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Cameron Laux and Charlie Condou experience Downtown LA

Downtown LA

When we’re in LA we generally end up staying in the Hollywood area like everyone else, mostly because we know a lot of actors and other people in what is there called The Business (meaning TV and film, as if no other business existed).

So when the LA Athletic Club offered to host us downtown it seemed like an excellent opportunity to go rogue in an unfamiliar part of the city. It’s easy to forget that LA isn’t just the Hollywood hills or the beaches at Santa Monica and Venice, it also has a mean/lean urban core like any other North American city.

DTLA, as the core is known, is a fascinating place. The pattern of suburbanization in many American cities resulted in a white, middle-class flight away from their centres, leaving them to implode or become the domain of forbidding glass office towers. Rents in such areas become dirt cheap, and the poor, young people, and assorted misfits and creatives move in, and before you know it you have a fashionable neighbourhood on your hands, and so-called hipsters fighting their epic battle with the meaning of life. The upscale gentrification which is the inexorable next stage has slowly been spreading from Hollywood in the direction of downtown. Gentrification in this context means re-whitening of Latino and Asian enclaves; LA neighbourhood racial change is studied and mapped here.

But there are plenty of others fighting to find some meaning in life on a more basic level. We foolishly went out for a stroll across downtown to the Arts district, and walked into a tent city of homeless people that stretched for blocks in all directions, hundreds and hundreds of tents and makeshift shelters. For a while it felt like we had crossed into a post-apocalyptic future. On that day we realized that LA has over 25,000 homeless people and the number is climbing; many of them are concentrated downtown. (There is an LA Times article on the crisis here. It includes further links and an interactive map.)

We arrived at the Urth café in the edgy Arts district feeling shaken, fraudulent, and thoroughly cut by the edges. We ate salads made with locally grown produce and topped with bitterness and woe. People always chatter about the glamour of LA, but the social complexities of the place go unmentioned. We’re mentioning them now. We were forcefully reminded that it is possible to fall through the glamour into an even more nakedly darwinian realm. To its credit, the city of LA is treating the situation as a state of emergency and committing large sums of money to try to remedy it.

The LA Athletic Club has twelve floors of glamour to fall through. It dates back to a more patrician time when the centre of town was still the undisputed centre of power. Charlie Chaplin lived there for a while; L. Frank Baum was a member (it could be further from Kansas, but not much). The club is in the process of renovating itself for a twenty-first century audience, the young powers-that-be who like to posture by the rooftop pool at the Standard around the corner one way, or loll nonchalantly in the rooftop bar at the Ace around the corner the other way. And who will soon migrate to the top of the huge new branch of Soho House on Santa Fe Avenue. But if baby I’m the bottom, you’re the top!

LA Athletic Club
                                LA Athletic Club

The hotel rooms of the LAAC are plush, darkling, inviting. Five floors are still occupied by a wonderland of a gym and spa, including a golden-age deco indoor swimming pool and an indoor track. We were actually so inspired that we got to bed at a reasonable hour so that we could ride the elevator down and ‘pump iron’ everyday (right?), instead of routinely staying up late drinking and stoking the jet lag.

A place like the LAAC is a perfect base for exploring downtown. You can walk most places – and even, as we have noted, some non-places. Landmarks like the Disney concert hall, the new Broad gallery of contemporary art, LA City Hall, and the Grand Central Market are a few blocks away. Across downtown is the trendy ferment of the rising Arts and Fashion districts.

The restaurant, bar, and café scene in the area is pretty extraordinary, we’ll give it that. The broadly ‘artisanal’ approach that predominates involves a satisfying fixation on detail. We’d recommend G&B Coffee (for its academic-level coffee proficiency) and Eggslut (for the incredible egg and bacon sandwiches) in the Grand Central Market. Sugar Fish is perfect for unfussy sushi. The bar at the top of the Ace Hotel is a (mostly relaxed) focus of downtown cool and a good place to sip a drink and brush up on the area’s anthropology.

"Charlie at the LAAC measuring up against Parry O'Brien, captain of the 1964 US Olympic team"
“Charlie at the LAAC measuring up against Parry O’Brien, captain of the 1964 US Olympic team”

One of the great things about hipsters is that they regard gender boundaries and identity labels as a tedious non-issue. For a sample of the blurred downtown approach to an LGBT night out, head to Bar Mattachine for drinks. Precinct advertises itself as a rock-and-roll bear bar, but that’s bear 2.0, Baloo with an even stronger sense of mischief. Many of the hangouts a little to the northwest in Echo Park and Silverlake also don’t give a shit what categories you belong to, and it’s refreshing.

If you’re in the mood for an interesting expedition somewhere (driving, that is), you could take Sunset Boulevard, which begins at the northern edge of downtown, and follow the length of its arc into West Hollywood. We stopped in Silverlake at too-cool-for-school Lamill Coffee for prototypical third-wave LA coffee and breakfast, and then kicked around the likewise-cool neighbourhoods of the area for the morning. We ended up by the fantasy rooftop pool of the Andaz in West Hollywood for lunch and whiled away the afternoon feeling like gods gazing down on LA from Olympus. From the hills, even the smog over downtown glimmers promisingly. In the early evening we descended to earth in the form of north Londoners to stuff our faces at Umami Burger a few blocks away. Who would have thought those ants we saw from the Andaz could do such good burgers? After which we hastened back to the eleventh floor of the LAAC (phew).

By the way, we like hipsters. We are not hipsters, and never will be, because we are too old, old, old. But we admire their idealism, self-possession, and tenacity. They are trying to change the world for the better. Squint at them in the right light and you can see them succeeding.

Our lasting memories of the trip: 1) Homeless people congregating around a downtown 7-11 in the middle of the night. 2) The geeky iced lattes at G&B Coffee. 3) Meeting Lilly Wachowski at the GLAAD awards.

Anthony Watson and Neil Amin-Smith at the GLAAD Awards in LA
Anthony Watson and Neil Amin-Smith at the GLAAD Awards in LA
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