Life in Downtown Los Angeles

One of the topics I've been yearning to write about is life in Downtown Los Angeles.  People always seem surprised that we live here and I always get the same questions.  This makes me think there's enough interest in the subject to warrant more discussion.

When I first moved to the U.S., exactly nine years ago this month, we moved in with Jona's family in Anaheim.  They were very patient with me, as I fumbled around, trying to adapt to life in a new country.  Orange County was the polar opposite of Japan, my previous home.  For the life of me, I could never get my bearings and we still joke that I'm easy to kill:  just airlift me to the OC and drop me off at any intersection; I'll wander around aimlessly until I pass away from starvation and/or bewilderment.  I think it's the homogeneity of the areas that confuses me.  One strip mall can look much like another, and I am too ignorant to pick up on the subtle landmarks.  I'm a city kid, so my navigation system is simply not attuned to the suburbs.

After three weeks in Anaheim, we took a train to Union Station, because I wanted to go to Broadway and visit the Bradbury Building.  Film buff that I am, I had read in a California guide book in Japan that scenes from the movie "Blade Runner" were shot there, so I had to go. 

We walked from the station through the Pueblo, past the court houses and along Broadway.  As we walked, we couldn't help but look up at the buildings.  We were both smitten.  The old movie theaters and offices were truly majestic; decrepit but elegant.  How could one not fall in love with the history and romance of Downtown?  The Los Angeles Theater and the Orpheum, where Charlie Chaplin used to perform vaudeville and later première his films.  The United Artists theater, created by Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin.  The ghost of the building where Harold Lloyd filmed the famous clock scene of "Safety Last!"  The Bradbury Building.  Clifton's Cafeteria.  Grand Central Market.  Every block had a history.  We knew we had found our home.  It was just a matter of time before we moved here.   But, in fact, it took us another year-and-a-half.

It wasn't all roses.  We stopped off at Pete's Bar and Grill on Main Street on our way back to Union Station.  It was an oasis in a sea of misery.  Never before had we seen this kind of widespread misery in such a big city.  There were hundreds, no thousands, or tens of thousands of people living on the street. 

I remember it was a hot summer's day and one man was sprawled out naked on the sidewalk, sleeping, as people stepped over him.  I'll never forget.  Rats scurried along, darting among the people and the rotting trash.  All around, there were faces ravaged by life, time, alcohol, drugs and worry.  It was unfathomable that this scene could exist in the "City of Angels" in plain view of City Hall.  Couldn't Mayor Hahn see this from his window?  

Though it was a sobering experience, we didn't find it repulsive or disgusting, like most visitors.  We just felt sad that people had to live like this.  The first strangers who said hello to me in America were homeless people living on the streets of Downtown.  There was a burgeoning sense of community, if one wasn't afraid to look people in the eye.

One day I found a job in the city, but Jona was still teaching in Orange County.  Downtown was a good halfway point, so we started looking for a place to live.  That's a lie:  we took the first place we looked at!  It was a converted factory in South Park, two blocks from the Staples Center.  It was a split-level duplex, with 22-foot ceilings in the living room.  After the cramped three-and-a-half-tatami room in Japan, we thought this was a dream come true, so we couldn't wait to move in.

At the time, there was nothing in the neighborhood.  No grocery store, no neighbors, and no amenities to speak of.  After 5 p.m. on week nights and on weekends, it was just us and our homeless neighbors.  Our friends and family thought we were crazy, but we were happy.  There was no doubt in our minds that Downtown was home.  It felt pretty safe, as long as one used some common sense.  There are always areas to avoid, but, in fact, our greatest problem turned out to be our neighbors.  The sound insulation was non-existent, so we got on each others' nerves very quickly. 

Some of the neighbors were plain crazy.  One neighbor had an anger problem, another never made eye contact or said a word, and yet another came home one day to find his girlfriend had set fire to his clothes on the sidewalk.  A few days later, the same woman stabbed him with a kitchen knife; of course, he later married her...  Needless to say, we wanted out.  The loft thing sounded romantic to begin with, but it wore thin very quickly. 

At the end of our year's lease, we moved 1.6 miles up the road to Bunker Hill, where we live to this day.  It's an old, plain apartment with little character, but every day we wake up and see the mountains, the Disney Concert Hall, and the Hollywood sign and hills in the distance.  We open the windows and there's always a breeze.  More than anything, it's remarkably quiet.  We love it.

There are notable and noisy exceptions:  early one Saturday morning, we woke up to the sound of Formula 1 cars racing in the street outside (which they did all day).  Then there was the night Sonic Youth (or at least Thurston Moore and Kim Deal) played at the Museum of Contemporary Art downstairs.  We've had squads of helicopters, SWAT teams, Occupy LA protesters, concerts, video shoots, skateboarders, bellicose drunks and a lady who plays the Chinese violin (erhu) every weekend.  There's never a dull moment.  Our favorite night of the year is Independence Day, because the sky lights up with fireworks, from East Los to Dodgers Stadium and then over to Hollywood.  It's a sight to behold!

Mostly, Downtown is home because of the people who make this a community, whether it's Mark, Eric and Bree at the Old Bank DVD store, or the folks at Pete's, Bar 101, the Last Bookstore, all the coffee shops and restaurants, the library, our optician in Little Tokyo, our dentist Dr. Jay, or our doctor at Good Sam.  Then there are the ladies at Philippe's, the courageous convenience store clerks, our homeless brothers and sisters (notable characters: our first neighbor in South Park, Bruce; the guy who did an incredible rendition of "Diamonds are a girl's best friend" while we were waiting for the bus one day; and Ricky the Pirate), and the small business owners who took a chance on Downtown. 

While AEG often gets credit for revitalizing the area, with the Staples Center project and more recently with LA Live, it is important to recognize the Los Angeles Conservancy for the historic tours they organize every year.  So far, we have visited the old theaters on Broadway, City Hall, the Art Deco buildings and the Historic Core, but all of their tours are worth the time and money.  They have done a great job of highlighting the old theaters that initially charmed us on Broadway.  We've had the privilege of watching old classics as they were seen by previous generations of Angelenos, in painstakingly restored cinemas.

Nowadays, we still appreciate our neighborhood, particularly on weekends, but it's obvious that it's changing.  Ralph's opened a supermarket in 2007 and now, five years later, Target is set to open its doors this October in a revitalized 7th & Fig shopping center.  New bars and restaurants are opening every week, and the streets always seem busy.  While it's nice to see the neighborhood reborn, it's hard not to miss the days when it was our own secret playground.  I hope the new influx of businesses and residents will mean increased opportunities for the less well-off, but there are days when I think the "old Downtown" will slowly disappear until no one remembers there even was a Skid Row.  I can only hope that Downtown retains its unique flavor and that the community can work together to create a future that includes everyone.  I'd love to see schools in the neighborhood, more parks, street cars, and more street cleaning. Maybe by the end of this decade?

See you around the neighborhood!