Posts tagged Downtown Los Angeles

One of my first goals after moving to Downtown Los Angeles was to memorize the lattice of streets traveling west to east (alongside several cross streets stretching north to south). Figueroa. Flower. Hope. Grand. Olive. Hill. Broadway. Spring. Main. Los Angeles. These ten streets downtown are its most prominent, in sum making up the majority of the city’s historic core.

Photo: Brett Miller

With perpendicular streets numbered, wayfinding across Downtown is fairly simple, with each street reflecting its own particular and unique vibe. But of those numerous streets connecting Downtown Los Angeles, it’s the theater-lined Broadway I remember best.

Photo: Brett Miller

During the roaring 1920’s, vaudeville venues were being constructed almost annually along Broadway. And when I say “theater”, I don’t mean a movie theater, or a simple unimaginative entertainment center. Think exorbitant, ornate exteriors with equally grandiose interiors: Parisian tier fixtures, artisan stone/plaster work, vaulted decorated ceilings, and thick red curtain theaters to greet patrons for the evening. Bestowed majestic names like The Palace, The Orpheum, The Rialto, The Tower, and my favorite, the Los Angeles Theater (not to mention the numerous theaters demolished over the years), these gilded auditoriums hosted a roaring entertainment landscape, their illuminated signs glowing across Downtown Los Angeles for decades.

The Rialto Theater along Broadway back in 2008, before its conversion into a gentrified retail space in 2013. Creative Commons photo credit.

While some theaters dropped off the map sooner than others, many of these masterpieces of architecture began to close their doors to the public during the 80s and 90s. The momentum of development across Los Angeles had moved westward away from Downtown, and thus the lights across Broadway eventually dimmed, their audiences long gone, their grandeur somehow forgotten. Being new to Los Angeles, I previously did not recognize a connection between Los Angeles and Broadway at all. The association was a connection typically reserved for New York, or perhaps Chicago.

Photos: Brett Miller

But Downtown has gone through a vigorous rebirth over the past 10 years. Some credit belongs to Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose initiative, Bringing Back Broadway has helped bring economic and cultural revitalization to the diminished landscape of Broadway. This past January, Downtown LA’s theaters reemerged to host artists, musicians, food, drink, and even roller derby and dodge ball as pop-up installations, bringing tens of thousands of people down to the evening event. What began in 2014 with just 3,000 visitors, the 2018 event now known as Night on Broadway reportedly brought over 80,000 visitors downtown.

In September I investigated the impact temporary installations can have upon a landscape, alongside how these installations could be used in response to community needs, problems, or simply the public’s desire for communal space. Night on Broadway meets all of these goals. By creatively reusing our city’s existing resources, Los Angeles was able to fill one of its most historic corridors with color, music, and energy, breathing new life into an evolving and storied community. The event was temporary, its effects more permanent.

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A view of South Park, DTLA, in all its glory. Photo: Gary Lai

This is the final post in a series which follows my move to Downtown Los Angeles.

Looking back, two things stand out: 1.  I haven’t made clear the connection between these observations with landscape architecture and urban planning, and 2. I’ve focused primarily on the positive aspects of living in Downtown Los Angeles.

Postwar, Los Angeles became a template for the future of American cities.  American logistics and engineering know-how had helped win two world wars; the expertise and the optimism that came with winning helped bolster confidence during peace, entrenching the idea we could engineer our way through any problem imaginable. Los Angeles would prove to be the perfect place to test this theory. Growing by leaps and bounds from the war-production years, Los Angeles needed infrastructure.

The city had plenty of space, and consequently the planners and engineers of Los Angeles would set out to prove their theories: constructing freeways would solve our transportation needs, building concrete channels would solve our flooding problems, air conditioning would address challenges related to climate, and massive aqueducts and dams would deliver water to quench the thirst of city’s growing population.

While individually every one of these solutions would prove successful to a certain degree, the large infrastructure projects attached to these solution inevitably delivered equally large and pervasive problems associated with their creation.  Freeway-only construction caused urban sprawl, horrendous traffic, and air pollution.  Channelizing the Los Angeles River caused an ecological crash and seasonally dangerous water flow conditions. The ubiquity of air conditioning across the city caused a spike in energy consumption, while the California Aqueduct system caused an over-reliance on imported water to support our growing population across Southern California.

Fast forward to today, and we’re left dealing with an infrastructure that doesn’t work and causes more problems than it solves.

Modern urban planners and designers are looking at a new paradigm: multi-modal transportation systems, housing densification and green infrastructure.  In plain language, this means modern planners are looking for people to move back into the cities from the suburbs, use different modes of transportation besides the car, and create natural systems to process the by-products of urban living. Current trends show millennials are moving back to America’s downtowns, a trend apparent to anyone who has visited DTLA in the last few years.

Being an advocate of this new form of urbanism, my wife and I decided to move into the urban core when we sold our house.  This would be the truest test of our beliefs. Would children of the suburban age like us enjoy urban, downtown living?  The answer is yes…but, not overwhelmingly so.

The aforementioned posts documenting our move and life in Downtown Los Angeles already spells out the benefits enjoyed since moving. But what are the cons? Here are a few honest observations about what we don’t enjoy about life downtown:

  1. Noise: Downtown is very noisy. Cars roar past with their stereos on full blast and emergency vehicles blare sirens regardless of hour.  People will yell at each other either in anger or in drunken celebration with similar frequency.
  2. Pollution: While air pollution throughout the LA Basin is widespread and not overly worse in downtown, our surrounding neighborhoods are visually dirtier.  Litter is everywhere. There is so much litter the street cleaners and neighborhood hosts cannot keep up.  This issue is complicated by our city’s worsening homeless population.
  3. Spiraling homeless problem: For the last decade, we have let the streets of LA become the catch-all location for mental illness, abject poverty, substance addiction, and plain bad luck. The challenges associated with the homeless are complicated – socially, economically, and politically. We will unlikely solve this problem anytime soon. But one should accept, for now, living in high-density areas in Los Angeles County means living with the homeless.
  4. Space: Living downtown also means trading the space of suburbia for smaller accommodations.  Housing in Downtown Los Angeles offers little to no outdoor spaces for single-family-owned properties.  This fact alone might be a deal-breaker for most Americans who equate the “American Dream” with a yard.

I don’t believe post-war planners meant to create the monstrosity known as modern day Los Angeles.  I believe these planners initially were guided by good intentions and informed assumptions about how the world would work in the future. The identifiable mistake was arrogantly doubling and tripling down on these initial strategies, even after data began trickling in proving their assumptions wrong.

My hope is the next generation of planners do not to repeat these mistakes of the past.  If we believe densification is the answer, planners and designers must acknowledge both the positives and negatives associated with this type of living by adopting the lifestyle themselves. In other words, we must practice what we preach. Only then can we make informed decisions to improve the lives of future Angelenos who will follow our footsteps back into the city.

Grand Center Market just turned 100 years old this month! This is the neon billboard art installation sponsored by one of my favorite spirits companies. All photos and videos by Gary Lai

We’ve been in Downtown Los Angeles since May, and we’ve generally been pleased we made the decision to move here. I began this series with general impressions about Downtown, followed by some thoughts about my new commute, and last checked in about the surrounding food scene around our neighborhood. This month I’d like to share the types of daily activities we enjoy in our neighborhood.

For those who remember DTLA ten years ago, they may recollect a section of Los Angeles normally empty after 5pm on weekdays, and virtually a ghost town during the weekends. This is certainly no longer the case.

After toiling at our Silver Lake house, getting it ready to sell for the first couple of months after moving, we returned home early on the 4th of the July. There, we found ourselves spending the evening celebrating the holiday with 30,000 of our closest friends. We walked to Grand Park, located just a couple of blocks away, where the Independence Day celebration and fireworks were on full display. It was refreshing to simply walk to watch the 4th of July fireworks show – no car required – a “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” experience.

Next up was the Nisei Festival and the taiko drum exhibition.

My wife and I have made it a point to visit the Nisei Festival every year, but this was the first time we could walk out the door, cross the street, and join the festivities!

My colleagues at AHBE Lab have written numerous times about the funicular at Angel’s Flight.  I won’t repeat their observations, but I wholeheartedly believe every Angeleno should enjoy a breakfast or lunch at Grand Central Market, followed by an ascent up Angel’s Flight at least once.

 

 

 

This is the view from the top of Angel’s Flight! There aren’t many California Plaza businesses open during the weekends, but it’s still a good gateway to the MOCA, Broad Museum and Disney Concert Hall.

You might even discover the completely unexpected along the way, like this Legos art installation across the street from the Wells Fargo Center.

Besides the Kinokuniya Book Store located in Little Tokyo’s Weller Court, the Last Book Store on 5th and Spring is the other “must-see” destination for book lovers.

Overall, this urbanist’s Downtown Los Angeles experience has been good…with a few exceptions. It can still feel a little strange to be driving “home” toward Downtown, rather than away, as was once the case. But Downtown is definitely become more and more our home. Next month I’ll share a few of my final impressions – both the good and bad – in celebration of 6 months of DTLA living.

Photo: AHBE Landscape Architects

On Sunday, my husband Adrian and I enjoyed a ride on the 100 year old funicular in Downtown Los Angeles. Like trains, elevators, escalators, and monorails, Angel’s Flight is a different form of transportation – one unique to Los Angeles. The cable rail car travels precariously up a steep incline onto fashionably urban Bunker Hill. But for four years the rail car has been closed. Recently, Angel’s Flight was reopened again to carry happy tourists upward and downward this small slice of Downtown Los Angeles (like the group of fun-loving Italians that we met enjoying Los Angeles on an early Sunday evening, captured below).

All photos above and below except when noted: Katharine Rudnyk

Sure, you can get some exercise and take the stairs, or walk up one of the many steep streets to the top of the hill. But why would you suffer the slog when you can quickly travel from the multi-cultural food mecca of Grand Central Market up to the California Plaza next to the Omni Hotel via funicular? The experience is like riding a self-driving Tesla, sans driver. We watched the two rail cars pass each other with ease and without any issues. Just imagine experiencing that for the first time in 100 years ago!

Riding Angel’s Flight reminds me of the cable cars I once boarded to soar over and across Barcelona – an experience better and more thrilling than flying over the landscape using Google Earth. The aerial journey over the Spanish mountains, the city, then finally onto the beach is truly unforgettable. Admittedly, Angel’s Flight is a slower moving rail car than an aerial tram suspended from cables. The distance is only a few city blocks, but it is just as rewarding as flying overhead across Barcelona in my opinion! It’s amazing just how many unique spaces you’ll pass while riding Angel’s Flight. Both rides across Barcelona and Los Angeles can be frightening, especially when the car stops mid-flight; all you can think to yourself is, “I hope the brakes work!”. You can find yourself eyeing escape routes in silent concern.

Entering Angel’s Flight can feel like entering a dollhouse. Everything seems tiny, yet also spacious! As the rail car begins to move along the Angel’s Flight’s path, riders get a glimpse of the bones of what was once a beautiful urban park shuttered since 2012. The closed public space gives tourists and residents alike a brief moment of “what if” as they’re whisked away across the sky. I kept imagining how relaxing it could be enjoying a meal from the crowded Grand Central Market underneath the shade of a Platanus racemosa (Western Sycamore). Looking at the park today, you would never know how beautiful and representative of Los Angeles it really once was.

One day while walking by the park after a meeting with Evan Mather, ASLA – one of our firm’s principals – I inquired about the original designer of the shuttered space. Even closed, the site still retains a spirit of possibilities, a special corner of Downtown awaiting revival.

Evan informed me it was in fact AHBE Landscape Architect’s own Principal Calvin Abe, FASLA, who designed the project. Please read more about it here.

As Angel’s Flight riders move further up on the rail line, they’ll pass an area that has been kept tidy by goats. Currently barren, the open space will inevitably become another victim of redevelopment. On the other side, a secret urban garden patio is visible, a stark juxtaposition of once public versus private outdoor spaces.

Once at the top, riders are required to pay 50 cents with a Metro pass, gaining access to hike around the California Plaza. A very clean amphitheater surrounded by skyscrapers, manicured plants, and a large food court welcome visitors, alongside the occasional bored hotel guest from the Omni, a jovial security guard, and few romantic couples strolling and enjoying the view. So many cool plants are found here – from ornamental grasses and a majestic Lagerstroemia (Crape Myrtle) on the plaza’s deck, to a huge houseplant-like Ficus lyrata (Fiddle-leaf Fig). The fiddle-leaf fig has gone fun-lovingly rogue in the shady corridors, attributed to the location and being very well-cared for by horticulture professionals.

After hiking though the site, visitors are invited back to pile back into the rail car to gracefully descend back down the hillside. On the right side, before approaching the platform, you can see the back of an apartment building filled with a community garden where a perimeter of the property hosts a healthy growth of nasturium (Tropaeolum).

As the funicular slows, you realize the journey is coming to end. The serenity offered above is replaced by a more dangerous streetscape below, complete with a mix of unsavory street characters, forgotten plants inside a shuttered park, and a generous amount of flashing neon lights emanating from across the street. Angel’s Flight has such a precarious connection to the natural world, yet the world above was really compelling, calling to me to stay just a little longer.

I am sure in short time urban development will engulf and surround what is left of the natural world in Downtown Los Angeles. Angel’s Flight represents a small oasis and a missed opportunity to appreciate the joys of nature within a busy city.

I wish the park at Angel’s Flight could reopen and remain an urban park – a garden-like legacy to the generations that rode the funicular decades before. Pondering security, it felt safer at the top. Perhaps it was a false sense of security, but one comforted by the illusion of visibility and uniformity. While walking the surrounding areas, I couldn’t help notice the city blocks are so devoid of natural. I believe integrating sections of nature across a city can help make it feel more safe and welcoming. But times are changing, with numerous Los Angeles projects reintegrating nature into the city. I, for one, am ready to welcome that change and all the benefits it may bring to Los Angeles.

When I went to my doctor last month, she was pleased about my weight loss, something I attribute to the walking during my commute (and also to the stress of preparing to sell the house). But my doctor also cautioned, “There’s an awful lot of places to eat around there.” Boy, was she right. My wife and I have tried to be good about cooking at home, but we’re surrounded with seemingly every type of cuisine imaginable. It’s been tough to stay strict.

Places like Chinatown or Little Tokyo were originally segregated slums that were eventually turned into working tourist attractions after many of the Jim Crow-era laws were overturned during the middle of the 20th Century. In an attempt to attract tourists, many restaurants catered to the relatively bland palates of middle-America whites, a trend that gave birth to common dishes like sweet and sour pork, chop suey, teriyaki chicken, and egg foo young.

Authentic ethnic cuisines eventually moved further away to neighborhoods like Gardena or San Gabriel, where communities established menus catering to the tastes of their distinct populations. As Americans of every color started to develop a more adventurous palate, “fusion” food emerged, relying upon a pastiche of flavors taking inspiration from a variety of ethnicities. Consequently – and somewhat ironically – the Japanese food available in Little Tokyo today is…um, just okay. The new wave of modern restaurants opening all across Downtown serve my favorite foods.

So, let’s move onto my recommendations. Across each point of the compass, good food can be had for every meal. I’ve picked my favorite in every direction:

North, Breakfast
Two blocks north of my apartment is Jist Cafe near 1st and Judge John Aiso Street. The family has owned a cafe in Little Tokyo for generations and this is their latest. The owner is like your Japanese Ba-chan (Grandmother), one that insists on serving the food and clearing the tables herself so she can chat with her guests. My sister-in-law actually found this place on Yelp when Cafe Aloha down the street was inexplicably closed.

Their speciality is the Cha-Hsu Hash, shown here with two poached eggs and side of rice. Cha-Hsu is a marinated pork popular with both the Chinese and Japanese American communities. I can imagine my doctor cringing, but if I got a heart attack leaving the restaurant after eating this dish, I would die a happy man. Yes, it’s that good. I know the rice and potatoes is kind of an unusual combination, but it doesn’t matter, because you’ll want to soak up every drop of the gravy. My wife’s blueberry pancakes in the background weren’t too shabby either.

South, Lunch
In the AVA apartment building just south of my apartment on Los Angeles Street is Seoul Sausage. The original “restaurant” was a very successful food truck, but the owners are trying their fortunes with a brick and mortar establishment. Come for the food, stay for the beer. It should be a busier place than it currently is, so hurry before people catch on.

I ordered the Bahn Mi Sausage Sandwich with a side of Tots; my wife ordered a fried chicken bowl. The sandwich isn’t a traditional bahn mi, but an approximation consisting of chicken-apple sausage, mortadella, jalapeños, and about twelve other ingredients I can’t remember. The sandwich was good and went especially well washed down with a beer.

West, Dinner
Just a block and a half up 2nd street is Badmaash – Indian Fusion.  I lived in Berkeley, CA, which has some of the best Indian restaurants in the state so I’m really spoiled. To date, Indian food in Southern California has been decidedly “meh” for me, so I stopped trying. If it wasn’t for the smell emitting from this restaurant as I walked past on my way home from work, I probably wouldn’t have tried Badmaash either. Silly me. Badmaash is equal to, and in some ways superior, to any Indian restaurant in Berkeley.

During out first visit to Badmaash we went with the tried and true menu items for comparison: Chicken Tiki Marsala and good ole Saag Paneer. Both dishes were so good we began eating before I was able to take a photo. Next time we will try some of the fusion dishes; if they are as good as the Cheese and Chili Naan pictured above, we should be happy diners.

East, Dessert
Two long blocks east, down 2nd, through Little Tokyo, and crossing Alameda into the Arts District at Traction and Hewitt is Pie Hole. With several other locations around SoCal, there are options, but I recommend this specific location if pie remotely interests you. Heck, this place is so good, it might convert you to pie despite its somewhat expensive prices. It’s worth it.


The Mexican Chocolate Pie is as close to a sure thing as anything in this world. If you only go here once, order this pie. If you return, order this pie again before trying something else during a third visit.

So there you have it, my favorite restaurants across Downtown Los Angeles. In case you’re wondering, we’ve tried all of these restaurants in just three months since moving to DTLA. And, yes, my doctor is pissed. I’ll let you know how it goes next month.