Downtown L.A.'s many communities live, work, play side by side

For a downtown once famous for emptying out with the evening commute, the raucous scene around Staples Center and L.A. Live as the Lakers, Kings and Clippers compete in playoff games stands as a testament to how much the central city’s fortunes have changed.

Thousands jam sidewalks. Crowded cafes and bars pulsate with music and laughter. The streetscape is so lively that a group of Christian evangelists descends on street corners with free Bible booklets.

But travel a block or two in any direction and the crowds begin to thin out considerably. At brothers Ron and Erick Semerci’s pizzeria and bakery four blocks north of Staples on 8th Street, sports fever barely registered.

The pizzeria doesn’t see much bounce from sports championships and the Grammys, said Ron Semerci. Rather, their customers are office workers, residents who live in converted lofts and new high-rises and local bar patrons ordering pizza to go with their beer.

The contrast between the huge entertainment complex and the neighborhood pizzeria offers a glimpse into two major forces that have fueled downtown’s revitalization.

One is the large corporate draws like pro sports and entertainment awards galas that generate buzz and have made downtown a destination again after decades of decline.

In that sense, this is the kind of weekend that boosters have dreamed about: A rare triple playoff at Staples, with the Dodgers playing just to the north in Chavez Ravine, the Amgen Tour of California cycle race rolling through the streets of downtown and “Don Giovanni” being presented at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But these big-ticket events tell only part of the story. Urban planners and others say that smaller, organic neighborhood forces, the inventive mix of retail shops, restaurants, bars and galleries, have also been an important draw.

“Downtown has some great neighborhoods that have their own specific functions — Little Tokyo, the Arts District, the garment district,” said Joel Kotkin, an urban studies fellow at Chapman University. “It happens best when it happens organically. The beauty of the Arts District is that it grew over years. And there’s a niche, art types, who like that. There’s been a market for that.”

Kotkin and others said downtown is really a collection of neighborhoods — not a monolithic whole — each with its own vibe. And they are much less interconnected than many might think.

“Downtown L.A. is like the rest of the city,” said Steven Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego who has written about Los Angeles. “Just like you have a spread-out city, you have nodes in downtown. They’re very weakly connected, and that’s the way L.A. grew, and that’s the way downtown was developed. There’s multiple downtown experiences.”

The differences are about location but also about culture. Amid the lofts, dive bars and art galleries along Spring and Main streets, some residents said they have little interest in the chain restaurants and mainstream entertainment offered at Staples and L.A. Live.

“It’s too corporate down there,” said Brenda Marroquin, a downtown resident who was hanging out at the Silo Vodka Bar on 7th and Broadway. “This is really a community — people who live here and work here.”

Downtown’s residential population jumped 50% between 2000 and 2010, from 26,000 to almost 39,000. That population attracted a host of new businesses, as well as festivals and events that have been big draws for outsiders, such as the once-a month Art Walk.

These sections of downtown might not see the crowds of a Lakers game, but the street scene has developed a strong — and decidedly different — audience of its own.

“People who actually live here can see past the hype,” said USC student Shams Hirji, who lives in an apartment complex on 3rd Street. “If anything, the big events pose more of a nuisance because of traffic.”

On Thursday night, as the Kings played at Staples Center, there was no hint that a harmonic convergence of sports had taken over downtown inside the Golden Gopher bar on 8th near Hill Street. There was only one TV, and it was turned off during the game.

“Really, people come here to get away from all the yelling and screaming,” said general manager and bartender Lauren Wong, as punk rock tunes like the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” and songs from “The Animals” played in the jukebox.

Bar patrons, who included loft dwellers and a group from a law office having a drink after work, said they like that Staples feels a world away.

“I like the way everything is separated,” said Stevie Lang, 27, of South Pasadena. “You don’t always get these touristy Lakers fans. I like the way you don’t get everyone storming into all the local bars after a game.”

There has been much debate in Los Angeles and cities across the country about how much sport venues help downtown areas.

Dennis Coates, an economist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who studies sports stadiums and their impact, said it’s hard to prove stadiums are major drivers of jobs and economic development in the surrounding areas. But they do create community meeting places and can unite people around a team.

“For many people, that’s a benefit worth paying for,” he said.

Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., said Staples Center, which opened in 1999, marked a major turning point for downtown. Not only did it spur more development — notably L.A. Live — it also made downtown a destination.

“Before Staples, this was a quintessential 9-to-5 downtown,” she said. “It was dark, forbidding almost at night. You didn’t see people on the street.”

Her organization is one of many supporting the push to bring a new NFL stadium, to be called Farmers Field, to downtown. The project, which is being developed by Anschutz Entertainment Group, would put a 72,000-seat stadium — and an NFL team — adjacent to Staples Center.

Schatz said the stadium could be a magnet for even more people — and business.

Fans at Staples seemed sold on the idea of downtown as a sports town. Ally Nelson, a Phoenix native visiting with her husband and daughter, compared the scene to the intense frenzy in a sports-crazy city like Boston. “L.A. is way, way into sports,” she said.

After the Kings’ victory, fans streamed out of the arena in droves, chanting, “Go, Kings, go!” and “We want the cup!”

Some lingered in the bright plaza, but most hurried toward their cars, eager to beat the traffic heading out of downtown.