Neighborhood Watch: Downtown Los Angeles

New businesses are pouring into this once shady area, but nobody wants to see it cleaned up entirely.

WORDS Andy Wang
March 2017

Photography Dylan + Jeni

Raan Parton, Creative Director and co-founder of the Apolis apparel brand, moved to L.A.’s Arts District in 2006. The compact neighborhood, sandwiched between Downtown and the L.A. River, used to have a sordid reputation. Parton lived in a large loft that “didn’t really have any windows” but had a colorful history. The space was referred to as “the clubhouse” back in the 1990s, functioning as a kind of after-hours den for patrons of Al’s Bar, a punk rock dive down the street.

Things were still dicey when Parton moved in. “I had my car stolen twice in the first year,” he recalls. In 2011, he and his brother Shea opened Apolis: Common Gallery, a menswear store and gathering place for the Downtown community. “It was a dilapidated studio that was squatted in for a year and a half,” Parton says. “I joke that we sandblasted it with Purell. Someone was murdered in the space in the 1980s.” Their store now, with its airy layout and gallery space, attracts artists, collectors and chic neighborhood residents on a block that buzzes with cool shops and restaurants.

“There’s a walking culture here, which is such a rare thing in Los Angeles.”

So, this is the thing about Downtown Los Angeles: You can point to the 1999 opening of the STAPLES Center as a catalyst for the area’s economic resurgence, but it took the better part of a pretty rough decade for entrepreneurs to establish a retail, dining and nightlife infrastructure here. And while these pioneers are bringing the glam, they share an appreciation for the area’s grit. Apolis, known for its socially conscious approach to business, sells clothing crafted by Japanese tsunami victims, and also offers free coffee to every visitor, whether it’s shoppers or the homeless in nearby Skid Row—not the kind of behavior you normally associate with gentrification.

“Maybe you think it’s wonderful when you skip through,” says famed chef Roy Choi, who’s been parking his flash-mob-inducing Kogi taco trucks here since 2008. “But Downtown is still a very hard-nosed area, straight up; it’s still real. It’s not the illusion of what’s being written. The romanticizing and the reality are still two competing forces.”

Another local pioneer is Cedd Moses of 213 Hospitality, who reopened the Golden Gopher in 2004. Formerly the Golden Sun Saloon, the bar was owned by President Teddy Roosevelt in the early 20th century, but there was nothing so distinguished about the place as the century drew to a close. “Downtown was definitely a bit scary in the areas we initially opened,” says Moses, who now operates a thriving bar and restaurant empire in the area. “The Golden Gopher was the scariest dive bar I’ve been to in the United States, overseen by the notorious 18th Street gang. But it had great bones and a golden liquor license, so we went for it.”

Inside the Golden Gopher

One of Moses’ newest Downtown ventures is Arts District Brewing Co., a pub that starts pouring at 3 p.m. on weekdays and noon on weekends. It’s a world away from the seedy nightlife that once characterized the area. Here you’ll see purposefully dressed-down youngsters playing darts or foosball while beer aficionados geek out on craft brews.

Not far from here is The Smile’s Di Alba, an Italian-inspired eatery that opened in January. The block Di Alba shares with Apolis, with its low-slung buildings and factory-chic feel, is also home to designer boutiques like Poketo, H. Lorenzo Archive and Alchemy Works (owned by Raan Parton and his wife, Lindsay), with its Warby Parker Glass House shop-within-a-shop. The block also has an outpost of Portland’s Salt & Straw, a wildly popular ice cream shop that’s open until 11 p.m. The massive Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery is down the street.

“The influx is pretty amazing,” says Di Alba chef Nina Clemente, who is busily preparing focaccia with burrata and sides of cauliflower and beet-and-avocado salads. Clemente believes that these proliferating businesses are not only changing how people interact with the neighborhood, but how they get around. “There’s a walking culture here, which is such a rare thing in Los Angeles.”

Salt & Straw, Di Alba and Ace Hotel, the scenester hotel operator that opened a DTLA location in 2014 inside the historic United Arts building, are reminders that world-class operators are flocking Downtown—a list that also includes famed restaurant mogul Bill Chait, who opened Rivera near the STAPLES Center in 2009 and then the popular Bestia in the Arts District in 2012.

The Broad, a contemporary art museum designed by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Chait has since departed the restaurant group that developed those spots (along with Otium, next to The Broad contemporary art museum), but he has an equally ambitious project underway here: Tartine Manufactory, a collaboration with San Francisco chef/baker Chad Robertson and Phoenix chef/pizza maker Chris Bianco. Due to open in the fall in the new ROW DTLA shopping and dining complex, Tartine will occupy around 40,000 square feet on two levels and eventually include a craft bakery and mill, a market, two restaurants and a coffee roastery and lab.

“Every time I go out, I see tons and tons of people that I know. It’s a small town. And it’s not losing that. That’s the nice thing.”

The location, says Chait, “reminds me a lot of Bestia, because we’re not that far from Skid Row.” He and his partners chose ROW DTLA partly because of the industrial ambiance of the complex, which was first known as the L.A. Terminal Market, a produce distribution hub. “That was very attractive to Chris and Chad,” Chait says, “because they were afraid it was going to be over-commercialized. This is a new sort of place that is still industrial and, obviously, we have an industrial project.”

Chait still lives in the Arts District; Parton now resides in Culver City. Both—as with so many major players in the development of Downtown—believe that the neighborhood’s character must be preserved, even as the upscale galleries, restaurants and boutiques move in. “Every time I go out, I see tons and tons of people that I know,” says Chait. “It’s a small town. And it’s not losing that. That’s the nice thing.”
Parton didn’t have big expectations when he first came here, 11 years ago. While a lot has changed during that time (anybody who’s ever waited to get a table at Bestia will know how much), some things remain the same. Most significantly, the district is still a little rough around the edges, and locals see that as a good thing. “It looks very similar to the way it did when I moved in,” Parton says. “There is that anything-goes spirit.”

Roy Choi, who dared to park his original Kogi truck outside the Golden Gopher bar in 2008, is another who ushered in changes to this once-shady neighborhood, but who doesn’t want to see it change too much. “I guess what tickles me about Downtown is it’s still so big and so strong and it feels the same,” he says. “It’s loud, it’s windy, it’s dark, it’s cavernous. All these little things still haven’t moved the mountain yet. I like that.”

Roy Choi’s Downtown L.A. gamble

Mobile-food pioneer Roy Choi started hitting Downtown in late 2008, when he parked his food truck, Kogi, in areas around Skid Row. Momentum grew at the Downtown Art Walk, where his Korean tacos attracted thousands of foodies.

Kogi still parks Downtown, and Choi’s new LocoL truck has shown up at Smorgasburg, the Sunday outdoor food market. His commitment to Downtown also includes his brick-and-mortar Chego rice-bowl restaurant at Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, an area that used to go dark at night. “We operated while everything else around us was closed,” he recalls. “We were deep in the middle of a plaza that was otherwise completely shut down. It was a tough year.” Choi saw the future, and Far East Plaza has grown to include destination dining like Howlin’ Ray’s, Lao Tao and the Filipino pop-up LASA.

Instead of opening one bar, Cedd Moses opened 10

Others thought that opening one bar was crazy at the time,” says 213 Hospitality owner Cedd Moses, who opened the Golden Gopher in 2004. “But we were already planning to open 10 from day one. We were always hoping to create a bar-hopping district, not just one bar. If we built a district, which didn’t exist in L.A. at the time, it would become a destination.”

He hasn’t stopped at 10 venues. Moses now has a diverse portfolio of 15 Downtown bars and restaurants that includes Casey’s Irish Pub, The Seven Grand whiskey bar, the award-winning mixology at The Varnish inside Cole’s French Dip sandwich haven, the colorful dance club Honeycut and the new no-frills Bar Clacson.

A look at DTLA’s emerging hotel scene:

Freehand L.A.
The haute hostel in the historic Commercial Exchange building opened this month with a hip rooftop pool.

Proper Hotel
Once the Case Hotel, the 91-year-old red brick building is becoming a luxe modern hotel.

Hotel Indigo
With a design inspired by DTLA’s melting-pot past, the hotel debuts in April across from the L.A. Live complex.

At 73 stories, the posh 900-room mega-hotel will be the tallest skyscraper in L.A. when it lifts off this summer.

The NoMad
This fall, New York’s trendy NoMad hotel ventures to L.A. for its first West Coast edition.

W Hotel
After planting roots in Westwood and Hollywood, the W brand is heading to DTLA.


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