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]

Medieval manuscripts in Los Angeles and London

Medieval manuscriptsTwo major exhibitions on opposite sides of the globe are focusing on the art of medieval manuscript illumination.

At the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a show has just opened highlighting the burst in creativity and education in what is popularly called the Gothic period. Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 features books from this important period, when educated Europe created a huge demand for illustrated manuscripts.

Looking at these works of art instantly dispels the popular notion that the Middle Ages were a low period in civilization. In fact, it was a time of great artistic creativity and innovation. Even though the Church tried to create an orthodox mode of thinking, science and basic questions of philosophy were able to advance, albeit slowly. Even existentialism had a place. Just read the opening chapter of St. Augustine’s Confessions if you don’t believe me.

The exhibition mainly draws on Getty’s impressive permanent collection, including recent prize acquisitions such as the Abbey Bible, one of the finest Gothic illuminated manuscripts ever made. Also of interest is the Northumberland Bestiary, a mid-13th century encyclopedia of animals.

In London, the British Library is running Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. This collection of 150 manuscripts from the library’s collection date from the 8th to the 16th century and depict royalty through the ages. Some were even owned by kings and queens, such as a psalter with marginal notations by Henry VIII. The exhibition not only covers the royalty about and for whom the books were created, but also the artists who create them. Not all were monks as commonly believed. Many books were made by professional freelance artists who hustled for commissions from the rich and powerful. Not much has changed!

Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350 has two installations, one running to 26 February 2012 and the next running from 28 February to 13 May 2012. Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination runs until 13 March 2012.

Photo courtesy British Library.

Video of the day: the best burger in Los Angeles

Los Angeles from Dave Pinke on Vimeo.

Even with the Grammys and the Oscars behind us now, it’s still safe to say that Los Angeles is a major travel destination. Especially during months that are just a little too cold for comfort in other parts of the world. Dave Pinke, a traveler and video-making cool guy from NYC, put this video together after one of his trips to L.A. Among his travels featured in this video is his search for the best burger in L.A. And, you know, that’s important information–according to me.

Have a video you wish we’d see? Contact us.

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US bound flight grounded after “prank” September 11th bomb threat

A 21 year old electricians apprentice on his way from Brisbane to Los Angeles thought it would be fun to announce to fellow passengers that he had a bomb in his possession.

When the plane was still on the ground in Brisbane, he made the threat using the seatback entertainment system chat room. One passenger then alerted the crew, and the captain decided to have the passenger removed from his plane.

It took just under two hours to have his luggage removed and the plane underwent a thorough inspection. As if this wasn’t stupid enough, the guy made his threat on a plane that would land in the US on September 11th.

His attorney told the court that the actions were “ill-considered and childish in the extreme”. That is putting it lightly if you ask me. Amazingly, he got away with a mere $1300 fine, payable to the airline, and two years probation. The total cost to V Australia was about $20,000. As part of his guilty plea, no conviction will be added to his record, which probably means he’ll be able to fly to the US, though I doubt V Australia will be welcoming him any time soon.

I’d like to think that most people reading this understand the seriousness of making prank bomb threats, and I’m pretty sure that making them on a US plane or a US airport will cost you far more than just $1300.

Exploring forgotten L.A. on a Conservancy walking tour

In the current movie hit (500) Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Tom brings his quasi-girlfriend Summer (Zooey Deschanel) to a park overlooking downtown Los Angeles, and together they admire the grand old buildings standing above the desultory new parking lots. “There’s a lot of beautiful stuff here,” says Tom. “I just wish people would notice it more.”

I almost leapt out of my seat and cheered. Downtown Los Angeles is one of the most incredible, yet most ignored, urban landscapes in America. Built in time of fantastic wealth and artistic productivity, it was more or less abandoned in the late 1940s, and now, an entire city that could compete with Chicago’s Loop, Pittsburgh, or countless other lavish leftovers from the Gilded Age, has been mostly left, largely intact but rotting, to Mexican immigrants. For lots of white Americans, it might as well be off the maps.

I’m always hungry to learn more about the original Los Angeles, but few of the people I meet seem to know anything about it. While there are lots of books about fake palazzos and long-lost Hollywood stars, even the manager at The Traveler’s Bookcase, the city’s most important travel bookshop, was at a loss to provide me with any book of substance about the history of the area.

Thank goodness for the efforts of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation group that fights to preserve what it can of the downtown district. Because there’s so much worth saving, the group runs popular walking tours of the best bits, usually on weekends when suburbanites can enjoy them.

The Broadway Historic Theatre District tour, held every Saturday at 10 a.m., could blow your mind, even if you don’t care a thing about theatre. Over three hours, our guide Laura Crockett led us through long-forgotten cinemas and stages as we headed down Broadway, which was once the spine of Los Angeles and probably the most important street in the Western United States after the San Francisco quake reduced that city to a B-level burg.

How quickly a society abandons its glories. This is the L.A. that the great names knew. At the Los Angeles Theatre, Charlie Chaplin attended the 1931 premiere of his City Lights. Loew’s State, once the city’s pre-eminent house and where Judy Garland appeared as a child in the Gumm Sisters act, is another church conversion; its keystone above the stage, which once held a gorgeous Buddha-like ornament, has been stripped to a bare niche, likely to avoid offending the congregation.

As we walked, the scales fell from our eyes, and suddenly, Los Angeles revealed itself. As it turned out, it once was a real city with an actual heart — not the car-reliant dystopia we know today — and we were standing in it, among the peeling paint, crumbling iron, and discount stalls serving recent immigrants. Many of the evidence of a thriving civiliza
tion remain, intact but fading.

The spectral Egyptian visage above the stage of the Million Dollar Theatre (1918), once worthy of its name, now presides over a Hispanic church with all the swank of a dusty rec center. On the side of the Tower, for example, I could just make out the old painted signs, nearly sixty years old, advertising newsreels. Atop the marquee of the Morosco (1913), the first serious playhouse in the city, you can still see the globe that advertised its later life as a purveyor of newsreels.

As a bonus — because no truly thorough L.A. architecture tour could neglect it — we also stopped beneath the spectacularly skylit cage elevators of the sublime Bradbury Building (1893), which also happens to be the setting for the final scene of (500) Days of Summer. Not all of L.A. has been left to the spiders, you realize when you set foot in the gleaming, well-tended treasure evocative of the best of the Chicago School. And with proper appreciation and funding, there are scores more jewels waiting to be polished in this city.

There are plenty of tragedies, too. The lobby of the Cameo Theatre, built in 1910, has been turned into a down-at-heel electronics shop. Laura led us behind the grim, bedsheet-like curtain at the back of the store and we found ourselves in the original auditorium. The seats were ripped out, and instead, lining the bolt-pocked sloping floor of the orchestra, were shelves of TVs and video game consoles.

The once-glorious Pantages Downtown, later the showcase for Warner Bros.’ most illustrious premieres, is now obliterated by concrete. Someone filled in the space where the seats once stood to turn the entire orchestra level into a gloomy jewelry mart. “It will never be a theatre again,” lamented Laura. While security guards and vendors eyed our group warily — because of the valuable wares, we were forbidden to take photos here — we peered up at the proscenium and whitewashed decor, still mostly intact over our heads. It’s a small victory, perhaps, that the ornamentation survives even though the original purpose will never again be realized.

“It’s a beautiful city with beautiful buildings, but people have messed up many of them with so-called ‘improvements,'” Laura said.

The tour isn’t really about theatre. It’s about the birth and death of American cities, and it’s about filling in the considerably large blanks that many of us have in our knowledge about the history of the second-most important city in our country.

The tour was done by 1 p.m., early enough to grab lunch at Clifton’s Cafeteria, a weird but satisfyingly kitschy 1935 that’s still dishing out green Jell-o in a dining room kitted up like a Redwoods forest, complete with two-level waterfall.

Admittedly, it would be more fitting of downtown’s current residents to grab a fresh-made taco at the Grand Central Market, by the tour’s starting point. I also dropped into a clothing store geared to poor immigrants — the silent escalators were encrusted with dust and announcements were made only in Spanish — and bought a fantastic pair of plaid summer shorts. The final price, with tax: $3.84.

Symbolically speaking, that’s a long way from the Million Dollar Theatre. It would be long way back, too, but that would be a journey worth taking.

Los Angeles Conservancy Broadway Theatres Walking Tour, Saturdays at 10 AM,, $10, reservations required