Skip to content

L.A. Edition: Downtown Noir

October 4, 2011

Everything looks eerily familiar in Downtown L.A.: the alleys, the fire escapes, the rooftops. I’ve seen all this before, I kept thinking as I walked around with my pal David Blum, a location scout who knows every inch of L.A.’s old urban core—which, since the dawn of Hollywood, has been a convenient stand-in for the gritty metropoles of the East, when it wasn’t playing itself. These are the streets that launched a thousand car chases. They are also a fantastic repository of fading 20th-century urban grit and glamour. David and I spent a few hours seeking curiosities in the shadow of Bunker Hill’s gleaming, Die Hard–era skyscapers. We saw gorgeous relics like the old KRKD radio tower on Spring Street:

You can almost see the little cartoon radio waves emanating from it, and hear the announcer’s tinny voice, “Broadcasting to you live from the top of the Arcade Building …”

And we saw dozens of old hotels. My God, the hotels. Rising on every corner were grand symbols of Depression-era transience, heralded by huge cantilevered vertical signs:

And towering scaffolds:

In the wake of the adaptive reuse ordinance of 1999, many of those old hotels and flophouses have been converted to lofts. Others, to my amazement, still catered to a Skid Row clientele and accommodated Section 8 housing:

A few, like the King Edward Hotel, had streetfront bars attached. Just before noon, David and I ducked into the King Eddy Saloon (“Where nobody gives a shit about your name”), an unreconstructed steam-table dive and a cool, dark sanctum where we could watch people walk by on the sun-blasted street outside:

All over Downtown, the remnants of an earlier retail and dining culture could be seen. Here was the ersatz-Northwoods splendor of Clifton’s Cafeteria—that bastion of Midwestern probity in the heart of Lalaland—where a jovial server named Buck let us wander around for a while:

And here were ornate movie palaces, their neon extinct, their auditoriums repurposed for worship or other pursuits:

And popping out here and there were the rusting shingles of long-departed garment-district shops like Sunland Menswear:

Elsewhere, the streets still hummed with cottage industry. In old St. Vincent’s Court, above a barbershop and café, a jeweler could just barely be seen toiling away behind the steel bars of his workshop window:

Everywhere we walked, the architecture spoke to me of the hubris and classical aspirations of a past epoch, writ in terra cotta and soaring brick and masonry:

Buildings beckoned the eye with bold, sweeping angles, but also rewarded the attentive looker with whimsical touches:

Finally, after a French dip sandwich at Cole’s—the ancient Downtown speakeasy that’s been revived, quite beautifully I must say, for hipsters and cocktail geeks—David and I ended our walk at Casey’s, a sawdusty, basement-level Irish-American pub of the old order, where a few middle-aged men in suits had taken refuge to watch soccer and a lone, kilt-clad hostess waited out her shift in the fading, reflected light of the blazing California sun …

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 12:54 pm

    Dave — If you had a French Dip at Cole’s you needed to balance it with one from Philippe’s! Only thing is that you don’t have at Philippe’s is The Varnish speakeasy bar located through a back door at Cole’s.

  2. dmcaninch permalink*
    October 4, 2011 1:01 pm

    Yeah, Philippe’s is better. Michele and I had our wedding rehearsal dinner there! And Varnish, Schmarnish, I’ll take the front bar at Cole’s any day!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: