THERE’S a scruffy brick apartment building at the corner of 7th and South Park View streets in Westlake that hints at the history and possible future of the neighborhood. On the ground floor, a pharmacy and health clinic with signs in Spanish sit next door to an inexpensive Honduran restaurant. A few stories above, however, in his home studio in the building’s renovated Presidential Suite, Matthew Cooke is filming a series of comedy sketches called “Bad Dad” for Fuel TV’s upcoming variety show “Stupid Face.”
Cooke, 34, a producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” is the kind of guy who is fond of stylish jeans and vintage French film posters. He is quick to poke fun at the cliche of a white artist moving into a working-class ethnic neighborhood for the cheap rents. “I hope to subjugate the people and build a tower of capitalism on their backs,” he jokes, riffing on a journal entry from the ultimate gentrifier, Christopher Columbus. On a serious note, Cooke adds that “having different cultures collide and mix together is a good thing for everyone involved.”
Indeed, Cooke is a new kind of resident in the evolving neighborhood that has alternately been one of Los Angeles’ toniest ZIP codes and home to its most extensive menu of vices. As downtown becomes prohibitively expensive and nearby Koreatown becomes similarly priced out, local artists, designers and hipsterati are dipping their toes into the predominantly working-class neighborhood immediately west of the city’s core. Swanky nightclubs, organic tamale co-ops and art galleries are following suit.
But for the ethnic families who made Westlake home long before it sparkled in a trust-funder’s eye, gentrification is an uncertain blessing. With more than 114,000 residents that are 78% Latino, Westlake is one of the most densely populated 3.2 square miles in Los Angeles. Coupled with a median annual household income of just over $19,000, it’s little wonder that the May Day immigration reform protest reached a boiling point here.
There’s no debate that the neighborhood is changing. The question is who gets to decide what it will become.
A park rallies
MacArthur Park, with its gentle grass slopes and placid lake, is ground zero for Westlake’s evolution. Mark Hubert, the park’s senior lead officer, traces the area’s comeback to intensive clean-up efforts in the park. “What’s happened in the park has translated to the entire area,” he says, adding that since surveillance cameras were installed in 2004, violent crime in the vicinity “is down over 50%. Families have returned and you see people walking and jogging. Back in ’03 you could Google where to purchase rock cocaine and something would come up about where to buy it in MacArthur Park.”
Residents such as Nick Macciocca, 23, who has lived on 7th Street for two years, have noticed a substantial change in the neighborhood. “At first it was sketchy; [my girlfriend] got attacked and I got chased by some crazy guy who was running from the cops,” Macciocca says. Now upscale dwellings like the American Cement Building lofts, the Medici and the Ansonia are filling with young arty types and urban professionals demanding a new kind of commercial corridor.
Marco Li Mandri, president of New City America, is heading up the effort to create a Business Improvement District for the neighborhood. The creation of a BID downtown set the stage for changes there. Li Mandri has similar hopes for MacArthur Park. The process is a “frustrating bureaucratic shuffle,” he says, but he believes “retail will follow residential development.”
As Westlake’s small but growing slate of new bars, eateries and cultural centers proves, the process has already begun.
No barfly wandering through Westlake hopes to have a gun pointed at them. Unless, of course, they’re seated on the sleek circular couch at Royale, a new lounge and attached restaurant on the corner of Wilshire and Rampart boulevards, where an oversized art photograph of a pistol-packing ruffian looms over them.
The sense of urban chic in the 6-month-old Royale is unlike anything else on its block. The lighting is amber-hued, DJ Suprema spins electro and hip-hop, and a fashionable, ethnically diverse crowd chases the Stella Artois with mouthwash from a bathroom dispenser. Not to mention the adjacent restaurant’s $5,000 toilet and the triple-digit Kobe surf-and-turf.
“People said there’s not a place like this unless you go to downtown, " said Daniel Sevilla, a bartender in Royale’s lounge. “The residents are really happy to have us.”
Like the Standard’s rooftop lounge downtown, Royale is testing the neighborhood’s appetite for a relatively pricey new style of nightlife. But if the somewhat slow crowds are any sign, there’s a chance they may be a bit early.
A block east of Royale is La Fonda de los Camperos, a cavernous Mexican eatery open since 1969 that hosts nightly performances by the Grammy-nominated mariachi band Los Camperos. The heavily local and Latino audience whistles and hollers at the seven-piece group from plush booths on the ground floor and in the cozy balcony. A dancing couple whirls on stage to perform folklorico stand-bys in colorful costumes.
UCLA student Julian Sakai, 32, was there on a Thursday with friends from an ethnomusicology class. “My father’s Japanese and my mother’s Mexican,” Sakai said. “They met in an English as a second language class and they came here when they were dating.”
Blue Velvet, a dashing new poolside restaurant/bar seemingly ripped from the pages of “Less Than Zero,” is just west of the Harbor Freeway, technically part of Westlake. Like the nearby supper club Tatou (see review, Page 16), a bartender and hostess preferred to ally it with downtown’s renaissance, proving there’s still location anxiety among the newcomers. Meanwhile, the Silver Platter, a deliciously shady dive at Rampart Boulevard and 7th has no such qualms and could become Westlake’s version of Silver Lake’s Cha Cha Lounge as the transvestite hangout-turned-Fader magazine contributors’ saloon of choice.
Nightlife isn’t all that’s buzzing in the neighborhood. A new artistic culture is gaining prominence in the form of the Hayworth Theatre and a little-gallery-that-could, RampART.
For the last year and a half the Hayworth, housed in a 1926 Stiles O. Clements building, has hosted live productions on three stages. Their current main-stage show, a comedy cobbled together from various Shakespeare scripts, is called “Stories of the Night Told Over.” On Saturday, Circus Theatricals will throw its third annual Salsa Party & Cabaret hosted by actor Alfred Molina.
John M. Sofio, the owner of RampART, says that the Hayworth draws an across-town crowd that will also swing by his gallery. Sofio relocated his design company Built Inc. to Westlake because he believes the area is “an icon of L.A.'s past and present being built for the future. It is also the gateway to the downtown scene.”
RampART is currently presenting a yearlong photography show featuring a different photographer’s take on Los Angeles each month. The Cinco de Mayo opening was a hit, Sofio says, with revelers “drinking, smoking and partying in the streets.” (In MacArthur Park, it seems, some things never change.)
RampART’s current exhibition features the work of Cement building loft-dweller Robert Todd Williamson. That Wilshire structure, a concrete honeycomb buzzing with a hive of youthful arty types, is also home to Kelly Architects -- the firm of choice for downtown nightlife baron Cedd Moses (Broadway Bar, Seven Grand). Similarly conspicuous in the tenant directory: Jet Pack Design, Dance Loft, Blackspot and Monkey Boy.
Still, the new Westlake artistic culture isn’t limited to literal castles in the sky. Beginning in August, MacArthur Park’s formerly neglected band shell will reopen with a significant face-lift and a five-night-per-week summer concert series.
As of now, Westlake’s public life is a genuine mix of its residents’ cultures. Time and real estate prices will determine if it stays that way.
Getting a taste
If Sandra Romero has a say in the neighborhood’s fate, its current residents won’t be lost in the shuffle. The erstwhile Mama of activist hub and Institute for Urban Research and Development experiment Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe, Romero is the most visible figure reclaiming the neighborhood in the wake of MacArthur Park’s cleanup.
Romero began training tamale cooks and hawkers in the park’s vending corridor in 1999 and continually works with the Rediscover MacArthur Park campaign to encourage local businesses. A charismatic Latino leader like Romero is invaluable for turning Westlake’s economy toward positive, authentic local culture. Chichen Itza, a new upscale Mexican restaurant on 6th Street, seems to be following Mama’s lead.
Romero’s menu of organic tamales has ingredients like pineapple, red snapper and Peruvian chile escabeche, Latin American cuisine that’s fresh, affordable and vegan-friendly. But the new neighbors who are prone to frequent a community-driven tamale shop might drive up rents that force out the very street life they moved to Westlake for.
“There are a lot of lofts coming up, but they’re not creating affordable housing,” Romero says. “We don’t own our own building. A Pollo Campero is moving in next door. What’s keeping our landlord from doing the same thing?”
Romero’s position as a bridge between the local Latino population, small business owners and city officials eager to revitalize the area is essential as Westlake enters yet another new identity. In the wake of the May 1 incident, during which cameras captured police beating mostly Latino immigration rights protesters in MacArthur Park, the Los Angeles Police Department needed someone local to calm a public desperate to be heard in a confusing time in Westlake and Los Angeles. They looked to Sandra Romero.
“After the May Day fiasco,” Romero says, “Chief [William J.] Bratton came here and said, ‘We need your help.’ ”
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Focus on the park
MacArthur Park may be on the upswing these days, but it’ll take a long time to wipe away its ghoulish reputation from film or the page. These mostly fictionalized accounts suggest some ugly surprises in MacArthur Park, and we’re not talking about cakes melting in the rain. A sampling:
“3 Women” from “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories” by Charles Bukowski
Oddly, LA’s most caustic barfly looks fondly at the park. Regarding the duck pond, within view of the narrator’s apartment: “You’ve got to believe me, that when your health is down from continual drinking and lack of decent food ... you can’t beat the ducks.”
“The Choirboys” by Joseph Wambaugh
A bunch of night-shift cops get together in the park at the end of their shift for “choir practice,” officer-slang for trash-talking and drinking. Why MacArthur Park? It’s not part of their patrol so they don’t care what happens there.
“Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates” by John Albert
In this memoir of a junkie-
turned-ballplayer, Albert recalls: “My night ended up rather unceremoniously, near the drug-infested fields of MacArthur Park, sitting all alone ... shooting colorful balloons of Mexican heroin until my money was gone.”
“MacArthur Park” ('01)
Nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2001, this portrait of a homeless, crack-smoking community was based on a script by former playwright and recovered addict Tyrone Atkins.
“Where the Day Takes You” ('92)
This gritty drama stars Dermot Mulroney as a patriarch to a band of runaways. Sean Astin, Will Smith and Lara Flynn Boyle costar.
A volcano erupts from the La Brea Tar Pits, no less, and threatens to wipe out downtown, heading first for MacArthur Park. Hmm ...
“Six Feet Under”
The funeral home soap opera ascended to heaven in 2005 but David’s carjacking episode lives on for some as the moment “Six Feet” jumped the shark. The park, where David is dragged to smoke crack, has never looked more menacing.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”
The Fresh Prince challenges his squeaky-clean cousin Carlton to spend a night in Compton. Ignoring geographical realities, Carlton heads to MacArthur Park to prove Will wrong.
-- Margaret Wappler
Entertainment at the park
Music and stage
Concerts Under the Stars at Levitt Pavilion
Levitt Pavilion at MacArthur Park. Wednesday through Sunday evenings from Aug. 8 to Sept. 16. Free. (213) 384-5701; www.levittpavilionlosangeles.org. The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts, the new name for MacArthur Park’s band shell (which is being refurbished), has a diverse lineup of musicians and artists scheduled to perform. Highlights include dancers from the Kim Eung Hwa Dance Academy, Guinean kora player Prince Diabate and the Latin stylings of Perla Batalla. Start date of the series subject to change, but will be in early August.
Los Angeles International Tamale Festival
MacArthur Park, 2124 W. 7th St., Nov. 9 to 11. Free. (213) 487-4300; www.eastlosangeles.net/tamalefestival. Arguably the best MacArthur Park festival has plenty to offer families and singletons alike. The tamale-eating contest is popular at this annual event (now in its third year), as are the tamale-making classes.
Youth Fishing Derby
MacArthur Park, at the lake. 8 a.m. to noon June 30. (213) 368-0520. Free. Kids can try their hand at fishing at this event. There will be free equipment available to children younger than 16.
Early Summer Family Carnival
MacArthur Park. 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. June 29, noon to 10 p.m. June 30 and July 1. (213) 368-7390. Free. Organizers are still trying to confirm a few big names from the Latin music world for this festival, but even if they can’t pull the big “gets,” count on a weekend filled with music, rides, food and fireworks.
-- Charlie Amter
In the neighborhood
Bars and eateries
1. OB Bear
3002 W. 7th St., L.A. 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily. (213) 480-4910. Korean pub known for fried chicken, squid dishes, Korean meat patties and OB beer. Headset-wearing waiters in a rush dare you to ask them to turn down the Korean Top 40 music blaring from the stereo.
2619 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. (213) 388-8488. Free valet. This new neighborhood spot has a large patio connecting its bar and pricey restaurant. An upstairs lounge boasts a pool table, flat-screen TV, plaster gazelle heads and stuffed birds.
4. La Fonda de los Camperos
2502 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. (213) 380-5055. Live mariachi bands with dancers perform here Wednesday through Sunday. Food is served, with multiple seatings on weekends. Advance reservations are a must for larger parties.
6. Chichen Itza Restaurant
2501 W. 6th St., L.A. 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. (213) 380-0051. Open since January (after what seemed like a year of construction), this authentic Mexican restaurant is finally hitting its stride, offering, among other items, cochinita pibil.
8. Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe
2124 W. 7th St., L.A. 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday. (213) 487-7474. The cornerstone of the park’s resurrection, run by the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Alliance. Fantastic tamales have gone a long way toward bringing families, and curious foodies from all over L.A., back to the park.
9. Langer’s Deli
704 S. Alvarado St., L.A. 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. (213) 483-8050. Eastside institution is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Los Angeles’ answer to Katz’s in New York, of course, makes a mean hot pastrami sandwich (No. 19 is still their most popular), but their grilled liver with onions is equally in-demand with old-school customers.
10. Blue Velvet
750 S. Garland Ave., L.A. 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily. (213) 239-0061. David Lynch would approve of this chic, 4,300-square-foot bar/
restaurant with a pool that overlooks downtown. Bouncy, foam-like white barstools and a long, sunken granite table are just two of the design touches. Kris Morningstar (ex-Patina) is chef.
Points of interest
2619 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Call for hours. (323) 857-0409. www.rampartspace.com. Local photographer/RampART owner John Sofio opened his second photography show in a series of L.A.-centric shows at this small space inside the Wilshire Royale building last weekend. H Magazine publisher Robert Todd Williamson’s celebrity photos are up until June 30.
5. Hayworth Theatre
2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. (213) 389-9860. www.thehayworth.com. Designed in the 1920s by Stiles O. Clements, this theater was designated a historical cultural monument in 1983. Three stages exist within the theater, with the occasional name actor performing (Lou Diamond Phillips wrote and stars in “Burning Desire” from June 18).
7. Park Plaza Hotel
607 S. Park View St., L.A. Not open to the public; currently used for filming only. Art Deco landmark was built in 1925.
-- Charlie Amter