Great Read: In an emerging downtown, ‘DTLA’ makes strong initial impression
Alan Valentin slips off his bulky headphones. He’s checking out a new art gallery/fashion boutique/event venue — a cavernous space where bass-heavy music reverberates off pristine white walls — that recently opened on Broadway in downtown L.A.
Or, as it’s known by the folks here, DTLA.
Does Valentin, who sports a nose ring and long hair, use the abbreviation in everyday conversation?
Of course, he replies.
And then, as if to check that it feels natural, he says “DTLA” and pauses. “Definitely.”
Shorthand for “downtown Los Angeles,” DTLA has crept into the Angeleno lexicon over the last several years, a hashtag-friendly name that initially gained traction online and then bled into real life.
The initialism captures the ethos of the emerging downtown, with its trendy lofts and burgeoning nightlife and arts scene — what the 23-year-old Valentin calls its “modernization.”
Before he moved to the neighborhood two years ago, “it was just ‘downtown.’” Now, for Valentin, who lives with his girlfriend — they met at Burning Man — it’s DTLA.
But it’s not just a thing with newcomers. The name has also become an essential piece of the rebranding of once-drab, now-hip downtown L.A.
Dozens of businesses have tacked DTLA onto either end of their names. Tourists can pick up souvenir “I ♥ DTLA” T-shirts. And on just about every piece of downtown-related advertising, DTLA is stamped on some corner.
Places often adopt new names when they gentrify, such as SoHo in New York City and SoMa in San Francisco, says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of urban planning at USC who studies neighborhood economic development. Like DTLA, the shorthand becomes synonymous with the area’s revitalization.
“These are kind of in lockstep with each other,” says Currid-Halkett. “As we see a neighborhood change, we see the need to change what we call it.”
A fairly obvious abbreviation, DTLA had been tucked away in the L.A. vernacular for years.
In 1984, a modest tea shop in Little Tokyo reportedly served an excellent croque-monsieur. That restaurant — deemed “a kind of tearoom for the ‘80s” in a Los Angeles Times review — was called DTLA.
The Times article parenthetically explained what DTLA stood for, but not why the owners chose that name.
Fast-forward 18 years. Singer-songwriter Gary Jules releases a track called “Dtla.”
Hide your money in the other hand
Observations of a regular
Towers floating on a sea of ghosts
It’s always the same, I told you
Riiiiiide ... downtown Los Angeles.
The 2002 song, which describes the barren streetscape and drug culture of downtown, doesn’t include the abbreviation anywhere in the lyrics.
Jules says the story behind the title goes like this: When recording, he had to scribble the track name on a piece of masking tape that was too small to fit “downtown Los Angeles.”
“So I wrote ‘Dtla,’ and that was it,” says Jules, who lived in L.A. at the time. He’d never heard anyone use it before, but he thought it sounded cool.
But the name didn’t have much staying power until the rise of social media.
When Twitter’s character limit placed a new value on pithiness, DTLA stood out as the shortest way to refer to downtown. And when Instagram created a global audience for photos of cocktails and beet salads, DTLA became a way to specify in which city’s downtown the pictures were taken.
Jason Fields has the distinction of being the first person ever to tweet DTLA.
“It just sort of happened,” Fields says of his 2007 tweet of a quintessential L.A. scene: “Sitting on the roof @ The Standard in DTLA listening to LCD soundsystem & HotChip...”
Fields, a designer who lived in Highland Park back then, says that L.A.'s artist community had already been using the acronym at that time, and it ended up translating well to social media.
A few years later, the Downtown Center Business Improvement District heavily pushed the use of the hashtag "#dtla” on Twitter when the social networking site formally adopted hashtags.
Now the Internet teems with the initialism; more than 500 tweets included "#dtla” on the first day of 2015 alone.
Improvement District President Carol Schatz called the online reach of DTLA gratifying but remembers more fondly seeing “I ♥ DTLA” T-shirts for sale for the first time. It was a couple of years ago, and she viewed it as a telling moment for the future of DTLA.
“It has developed a life of its own,” she says. (Of the T-shirt, she jokes: “I’m kind of mad at myself for not buying one,” adding that she plans to the next time she sees one in a store window.)
Now, more than 30 businesses in Los Angeles feature DTLA somewhere in their names. DTLA Bikes, KTCHN DTLA, DTLA Fine Jewelry, Gather DTLA, Industry DTLA, DTLAVets.
Nearly 25 of those were registered in the last two years.
Rachael Cayce opened her practice, DTLA Derm, in October. The dermatologist, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Dallas, says she didn’t feel “downtown L.A.” connoted all the changes she’d heard about in the neighborhood.
“But when I hear people talk about DTLA, it’s almost like there’s an energy,” she says.
Two years ago, artist Robert Vargas decided to paint a mural to capture that spirit.
He’s lived in downtown for a decade and watched a residential population mushroom alongside an explosion of new bars and restaurants. He’s seen Angelenos’ reaction shift from shock to nonchalance when he tells them he lives downtown.
His four-story painting of a young woman with billowing black hair, at the intersection of 6th and Spring streets, is titled “Our Lady of DTLA.”
Lydia Clarke opened DTLA Cheese in Grand Central Market a little more than a year ago. At times, her store’s name has caused confusion among customers.
Clarke says she thinks the uninitiated are mostly tourists; if you spend time in downtown, “it’s an automatic to know DTLA,” she says.
Just 10 yards away, Rocio Linan works the counter at Jones Grain Mill. The old apothecary occupies a corner of the transforming market, a produce bazaar that recently gave way to businesses offering wood-fired pizzas, oysters and wine, and locally made kombucha.
For eight years, Linan, 28, has spent her days among the wooden shelves crammed with pill bottles and jumbo containers of exotic leaves and spices. Two months ago, she finally figured out what DTLA meant.
“What is this?” she remembers thinking when she first saw it on Instagram.
For a while, she thought it was perhaps related to the shop’s neighbor, DTLA Cheese, as if DTLA were some enigmatic brand fueling Internet chatter.
Now that she’s familiar with it, Linan occasionally uses DTLA herself in texts or on social media, she says. “It’s much faster and shorter.”
Currid-Halkett, the USC professor, says DTLA will continue to spread as downtown’s new identity is fortified.
As with other neighborhood rebrandings, she says, there are early adopters. And then there are the late ones.
“If you’re part of the old guard, it’s still just ‘downtown,’” she says.
Rodriguez grew up near downtown and has lived in Little Tokyo for the last five years. He knows DTLA — he’s seen the shirts — but thinks the old name is easier.
It’s not that he loves what downtown was before, a place where most people went only for work or jury duty.
“Who wants a city full of nothing?” Rodriguez, 26, asks rhetorically. But he’s also worried, he says, that downtown could lose its soul with all the new development.
As he ponders this, Rodriguez passes through the intersection of 1st Street and Central Avenue — the corner where the DTLA tearoom operated more than 30 years ago.
Today it’s a dirt lot, full of construction cranes and wooden pallets stacked high above the chain-link fence that surrounds it.
A light-rail line is being built to connect pockets of downtown, and this site will soon become the home of a subway station.
DTLA, still changing.
Follow @skarlamangla on Twitter for more local news.
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