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The Real Los Angeles

Lisa Eisner

Photo: Lisa Eisner

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.

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