to a crime people are ticketed for daily, to the point where police stand on the corner and flag offenders off to the side in order to write up a $150 fine. The crime: jaywalking. Crossing against the light in New York City or Chicago is like breathing; we all do it and usually never think twice about it. In downtown Los Angeles police ticket jaywalkers the moment a person steps off the sidewalk against the light, whether there is traffic or not. Few downtown residents or visitors understand the vigilant enforcement but it happens so be aware.

Downtown LA - It's Come a Long Way

Downtown Los Angeles is certainly in a better place than it was just three short years ago. With residents flocking to the area in unprecedented numbers, businesses are following right behind and the downtown core is redefining itself in more ways than one. There is certainly a long way to go in order to bring the downtown community full circle and establish a self-sustaining place for people to live, work and play. However, few people would have given downtown a thought just 3-4 years ago and one can only imagine what will become of downtown in the years to come.

Listings associated with this Feature:

Original Pantry Café Ralphs
Golden Gopher Hank's Bar
Seven Grand

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