Rediscovering The Downtown Los Angeles Arts District

Downtown Los Angeles used to be a no man’s land. But now, thanks to the efforts of local artists and entrepreneurs, pockets of the downtown area are being transformed into an up-and-coming Arts District, complete with open coworking spaces, live-work lofts, organic cafes and trendy eateries. Murals from street artists like Shepard Fairey and JR fill the neighborhood, with hardly a patch of bare wall in sight. On Traction Avenue, tattooed freelancers congregate at sidewalk cafes serving niche foods like pie and bratwurst. Skateboards and thick-rimmed glasses are ubiquitous.

The Downtown Los Angeles Arts District is bordered by the Los Angeles River, Alameda Street, the 101 Freeway and 7th Street. Historically, the neighborhood was home to vineyards and citrus groves, followed by factories and freight companies in the years after World War II, according to LA DAD Space. In the 1960s, urban artists discovered the neighborhood and began converting the previously industrial buildings into progressive live-work spaces. In 1981, the city of Los Angeles passed the Artist in Residence Ordinance, which officially sanctioned these types of multi-use artist lodgings. But then the 1990s came, bringing high crime rates and homelessness. The neighborhood went into a deep decline, and for the past few decades, there hasn’t been much of a reason to visit.

Now, thanks to an active community of artists and entrepreneurs, the Arts District is once again reestablishing itself as the creative hub of Los Angeles. In 2005, the neighborhood was officially established as a Business Improvement District and given funding to improve safety, maintenance and other programs. Artists, drawn by expansive loft spaces and relatively cheap rents, are starting to move back in.


Much of the Arts District action is clustered around Traction Avenue. If you’re hungry, join the line at Wurstkuche, a “purveyor of exotic sausages” with an extensive selection of beers on tap. Be sure to save room for dessert across the street at The Pie Hole, which specializes in offbeat combinations like The Lonely Pie, with dark chocolate, peanut butter and potato chips. Further down the street, you can break out of your food coma with fresh-roasted coffee from Novel Cafe.

Unsurprisingly, the Arts District also offers some exceptional options on the shopping front. A highlight is Poketo, a bright open boutique filled with quirky design items, from graphic tees to spinning tops. A few doors down, Apolis offers stylish, functional menswear, sourced from social enterprises in the developing world. The showroom of upscale linen line Matteo is a must-see for home design junkies.

And then, of course, there are the artists themselves. For a full list of galleries and spaces, and more information about the neighborhood’s development, check out the Arts District website.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]