Downtown Los Angeles. The bane of our collective existence. Our best kept secret. Our Achilles heel. You see, in a city that doesn’t make much sense, you only need to look as far as downtown to pinpoint what’s so confusing about it. Because in most cities in the world, downtown is the heart of the city. In some parts of the world, they literally call it the “city center,” which, by any account for LA, is hilarious.
First of all, if you take a look at a map of LA, you’ll notice that it is far from being in the center of anything, so it fails geographically. Second, unless you have dinner reservations at Bestia or tickets to the Broad, it’s the last place you’d think to go on any given day, so it fails socially. Third, most of the things that make LA, LA… are not there. Sure, that’s where certain things are, like government buildings and the Staples Center. But LA is so spread out and decentralized, that downtown is way to far from the beach to be culturally relevant either.
But anyways, I digress. Because as much as I hate to admit it, downtown actually isn’t that bad. It’s kind of cool now. Once you accept that it’ll never be the beautiful urban jungle that other cities have, it’ll warm up on you, and you too might find yourself duly navigating the one way streets to a moderate to expensive parking structure on the weekends.
Ok to be honest, I have no idea what’s happening with all the different districts and neighborhoods here besides the more well-branded Little Tokyo and Arts District, but for all intents and purposes, this section will encompass everything between the 110, the 101, S Los Angeles Street, and 8th Street. I’m so sorry for that sentence, but not sorry enough to rewrite it.
Ok ok. So this part of town is what I usually think of when I think about downtown LA. It’s where the historic buildings are, where, if you turn your head and squint a little, you might even be convinced you’re in a real city that’s been around for more than a few decades.
What does one do here? Well, you might go to a museum, brave the crowds at Grand Central Market, relive your favorite scenes of 500 Days of Summer or La La Land, get lost in a labyrinth of a used book store, day drink on an obnoxiously trendy roof , and grab some dinner at an LA institution.
But seriously, there’s a lot happening here. An excellent restaurant and bar scene, more concentrated and upscale than other parts of the city. A lot of random historic gems like the library and the Bradbury Building. A fair share of cultural institutions too, like the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Broad Museum. There’s also Grand Park and Pershing Square to help make LA feel like a big kid city. And more hotels that needed considering tourists should probably stay somewhere else.
Ah, my soft spot. Little Tokyo was my gateway drug to downtown. The only place palatable enough, enticing enough, for me to brave the parking situation. For one, it’s cute af. Like, they realllllyyy lean in on that Little Tokyo aesthetic, the way some Chinatowns do. You’ve got the architecture, the little lanterns, the kitschy Japanese culture shops, a handful of Japanese grocery stores ranging from the teeny Nijiya to the much larger Marukai. It feels storied, even more so than its western sister, Sawtelle. There are some shops that seem to have been around forever, stubborn in their ways. Cash only. Decor fit for the 90s. Making the most of a tiny space. Withstanding the test of time among the never ending stream of shiny new establishments popping up. It’s cute. It’s stimulating. There’s lots to see, hear and taste on the couple blocks.
Over the years, while I’ve warmed up to the rest of downtown, Little Tokyo has gotten a little less palatable for me. Mostly because it’s become a destination for everyone and their families. Making it feel less like a fun activity and more like a battle. But we still brave it out once in a while, and that guy playing music in the middle of Japanese Village Plaza still delivers every time.
Oh the Arts District. For the uninitiated, the name itself might conjure up images of an eclectic, “up-and-coming” (read: gentrifying) neighborhood filled with galleries and museums. Which, sure it kind of lives up to that, similar to cities across the country… but it’s also much more. Even before the rest of downtown got hip again, the Arts District was a haven for hipsters and bloggers. And its just gotten more drunk on its own kool-aid in recent years. You used to have to know a thing or two to make your way around the cool spots in the neighborhood. Now you’re never more than two instagram husbands away from the next trendy spot.
Between Hauser & Wirth and the ROW, the Arts District gets more than its fair share of well-dressed millennials every weekend, but who can blame us? It’s literally an escape from the chaos just a mile away. You find an odd sense of peace walking among the warehouses, the muffled bass disclosing all the exclusive launch parties and opening nights in the galleries within. It’s a haven for people to eat, drink and be cultured, all within walking distance.
Not even gonna pretend to know this part of town, because it’s pretty foreign to me. Besides the Staples Center / LA Live / The Convention Center, I’m not sure if people actually come here? So I suppose it’s more of an event destination, where you might grab dinner or a drink out of convenience (at least for me, I’d never go out of my way to come to this part of town).
As for the Fashion District, besides Santee Alley and a handful of scattered restaurants, also not sure if people actually come here. Ironically, because it hasn’t been given an LA makeover to be hip and trendy and a spot for aspiring influencers to be seen, it feels a little more like old LA. A reminder that this city isn’t all entertainment all the time. There used to be other industries that thrived.