Friday, April 18, 2014

The changing face of downtown LA

I've been thinking a lot lately about our neighborhood here downtown and the place downtown Los Angeles has had in my life. As we look ahead and think about the best place for our family to grow it looks like downtown LA may not be the place for us. But thinking about moving makes me feel very nostalgic for this unexpected place I've come to call home.

The Wall Street Journal just dis a piece in their Homes section on how the area has changed from a gritty urban environment to a more gentrified destination spot. I first moved here almost 8 years ago when most people still considered the area dangerous and deserted. Especially as a young woman I had many people try to talk me out of it. I didn't know much about downtown at that time but what I did know is it had cheap housing and was something different. Some girlfriends of mine had found a huge loft space at the corner on 5th and Main and when they invited me to live with them I saw an opportunity for a new adventure. I didn't know then what a large part of my life those few block would become.

I always say that my first friend in the neighborhood was Mark Schumacher, one of the owners of the local DVD rental place. Not knowing anyone in the area (besides my room mates) I would rent a lot of movies and I'd chat with Mark while I was there. Old Bank DVD, a small cafe/wine bar called Banquette, and Pete's Cafe made up the block and I soon learned that was the heart of residential downtown. All three businesses had outdoor seating areas so that stretch of the sidewalk was always made up of locals sitting, often with their dogs, enjoying the people watching and the urban landscape. Soon I got comfortable enough that I could go to Pete's and sit on on the patio and have a glass of wine by myself (something I had never done before) and casually strike up conversations with the other locals around me. Over a few short months I had made a great group of friends, many of whom where artists who had been living in the area for many years already. This was also how I met the man who would eventually become my husband.

There was something special about those early years of my DTLA (as we called it) life. You couldn't walk down the street without stopping to chat with a neighbor, if you were coming home at night you'd be roped into joining one of the patio gatherings for a drink, we watched each others pets when needed, we throw parties for each others birthdays, have potluck dinners within our building. It was a community. When our dear dog Buster was going to be put to sleep we sent out a notification to our friends and neighbors that we would be hanging out at Pete's patio that evening and they could come say goodbye to him. Pete's doesn't take reservations on their patio but when I walked in that afternoon asking if we could possibly set some tables aside for the occasion they jumped right on it and made sure we had the space set aside. All our neighbors showed up and even the owner of our building stopped by and gave us a round of champagne to toast our sweet doggy. It meant so much to us, and it was a wonderful example of our great neighborhood.

As often happens, over time things changed. With gentrification on the horizon rents started going up, the Art Walk (which happened on our doorstep) became larger and rowdier (one of the small business owners on our street was actually assaulted one Art Walk evening). One big milestone was when Banquette actually closed down. None of these changes are inherently bad (well, the Art Walk did get out of control for a few years). For example, while we lost Banquette we gained the amazing Baco Mercat. But, this also made the place less locals-friendly. Banquette was someplace the locals could always go. Baco became a place I could only visit by making a reservation weeks in advance. Our friends started moving out of our building and eventually we decided to move too. And even though we only moved a few blocks that community we had created was broken up. We're enjoying our new area, but there are times when I miss those few magic years I had as part of the old-guard of DTLA.

Last year Mark Schumacher, that first friend I made, sadly passed away from cancer. To honor his passing the large Old Bank event space was provided for a ceremony and his good friend organized a New Orleans jazz band to lead a procession through the neighborhood afterward. It was the first time we had all been together in probably years but that same fondness and connection was still there. So now I know that even though things have changed and even though we've moved on, that community is still there. We will always be part of that community and I'm so thankful for that.

Image of our old building on 4th and Main, via.

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