Favorite New Neighborhood to Live
Tis no secret to anyone that knows me, even on a peripheral plane, this past February, my roommate Olsen and I moved to Downtown LA. I’m not sure that “Downtown” is supposed to be capitalized when merely describing geography, but in this form, the form describing an almost living, organic entity, it is most definitely capitalized. Before we moved downtown, I didn’t know how the grid system worked, I didn’t know the layout of the neighborhoods, and I certainly didn’t know what to expect with the people I would be calling my neighbors. At first glance, after observing the surface of downtown, particularly my neighborhood, The Historic Core, one could imagine a pretty standard gentrification army or artists, skinny jeans, and big plastic glasses. The homelessmen begging for change, the Mexicans parading up and down Broadway, and the old, worn-down architecture are all certainly consistent with that type of white person. And to a man, these people are around. But they are well ingrained into a minority, a minority that co-exists well with the dominant, but certainly does not drive the aesthetic or culture of the neighborhood.
And to me, it is that fact that makes the current Downtown, the Downtown that I live in so special. As of now, and I’m sure this is very likely to change in the somewhat near future, there is no truly dominant aesthetic. There is no real way to categorize the people of Downtown, particularly those east of Broadway. Sure, there are definitely large pockets of artists, and pseudo-artists, and the lofts around the core, the warehouse district, and the arts district obviously lend themselves to accept the scenester type, but look around; in my building there are artists, professionals, bartenders, families, whites, blacks, Mexicans, Asians, people grilling on the roof, people ordering chili burgers at 2 AM, everyone lives here. And then you walk outside.
Outside my building is an insane amalgamation of people walking to the bank, walking to their cars, walking to ask for change, walking to the store. There are people eating lunch at LA Café, and people riding their bikes to and from work all over. On my block alone, we have two bars, a nightclub, a café, a Mediterranean grill, a dry cleaner, a convenient store, a juice store, and a dessert place. These businesses cater to so many creeds, walks, and ages of people that it’s impossible to locate who exactly makes up our culture. Of course if you go one block west, the beats and drones of mariachi music pollute the air, and thousands, literally thousands, of working class latinos are walking to and from unknown destinations. Furthermore, a few blocks east, and you’re literally on skid row; a tent city filled with so many homeless shelters that the neighborhood has developed its own aesthetic of homelessness.
So here is my little pocket, specifically bordered by Broadway to the West, 2nd to the North, Main to the East, and 7th to the South. A total of ten city blocks makes up this impossible to place, difficult to comprehend, collection of people, businesses, and apartment buildings.
A lot of people try to compare it to New York City, specifically the lower-east side, and there are definitely some similarities. The lower-class grifters co-existing with twenty/thirty something artsy set; the ancient buildings converted into classy lofts, I get it…but to me, the biggest difference is that Manhattan has been developing its culture and aesthetic for a century-and-a-half. Sure, there have been iterations and radical moments that have changed a particular neighborhood at a particular time, but all of these moments have merely enriched the already dynamic culture of Manhattan. Every Armory Show, or Beat Movement, helped create the neighborhoods we think we know today. DTLA is different. DTLA, especially this neighborhood, has been sitting pretty abandoned for much of the second half of the twentieth century. Only in the last decade did this part of Los Angeles really start to develop any aesthetic at all, let alone the one it’s trying to form right now. And so you have so many competing cultures, still not ready to stake claim to the ground, but definitely not ready to just move out and make room for anyone. Despite the opening of more than a handful of nice bars in the neighborhood, the grifters haven’t exactly slowed down, and most importantly the people in those bars don’t at all represent some sort of categorical archetype. The only thing we have in common is that we found this somewhat secluded corner of the least secluded city in the world, and we also found parking. That’s it. There is a common sense of irony shared by a lot of the people walking around, but that ironic mindset merely comes from the age, level of education, and level of pay that the city accommodates down here. Some are wearing plaid button downs, others are wearing dress shirts. Some girls are wearing high boots and carrying purses, others ride their bikes and roll up in long-sleeve t-shirts. Downtown can’t be placed. Downtown can’t be described, or authenticated, or confirmed. It can merely be romanced and mythologized.
To that last point, I have noticed a trend outside the confines of DTLA. When I encounter people, particularly those older the age of 35, but not always, that don’t really know downtown outside of the LA Times and the film 500 Days of Summer, they almost inevitably have the same reaction. “It’s supposed to be really cool down there now, do you live in one of those lofts?” It’s become like the church bells at Notre Dame…right on schedule, every time. And let me tell you why: Because it’s still a tiny bit, but just enough, intimidating to try to understand the complexities of what exactly is going on down here. Sort of like when a music movement begins to occur and those on the outside, without the ability or thoughtfulness to begin to try to understand the origins, complexities, or foci of the movement, they concentrate on one visual aspect of the mythology. To this day, flannel shirts are associated with grunge, almost more than the music. Spiked hair was punk. Backwards caps with early hip-hop. And with downtown LA, it’s these precious “lofts” they read about in the LA Times two or three years ago. These lofts have become our flannel, our spiked hair, our metonym for what it’s like to live downtown. There is no visual or aesthetic trait that binds the state of downtown together like skinny jeans of echo park, or the beach cruiser of Santa Monica; they don’t bother mentioning the pre-prohibition era cocktail movement that is now beginning to spread out of downtown, nor the incredibly vibrant arts scene; just the fact that people are living in old banks converted to lofts. I guess that’s good enough mythology for me. We aren’t hipsters, or artists; we don’t dress a certain way or behave like each other; we don’t all line up at the same restaurants because we’re too dim to think for ourselves (my obligatory subtle jab at the west side, not in caps); we just all live in lofts.
Well except Olsen and I. We have an apartment.