A downtown L.A. bar takes a stand against gentrification 2.0

A downtown L.A. bar takes a stand against gentrification 2.0
A security guard checks IDs of patrons entering Bar 107 in downtown Los Angeles, which is facing the loss of its lease. The bar's owner has vowed not to leave without a fight, and has hit a sweet spot on social media. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Bar 107's staff happily described the place as a dive, a hipster-friendly place with cheap beer, free happy-hour pizza and tighty-whitey costume nights.

It held down a spot in Los Angeles' rejuvenated historic core, a downtown swath of century-old office buildings now boasting million-dollar lofts and upscale restaurants.


Last month, lease negotiations broke down. The bar owner, Vianey Delgadillo, slated a final blowout for May 31.

At the last minute, however, Delgadillo decided not to go quietly. During that final bash, the resident disc jockey read aloud a ringing anti-gentrification manifesto, vowing to defy the eviction notice.

"Many longtime residents have been pushed out by greedy landlords," deejay Morgan Higby Night said. "We are not going to let that happen. … If the landlord doesn't want to give us a new lease, he can take us to court."

The business' open defiance hit a sweet spot on social media, with residents and others complaining that rapid gentrification was destroying the last remnants of downtown's dark charm.

Except that this was not the typical tale of a long-running neighborhood joint being muscled aside when rents begin to climb. Bar 107 had been in business only 10 years, replacing a gay bar called the Score during an earlier gentrification wave.

Urban affairs experts and longtime downtown observers say new and hip replaced by newer and shinier is the way things often work in once-bleak urban areas on the upswing.

"Bar 107 is not the Rosa Parks of gentrification," pioneering downtown developer Tom Gilmore said. "I see it as a manufactured issue, and I'm sure they'll make plenty of dollars in the interim."

The question of authenticity and who came first frequently dogs discussions of gentrification — a notoriously slippery concept that some academics feel is so broad as to be meaningless.

Bar 107 established a beachhead in the historic core during a downtown renaissance that sprouted between 2000 and 2007, itself the successor to the arts district's 1980s resurgence, which followed Bunker Hill redevelopment in the 1960s.

In each iteration, people decried the loss of artists and edge, and predicted a cookie-cutter future catering to the gilded set.

"One person may be saying, 'Wow, I really miss the dive bar,' and another person is saying, 'Wow, I'm really thrilled there is a new coffee shop down here,'" said Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, associate professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, who has written about gentrification. "This is the thing that makes gentrification interesting: It's really complicated."

The historic core is centered on Broadway, Spring and Main streets between 4th and 7th streets. Without a doubt, the area is getting fancier.

In the last two years, a pizza joint on Bar 107's block was replaced by an Italo-Japanese dinner house with a "super-omakase" menu, and Pete's, a popular bistro, gave way to a higher-end dinner house. A.P.C., a French clothier, opened on the district's periphery.

Bar 107 and its landlord are now negotiating a short-term extension and the saloon remains open. Victor Vasquez, who manages the bar's space in the Barclay Hotel on 4th Street for his father, Rafael, said his differences with the bar were over lease terms, not money.


"Gentrification has nothing to do with it," Vasquez said. "She's trying to get public opinion on her side."

Delgadillo said she felt "misled" during the negotiations and at the last minute "decided I wouldn't go out with my tail between my legs."

Delgadillo — who owns several other downtown bars, including the New Orleans-themed Little Easy gastropub on 5th Street — acknowledges that her businesses are part of downtown's gentrification. What she's trying to preserve, Delgadillo said, is the area's dwindling diversity.

"It's not just dress codes, muddled drinks and expensive appetizers," said Delgadillo, whose latest venture is Mattachine, a gay bar opening in coming weeks. "I see diversity dying out in downtown Los Angeles. Isn't that what a city is?"

Outside the bar Tuesday, the street was lined with Lexuses, Infinitis and a Porsche. A blackboard by the bar's keyhole-shaped door read "Days left until," with the number that followed partly erased.

"Until the sheriff kicks us out," the bouncer told a passersby who asked how long they planned to stay in business.

Inside, young men with Amish-style beards sat in the long, narrow bar room, its walls covered ceiling-high with kitsch — a velvet pinup painting, taxidermy and a schooner made from cut-up Budweiser cans — as a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon flickered on the TV screens.

The bartender said business had been so crazy she was almost out of beer. Most of the patrons and passersby supported the owner's revolt.

"The sense of neighborhood has been displaced," said Azure, a one-named downtown resident and street artist, giving the bouncer a raised fist as she passed by.

Todd Young, 38, and Christopher Knudson, 53, described themselves as regulars.

"This is the only place that reminds me of Milwaukee," said Young, 38, a psychotherapist. "Everything coming in doubles the prices. It's obscene; it belongs in Beverly Hills."

"My rent has gone up $400 in four years," said Knudson, 53. "I'm a mechanic; it's not like I'm making hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Carol E. Schatz, president of the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles, said she rejects the whole idea of gentrification. Downtown is always changing, she said, and "the market will set the rates."

Still, Schatz said, "I always suggest we need more mid-market businesses in downtown."

On a smoking break outside the bar, Adrian David, a downtown resident since 1983, said he prefers today's version.

"A bunch of crackheads: not cute," David said, describing the old downtown. "You always had to be walking on eggshells."

But his ilk is fading fast, he conceded: "I'm just lucky I'm still here."

Greg Mielcarz, 45, walked in and out of Bar 107

"I miss the seedy, weird side of downtown Los Angeles," he said. "The soul of the city is gone. Or maybe I'm just older."

Mielcarz's Uber ride pulled up.

"We're going to Koreatown," he said, smiling, as he and his companion climbed in the back. "The soul of the city."

Twitter: @geholland