Discovering Downtown with Esotouric

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles: The Lowdown on Downtown – The Secret History of LA (an Esotouric bus adventure, February 27, 2010)

As a new LA resident (I landed here on January 15, 2010), I have been anxious to learn about the downtown that I hardly knew  existed.  Over the years, I have visited LA on a number of occasions and developed an impression of it as a sprawling constellation of suburbs linked by freeways.

It was only on my last visit two years ago that I learned that there was a real “Downtown LA.” It was a blurred memory of some 1920s multistory buildings lining Broadway and the modern monstrosities commanding Bunker Hill. Over the last six weeks, I would spend either Saturday or Sunday driving around downtown trying to make sense out of it. Much to my delight, I discovered that there was a real urban core configured around a rectangular street grid that was periodically punctuated by an expressway. When I felt safe shifting my vision to the sidewalk, I could see numerous pedestrians representing visible street life, but I could not make any sense out of it.

Today, I went on the Esotouric bus tour of downtown LA conducted by Richard Schave with assistance from Kim Cooper.

Having a passion for cities, this was an incredible experience for me. I was exposed to geography, architectural history, social and ethnic history, some local legends plus an insight into the loft/art community. All of this was inescapably viewed through a
current prism evaluating the impacts of “urban renewal” in the 1950s and 1960s and today’s loft gentrification. Richard exposed his well informed passions and prejudices; they were cogent and convincing. When appropriate. he called on members of the tour with specialized knowledge of certain areas to speak about them.

For me, the highlight was the Grand Central Market. I had no idea that such a viable urban commercial environment existed anywhere in LA. The Mercantile Arcade stretching from Broadway to Spring Street epitomizes the dilemma confronting future
developments downtown. Broadway and the Mercantile Arcade are viable segments of a Mexican American commercial district being threatened by loft gentrification. The Mercantile Arcade lends itself to becoming a replica of Boston’s highly successful Faneuil Hall Market. If this occurs, what happens to the Mexican American merchants?

On the tour, I made some comparisons with SOHO in New York. Primarily the remnants of a Civil War era industrial area, I have witnessed SOHO’s evolution over the last forty years from artists’ living/work space into a kind of Disneyland with it own Bloomingdales attracting “bridge and tunnel” people as well as tourists from around the world. I shared a fourth floor walkup space in a building at 26 Greene Street that had been owned by an Italian family for several generations. The building was sold and modernized. The ground floor is now the showroom for a Swiss office furniture manufacturer. The stairs remain as a relic of the past complemented by an elevator serving four floors of modernized lofts with price tags in the millions.

This demonstrates the potential danger of converting industrial space into artists’ space and then into residential lofts. The gritty character of the neighborhood which appealed to the artists can be transformed into expensive gentrified real estate devoid of personality. This danger lurks on many street corners in Downtown LA.

Having some previous experience organizing bus tours in Cincinnati, London, New York and Paris, I would give today’s tour four stars. Esotouric offers other tours; I hope to take as many as I can.