Posts tagged Downtown Los Angeles

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.

All photos: Jessica Roberts

It is always eye opening to play tourist in the city you call home. My mom – a long-time lover of all things Art Deco  – came to town and signed us up for an architectural Art Deco walking tour of Downtown organized by the Los Angeles Conservancy. Although I work Downtown, time for exploration and lingering to take in views can be limited, so the opportunity to play urban tourist with my mom was a welcome occasion.

From a landscape designer’s perspective the tour was a lot of looking up at object-oriented architecture. During the 20s and 30s architectural styles were changing in the United States, transitioning from the favored Beaux-Arts neoclassical style to what was then considered a more modern style, Art Deco, a pastiche of many styles from all over the world. Our tour began in Pershing Square, a place of controversial style in and of itself. The historic Biltmore Hotel across the street was used as a Beaux-Art foil to the more modern styles of the surrounding Art Deco buildings.

The former headquarters of the Southern California Edison building is an interesting example of the evolving urban environment. As we stepped in to view its beauty you could tell the workers there took pride in the architecture. Our tour guide showed our group an image of the Victorian homes that once inhabited Bunker Hill, all eventually torn down. Bunker Hill itself had been slightly leveled to accommodate new construction. In the 1980s the interior of the Edison building was “modernized” with drop ceilings and carpets, covering up the ornate details original to the building. Thankfully the current owners are now removing those alterations and taking steps to restore the building to its original glory.

As we continued on our walk, we looked up at the towers that had replaced the Richfield Tower, an Art Deco landmark of 1929 that was demolished in 1969 to make room for the construction of newer and more modern construction. It was interesting to see such strong opinions of style come from the tour group. One woman shouted “What a shame!”.

Other buildings were described as “Disco”. I couldn’t tell if the group reaction was favorable or not. Our tour guide mentioned that she saw some public opinions starting to shift in favor of Disco Era architecture. I myself couldn’t help but feel a certain affection for them.

Some buildings represented a transition in style, such as the Los Angeles Public Library. To get the full story you’ll have to go on the tour, but my favorite takeaway was that architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue had allegedly switched out the neoclassical dome he depicted in his drawings – a style he knew would sell – for the Egyptian-inspired pyramid you see today. Apparently the cultural influence that led to this switch was the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

We all struggle to understand the world around us, and these struggles often manifest in what we create. Style is political, personal, reactionary, and unpredictable. Style reveals priorities, views on nature, and technology, and is far from passive or innocent. When we got back to Pershing Square I couldn’t help but feel a certain empathy for the park, with its funky and seemingly outdated style, and wondered how opinions of it might change after it’s gone.

A city could be imagined as the sum of its various architectural pasts. If so, then our city’s historical and evolving urban environment are inherently the roadmap to Los Angeles’ future.

Last month I promised to give an update about my foray into Downtown Los Angeles living. This is my first report.

One of the great benefits to living Downtown is that I also work here.  Even though my former neighborhood of Silver Lake is only about 5 miles away, LA traffic sometimes stretches the distance into an hour long commute.  Now I can just walk up to the Red/Purple Line Civic Center Station, or I can walk the mile and a half to work.  Either way, it takes about 20 minutes from door-to-desk.

Downtown Los Angeles is what we urban design types like to call a “neighborhood in transition” – meaning, development is happening at a breakneck pace, but much of the existing stuff, good and bad, is still very much evident. I snapped the following photos on my morning walk to work, documenting this neighborhood – my neighborhood – in transition.

All photos by Gary Lai

From my new apartment, I walk up a couple of blocks to 2nd and Main.  Our wonderfully funky historic City Hall is framed by the LAPD Headquarters to the left and Caltrans to the right. In many ways, this is the ideal of what new urbanists may view as a modern city: a mixture of new and old, clean streets with bike lanes, residents living in high-density housing.


LA County’s streets are home to 58,000 people homeless. I now live two blocks from the border of Skid Row where the highest concentration of homeless live.  Reminders of this tragedy is everywhere across Downtown.


I’ve never actually seen the Paraiso Restaurant at 3rd and Main open, but I hope at one time it was a happening place. Older, discount-type businesses and restaurants are still the predominant retail-type in DTLA, but it’s changing fast due to skyrocketing rents and development.


On my walking commute I like to cut through the historic Grand Center Market at Broadway and through to Hill street, passing the ridiculous line at the Eggslut booth.


The historical funicular train, Angel’s Flight, is being worked on again. I hope it opens some time before the California High Speed Rail in 2035.


My walk takes me along a diagonal shortcut through Pershing Square Park. The main water feature is now dry – victim of our historic drought and a post-modernism backlash.


One of the major issues afflicting pedestrians in DTLA is the poor conditions of our sidewalks. Cracked, dirty and falling apart, business owners have taken to washing their own sidewalk frontage.  The smell of bleach is common and pervasive as I walk down 6th toward Grand.


Just a half block away from work at 7th and Grand is the new Whole Foods, below the 8th and Grand luxury apartment complex.  I don’t think much needs to be said about DTLA after that sentence.

One thing I find ironic about moving to DTLA is that people originally moved away from Downtown because they thought the suburbs would be a healthier environment. After a month living in Downtown, I agree the downtown environment is not necessarily healthy, but my lifestyle is healthier. Instead of sitting in a car or bus for hours commuting, I now have time to walk and go to the gym despite a heavy workload – this resident as much in transition as the city surrounding him.

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