Usually the trajectory that neighborhoods go through as they gentrify is entirely predictable -- and more than a little depressing. First a scruffy, down-at-the-heels area welcomes a few urban pioneers drawn by an attractive and affordable housing stock. Then come the first businesses catering to those early arrivals: sneaker shops, a hole-in-the-wall coffee place or spiffed-up dive bar. Then come the piggy-back establishments and a second wave of residents, perhaps somewhat less hardy than the first. Then comes the frozen yogurt place. Then comes Starbucks and Banana Republic and the fat lady, singing.
FOR THE RECORD:
Downtown style: An Aug. 8 article about the renaissance of downtown Los Angeles referred to a sausage and beer restaurant as Wurtskuche. The correct spelling is Wurstkuche. —
You know that story well, I'm sure, though there can be slight, colorful regional variations in the process. (Around the High Line elevated park in New York's Meatpacking District, the butchers and the transvestites were followed, as gentrification intensified, by the high-end pet stores, which were followed by the starchitect-designed condo towers.) What doesn't typically change, though, is how inevitable the process can seem. Once the train of gentrification gets moving, a kind of economic gravity takes over and the train rolls unstoppably downhill.
Downtown Los Angeles seemed in the last three or four years to be headed down that track, and fast. The residential population nearly tripled from 2000 to 2008. Restaurants, bars and even a grocery store opened. USA Today -- a leading journal, you might say, of the gentrified -- was moved earlier this year to describe the neighborhood as "a once-abandoned, ignored and decaying downtown that's now a hip and trendy hangout."
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Cheesecake Factory.
When the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008, taking the housing market along with it, the results, at least for many fledgling businesses downtown, were brutal. And yet the economic collapse has also managed to freeze downtown's transformation from sleepy to energized -- and freeze it at a particularly appealing spot.
Gentrification has decelerated in several parts of downtown into a kind of limbo, leaving them sufficiently changed to feel newly vital but not enough to seem overexposed. At the same time, plummeting housing prices and the conversion of several ill-fated condo projects into rental buildings means not only that the area is continuing to attract new residents but also that it may see a more compelling mixture of people -- more teachers and designers, fewer real-estate speculators -- than it did when forgettable two-bedroom units were selling for $800,000.
That shift alone is enough to make me bullish on downtown's future, and has increased substantially its chances of becoming a real residential neighborhood with some staying power. A couple of public schools, of course, would also help.
It always seems necessary, in writing about downtown L.A., to point out that the area is actually a half-dozen or so neighborhoods packed in next to one another, and that the curving streets of the Arts District have about much in common with the sleek towers of Bunker Hill as South Pasadena has with Century City. But in several pockets of downtown change seems to have paused at an especially opportune moment.
Probably the best example of that equilibrium is the stretch of Spring Street between about 3rd and 8th Streets. If you look up, you'll notice that a number of modern and pre-war office buildings have sprouted balconies, a sign of their transformation inside from places to work to places to live. At sidewalk level, the wine and coffee bars that have opened are often packed. The old Los Angeles Stock Exchange between 6th and 7th streets – a granite Moderne gem from 1931, designed by Samuel E. Lunden and windowless on its crypt-like, elaboarately decorated front façade -- is being turned into a multilevel nightclub and event space. Next door another good-looking new bar, The Falls, has just opened. There are dollops of USA Today's "hip and trendy" in this corridor, to be sure — but also a real sense of urbanity, of a neighborhood just beginning to reshape itself.
It helps that this part of Spring Street has maintained most of its historic architecture, unlike the many parts of downtown where the flow of buildings along a sidewalk is interrupted by a series of parking lots. The stock of mid-rise buildings -- and the width of the street, narrow enough to dash across quickly to say hello to friends on the other side -- serves to bottle up the energy of the street and keep it contained.
Many other pockets of downtown have settled into a similar sweet spot. The area around Urth Caffe on 5th and Hewitt is one. Industrial Street, at the foot of the Biscuit Company Lofts, is another. Others include the part of the Arts District near the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the wildly popular sausage-and-beer-emporium Wurstkuche; a few corners of South Park; and the blocks around the Little Tokyo stop of the Metro Gold Line, where a growing cluster of good restaurants surrounds the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary.
In at least one way, downtown is starting to resemble a miniature version of Los Angeles as a whole. It is a vast canvas dominated by forlorn stretches with too many cars, parking lots, garages and unfortunate pieces of inward-looking architecture. And tucked away inside that vast territory are remarkable deposits of culture.
What's different and compelling about downtown is that these deposits are separated by mere blocks instead of several miles -- a distance that can easily be navigated on foot or on a bike. (The increasingly lively part of Spring Street, for example, has a village feel, but it is a village that happens to be within walking distance of Walt Disney Concert Hall, Staples Center, City Hall, two branches of MOCA and a public library designed by the great Bertram Goodhue.) And that, in turn, leaves open the real possibility of ground-level urban discovery that has always been so tough to find in Los Angeles.
Because of the way the larger region has been organized, typically we have moved through Los Angeles from point to point, with a fixed itinerary. Wandering, in a car or on foot, will usually get you nowhere, and the chances of stumbling into a little oasis of good restaurants and charming cafes are essentially nil.
But in downtown little exceptions to that rule are beginning to pop up. There is still plenty of banal or forsaken territory – gapingly empty lots, shadeless sidewalks, surface parking lots -- to get through or past. But it is possible now to move with a kind of aimless ambition and happily come upon parts of neighborhood you didn't know about and seem newly and confidently formed as big-city blocks. All without a Ruth's Chris in sight.