The Real Los Angeles
Published: April 2009
By M. G. Lord
In a groundswell of appreciation for historic buildings, revitalized neighborhoods, and seasoned practitioners of modest arts, the city of forever young is flouting the old clichés.
Playing Alvy Singer in 1977’s Annie Hall, Woody Allen famously described Los Angeles as a place whose only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on red. Thirty-one years later, the old chestnut lives on, but the notorious Manhattan propagandist has crossed over. For the opening of the Los Angeles Opera’s 2008–2009 season, general director Plácido Domingo invited Allen to direct Gianni Schicchi, the third, comic opera in Puccini’s triple-bill Il Trittico. This happens to say much more about Los Angeles than it does about Woody Allen.
For as long as outsiders have jeered at L.A.—“shallow!” “phony!” “pathologically car-dependent!”—L.A. has fought back, if not always from a position of confidence. There was a there there even before I moved from New York eight years ago, but that didn’t stop my East Coast friends from teasing me mercilessly. These days, I rarely hear the cultural wasteland slur, or any other slur, for that matter. One friend who used to sneer spent last February flaunting her invitation to the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—not just a fun bash for an important Renzo Piano building but also, amazingly, a nonindustry hot ticket during Academy Awards week. Another friend just asked me to get her tickets to the L.A. Opera’s production of, you guessed it, Il Trittico.
In the land of quakes, one hesitates to call anything earthshaking, but L.A.’s transformation from a patchwork of born-yesterday suburbs (where I grew up) to a real, unified city registers high on the cultural Richter scale. L.A. hasn’t lost its great historical markers—a beach, a sign, those movie studios. It still has strip malls and housing tracts, but it also has a booming downtown for the first time since the 1950’s—whose population has doubled (from 18,000 to 36,000) since 1999. The construction of new buildings there and elsewhere in the city has made Angelenos notice venerable, neglected ones—and, astonishingly, help stave off their decline. Quite simply, L.A. has awakened to its past—its stories, its people, its places.
Downtown, where I live, I like the way the flashy curves of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall underscore the elegant functionality of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion across the street. Long home to the Oscars, and now to the L.A. Opera, the Midcentury treasure was designed by iconic L.A. architect Welton Becket, who created both Hollywood’s cylindrical Capitol Records building and its geodesic Cinerama Dome. Although the dome was never threatened with destruction, it was very nearly obscured—by ArcLight, the state-of-the-art movie complex of which it is now a part. At the urging of the Los Angeles Conservancy, however, developers changed plans and kept its golf-ball dimples in view. Likewise, in 2006, the Griffith Observatory, a beacon on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood, added more than 40,000 square feet of exhibition space by burrowing into the hill beneath it—leaving its famous shell, site of the climax in Rebel Without a Cause, unscathed.
In L.A., which has long clung to the notion of unending youth, a quiet, organic movement has emerged from finding value in the old. The mantra is “adaptive reuse.” Its bugbears are disposability, fast food, and big carbon footprints. Its mascots are both a Prius (fueled at the all-green-but-the-gas Helios House BP station) and an ancient diesel Mercedes—modified at Lovecraft Bio-Fuels (a company in Silver Lake) to run on doughnut grease.
This movement is not about preservation or conservation per se. It’s about stewardship—of buildings and neighborhoods that carry history, and of passed-down skills. You could call it the new authenticity, though some trend-watcher may coin a catchier phrase. Lisa Eisner, who photographed this story, is a Geiger counter for detecting it, and she led me to many exemplars. “I like things that avoid the ‘Hollywood’ cliché,” she explained, “things that you can’t find in other cities.” The fashion world provides the first stop on what I’ll call the New Authenticity tour.
Designer Christina Kim’s company, Dosa, is synonymous with unbleached organic cotton, environmentally friendly dyes, and recycled materials. In her L.A. factory in Downtown’s Fashion District, Kim collects fabric scraps that would ordinarily be discarded. “I remember being amazed and fascinated at my grandmother’s traditional Korean socks,” she told me, describing soles patched with cotton cloth clipped from bedding, each piece a different shade of white. Mending, Kim realized, could “increase an object’s value, especially when done by hand and with care.” She went on to build a worldwide business by transforming fashion-industry detritus into luscious, labor-intensive clothes.
You can see Kim’s designs on fans like Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Aniston and buy them at the L.A. Barneys. But to get a sense of her relationship to Los Angeles, you must see dosa818, her retail space on the 12th floor of the Wurlitzer Building, a terra-cotta–tiled gem on Downtown’s Broadway. The 7,000-square-foot loft could easily be mistaken for a Zendo, were it not for the art installations and racks of gossamer clothes.
Kim relies on the skills behind the traditional arts and crafts of Latin America, where most of her workers come from, and she knows the immigrant experience firsthand; she came to Los Angeles with her family from South Korea when she was 15. And even though she later moved to New York and established her flagship store there, she has always made her clothing here because of the workers. In 1994, she decided to join them. This was shortly after the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers—whose brutal beating of African American resident Rodney King was caught on videotape—led to widespread street violence. The verdict deepened the divide between prosperous, mostly white neighborhoods in the west and poorer, mostly black and Latino ones in the east, which the post–World War II suburban movement and the 1965 race riots in Watts had already begun to create.
“The King riot was part of what made me want to move back,” Kim said. She wanted to participate in the healing process, “to bridge the gap—in a small way.” Now she often works alongside her seamstresses—mending more than fabric in the once-simmering neighborhood.
Since 2000, most of the city’s famously disconnected and derelict neighborhoods not only have rebounded, they have begun to cohere—with the millennium real estate bubble providing an unlikely glue. (Never mind that it has since popped.) Because many first-time home buyers could not afford West L.A.—often the place where they grew up—they turned east, resurrecting houses with “good bones” in Hollywood, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and Echo Park. Many of my friends—to say nothing of L.A.’s closest culture watchers—were either party or witness to this. They lived next to different types of people and usually figured out how to get along. Home ownership changed these buyers, even the jaded ones who planned merely to flip. They learned respect for craftsmanship and hands-on work. They learned to value authenticity, and that began to inform their lives.
If any event serves as a rallying cry for authenticity, it is the loss of Mid-Wilshire’s 84-year-old Ambassador Hotel, site of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, which the city bulldozed in 2006 to make way for a school. Its legendary nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove, was slated to become an auditorium, but this year it, too, was razed. As the hotel demolition began, three disillusioned preservationists threw a public wake in the Gaylord Hotel, across the street: L.A. Conservancy executive director Linda Dishman, Conservancy board member Diane Keaton, and club owner Andrew Meieran, who was then transforming an abandoned power plant into the Edison bar. “You could see the dust and hear the wrecking crew,” Meieran said, still bitter at the recollection.
Meieran cut his preservationist teeth at UC Berkeley, where he lost the dormitory lottery but scraped together funds for a beat-up Craftsman bungalow, on which he learned firsthand the art of restoration. The Edison, which Meieran co-owns with Marc Smith, is now one of the hottest clubs downtown. In the room that gives the club its name, a gigantic, rivet-covered, cast-iron generator makes you feel like a stowaway in the engine room of a Jules Verne submarine. The old equipment still hums with the promise of its time. “A hundred years ago,” Meieran said, “people had just discovered how to harness electricity, record voices, and transmit radio.”
A mile from the Edison, the Orpheum Theatre—a walnut-walled vaudeville-era space—occupies a stretch of Broadway that once had 12 movie houses and three major department stores. Most were shuttered, and the street was eerily dead at night when Dishman became executive director of the L.A. Conservancy in 1992. “There was no crime, though,” she says, “because there were no people to commit crimes against.” Building on efforts begun in 1978, when the Conservancy was formed, activist citizens like Meieran and fellow bar owner Cedd Moses, developers like Tom Gilmore (an early evangelist for Downtown), and the city itself have taken Broadway off life support. Performers such as Lyle Lovett and Alanis Morissette play the Orpheum. Nearby, the restored Mayan Theater is known for its triannual cult spectacle Lucha Vavoom, a chaotic mingling of burlesque dancers, masked lucha libre Mexican wrestlers (inspiration for Jack Black’s movie Nacho Libre), and lowrider cars. With skulls painted on their faces and tights as good as painted on their thighs, the wrestlers are a balance of earnestness and goofiness. The Mayan is also one of the historic movie houses that host the Last Remaining Seats, a Conservancy program screening vintage movies to support such ongoing projects as the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1924 Ennis House in Los Feliz.
L.A. has never stopped celebrating its longest-running raison d’être, and film societies like American Cinematheque, the 27-year-old grande dame headquartered in the 1922 Egyptian Theatre, lure people out of their living rooms with fare that goes far beyond TCM. Since 2001, the hip Cinespia has projected films on a mausoleum wall, “above and below the stars,” in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. To compensate for the modest irreverence of allowing fans to picnic on the graves, part of its $10 admission fee goes to restoring the grounds.
The Cinefamily, new kid on the film-society block, projects films in the Silent Movie Theatre, a landmark 1942 structure in the Fairfax District that may be best known for the grisly murder of its owner there in 1997. Brothers Sammy and Dan Harkham bought the theater last year in the neighborhood they grew up in, and hired programmer Hadrian Belove to build a series equal to that of American Cinematheque. They wanted to expand beyond silent films, but not abandon them—or the theater’s 96-year-old organist, Bob Mitchell, who remembers the films he now accompanies from their first time around.
Amoeba Music, on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood near the ArcLight, is one of several singular stores on our tour. It is a monument to vinyl, an emblem of the once indomitable record industry as it pretzels into an iTunes world. The L.A. branch of a Berkeley-based store, Amoeba carries 250,000 titles. Shopping here is as much about touch and sight as about hearing—placing your fingers on CD’s and record albums, responding viscerally to seductive cover art, whose importance has been diminished by digital distribution.
While Amoeba preserves the vanishing pleasure of record shopping, Family bookstore, on Fairfax in Mid-Wilshire, is building a bulwark against the Kindle “wireless reading device.” The shop’s back wall is papered with a blown-up black-and-white photo of a gun-toting Eastern European Jewish vigilante group formed to guard against pogroms. Co-owner David Kramer bills Family as “a curated bookstore.” This means that it stocks very few books, but for each of its pristine copies there is one dog-eared version that Kramer or his business partner, the aforementioned Silent Movie Theatre’s Sammy Harkham, has read and loved. For the store to function, you have to trust them—to believe that because you and they both like, say, Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic The Master and Margarita, you will also like David Shrigley’s Ants Have Sex in Your Beer. Apparently trust keeps the place open. “Our clients have become our friends,” said Kramer, whose friends range from Simpsons creator Matt Groening to “70-year-old guys who used to write for Star Trek.”
The Echo Park Time Travel Mart, on Sunset Boulevard, has been designed to resemble a 1970’s 7-Eleven. Yet instead of Slurpees, Pringles, and aspirin, it sells dinosaur eggs, robot milk, and “leeches—nature’s tiny doctors.” The more you look, the weirder it gets: Lost: Decade announces a sign on the bulletin board. Have you seen 1960–1970?any info would be helpful. last seen in my friend steve’s van. It may take a minute, but then the visitor gets it. This is a put-on—an art installation: a convenience store stocked for a road trip through time. But the merchandise sells, and almost as soon as the store opened last spring, it earned enough to pay rent for the nonprofit walk-in tutoring center for neighborhood kids, called 826LA, that occupies the rest of the building.
Both store and center are the brainchildren of Dave Eggers, author and publisher of McSweeneys literary journal, who started the first such concern in San Francisco in 2002. To make the Echo Park space possible, Forty-Year-Old Virgin producer Judd Apatow hosted a parody fund-raiser, “An Evening of Best Intentions,” honoring actor Seth Rogen for “the charity work he is considering doing in the future.” Apatow exacted tributes from Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, and dozens of others, Eggers told me. “Guests were given Kentucky Fried Chicken to eat and the décor was borrowed from the Rocky Balboa premiere held a few days earlier. It was a wild and hilarious night.”
Ordinarily this would be a hard act to follow, but not if you have a time machine. On the heels of the party, 826LA’s then executive director Mac Barnett booked readings by dead authors (okay, dead-author impersonators) Homer, Steinbeck, and Emily Dickinson. “We’re finally going to get her out of the house,” he joked.
Until recently, a Dickinson type in Downtown’s Arts District could have stayed happily indoors—with no galleries or bistros to tempt her. But today my still-gritty neighborhood houses lofts and restaurants like R23, whose exceptional Japanese food has drawn locals and adventurous West Siders since 1991.
Like those in New York City’s SoHo, the district’s vacant warehouses were colonized by artists in the 1970’s, but as the area gentrified, rents rose—sending artists to newer urban frontiers like Boyle Heights. MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary took up residence in nearby Little Tokyo in 1983. It is now permanently the David Geffen Contemporary. Some remaining battered buildings in the city’s historic core are its newest places to view art—pulling the Chinatown art crowd to 44 galleries, mostly on Main and Spring Streets, which were dubbed Gallery Row by the city in 2003. The Downtown Art Walk draws about 4,000 people, ranging from artists to West L.A. collectors.
One of the most collectible artists is a pioneer of an industrial section of Boyle Heights, across the Los Angeles River: thirtysomething painter Amy Bessone, whose work has been bought by MOCA. Bessone is best known for her large-scale paintings of Meissen porcelain figurines rendered as if they were alive. “There is a strange moment in the porcelains where German folklore meets Disney,” she told me. Of the new work in her studio, she said, “The last porcelains I painted were close-ups of faces. Their surfaces were very masklike, which drew me to painting masks themselves.”
If L.A. is coming into its own, it’s because it is learning to embrace the contradictions that define any great city. Downtown’s Eastern Columbia Building, a turquoise Deco jewel converted to condominium lofts (Johnny Depp owns a penthouse), is a far cry from neighboring South Park—a cluster of glittering new residential skyscrapers near the Staples Center, home to the L.A. Lakers. And Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria—opened in 1935 as a haven from the Great Depression—is a far cry from just about everything else.
If Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria had decided to open a cafeteria and pattern it after a hunting lodge, Clifton’s would be it. Columns disguised as redwoods appear to poke through the dining room ceiling. A 20-foot waterfall washes through its center. Long before feng shui made it to the States, founder Clifford Clinton knew that the sound of water was soothing. “My grandfather’s parents were missionaries in China,” said Clifford’s grandson, restaurant manager Robert Clinton. As a little boy, Clifford saw hunger, poverty, and hopelessness. When he had a chance to alleviate them, he jumped at it. “He wanted a place where people could leave all that outside and eat good, wholesome, low-priced food,” Clinton said. Even at Broadway’s lowest point, Clifton’s never closed its doors. “We are a landmark.We don’t need a plaque on the door to say so.”
Neither does another living landmark, Bob Baker, who carves marionettes and trains apprentices to animate them a mile and a half northwest, in Filipinotown. Baker gave his first puppet show at age eight, in 1933, and has been mounting them ever since. With its houselights on, the theater is nothing: squirming kids and cheesy, dusty Christmas decorations. With the lights down, it’s unforgettable—part Ice Capades, part Muppets, part Chinese opera, part Bolshoi Ballet. And you see the puppeteers, a rainbow of ethnicities, walking among the audience, hands flying, convincing you that the marionettes are alive and the humans are struggling to keep up with them. Even before the theater was founded in 1963, Baker, who worked in movies, was a hit with Hollywood families. “Poor little Liza Minnelli,” he recalled. “She was always getting left behind. She used to put her arms around me and say, ‘I love you, puppet man.’” Some kids who celebrated their sixth birthdays in the theater are coming back to celebrate their fortieth.
Placido Domingo gets it that authenticity is not about snubbing community; it’s why he’s tapped Hollywood heavies Garry Marshall, William Friedkin, and Woody Allen to direct. It’s why the L.A. Opera performs free for kids, and why it has commissioned a work on Rafael Mendez, who as a boy played trumpet in Pancho Villa’s army and as a man performed with the MGM Orchestra. “How are we going to get people to love our religion,” Domingo once asked a staff member, “if we don’t invite them into the church?”
When Welton Becket designed the original 1964 Music Center complex, anchored on the south by the Chandler Pavilion, he made a controversial decision—to raise its plaza above street level. Becket’s L.A. was not pedestrian-friendly, so the placement of the plaza did not then seem outrageous. But L.A. is rethinking its symbiosis with the car: when gas prices spiked last summer, so did ridership on the L.A. Metro—which includes the Red Line, an eight-year-old, 17-mile-long, earthquake-resistant subway that makes it possible to travel from Downtown to the San Fernando Valley at rush hour without hitting traffic. It may also be time to rethink Becket’s symbolic placement of high art above the culture of the street.
The 110 Project, newly commissioned by the L.A. Opera, may well erase that symbolic separation. It is a paean to the city’s first freeway, the redoubtable I-110, which turns 70 in 2009. Emmy Award–winning Angeleno composer Laura Karpman will write the score. Its libretto will incorporate themes from “story circles”—public interviews held in the racially diverse neighborhoods that the freeway traverses. And it will run 110 minutes—the time it takes in heavy traffic to get from San Pedro (at one end of the city) to Pasadena (at the other).
“It’s about moving not only from one place to another, but through time,” says Stacy Brightman, the opera’s director of community programs. It’s about the wind in your hair and the right turn on red. “Seventy years—a lifetime. How has Los Angeles changed in a lifetime?”
And will it take a freeway or a subway into the future?
Where to Stay
Opened in April, the 200-room property is home to Gordon Ramsay’s latest restaurant. 1020 N. San Vicente Blvd.; 310/854-1111; thelondonwesthollywood.com; doubles from $249.
Philippe Starck’s signature look has recently been updated by Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz. 8440 Sunset Blvd.; 323/650-8999; morganshotelgroup.com; doubles from $425.
Great Value Downtown’s coolest hotel, courtesy André Balazs, in the Modernist Superior Oil headquarters. 550 S. Flower St.; 213/892-8080; standardhotel.com; doubles from $245.
Where to Eat and Drink
For “a whole experience,” says photographer Lisa Eisner of her favorite restaurant, complete your meal with a walk to nearby “fun shops, galleries, and other restaurants.” 1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; 310/664-9787; dinner for two $75.
648 S. Broadway; 213/627-1673; dinner for two $22.
108 W. Second St.; 213/613-0000; drinks for two $26.
923 E. Second St.; 213/687-7178; dinner for two $90.
What to See and Do
Selected movie programs in central L.A:
Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.; 323/466-3456; americancinematheque.com.
Cinerama Dome, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd.; 323/464-1478; arclightcinemas.com.
The Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave.; 323/655-2510; cinefamily.org.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd.; 323/469-1181; hollywoodforever.com.
Last Remaining Seats
For locations, call 213/623-2489 or visit laconservancy.org.
1345 W. First St.; 213/250-9995; bobbakermarionettes.com; $15.
5905 Wilshire Blvd.; 323/857-6000; lacma.org.
818 S. Broadway, 12th floor; 213/489-2801; dosainc.com.
Monthly, every second Thursday, 12–9 p.m.; downtownartwalk.com.
Between Second and Ninth Sts. and Main and Spring Sts.
2800 E. Observatory Rd.; 213/473-0800; griffithobservatory.org.
8770 W. Olympic Blvd.; 310/855-9346; bp.com.
135 N. Grand Ave.; 213/972-7219; laopera.com.
4000 Sunset Blvd.; 888/834-4645; lovecraft.com.
1038 S. Hill St.; 213/746-4674; luchavavoom.com.
250 S. Grand Ave.
152 N. Central Ave; 213/626-6222; moca.org.
842 S. Broadway; 877/677-4386; laorpheum.com.
111 S. Grand Ave.; 323/850-2000; laphil.com.
Where To Shop
6400 W. Sunset Blvd.; 323/245-6400; amoeba.com.
1714 W. Sunset Blvd.; 213/413-3388; 826la.org.
436 N. Fairfax Ave.; 323/ 782-9221; familylosangeles.com.