Monday, December 1, 2014

America's Next Great City Is Inside L.A.

Brady Westwater stands on the corner of Spring Street and Fifth Street, Downtown Los Angeles, arms akimbo. He wears a crumpled black cowboy hat pinned up on one side and a hooded sweatshirt of the Elida (Ohio) High School wrestling team. The squad on the sweatshirt changes daily, but this is essentially his uniform.

“This was the Wild West before there was a Wild West,” he says, all but wading into traffic and gesturing to the buildings around him. “In fact, many people went east from here to make the Wild West. This was wilder than any cow town in Texas.” The buildings on all four corners, he says, were built by a confederate of Wyatt Earp, who spent some time as an Angeleno in the early 1900s.

“The whole history of this neighborhood is a series of frontiers!”

With his hat, wiry arms, and scruffy mustache, 65-year-old Westwater bears some resemblance to a gold-panning frontier sidekick himself. He remembers when Fifth Street, “the Nickel,” had the distinction of being one of the busiest drug markets in the world, when the only places to get something to eat were the gas station on Olympic and the twenty-four-hour Original Pantry Cafe on Figueroa, where you can still get home fries with an archaeological mantle of crust. Back then, you could hang around and eventually see all the Downtown pioneers—artists, filmmakers, assorted bohemians—as they climbed out of their lofts and warehouses in search of sustenance.

Westwater, as he tells it, abandoned Downtown for a while, like most everybody else. He lived in Malibu and traveled the world as a mixed-martial-arts fighter. Then, in 1997, he came back, possessed of a vision of a revitalized urban community occupying Downtown. “I pushed flyers under every door I could find that showed a sign of life,” he says of his mission to match empty spaces with sometimes reluctant new tenants. He wasn't alone. Developers—names like Tom Gilmore and Cedd Moses—were set to begin taking advantage of a new law that loosened regulations on how Downtown's vacant buildings could be developed. Now, charging up the street to Broadway, Westwater points to building after building that has come back to teeming life: This one is lofts. This one houses one of the city's best restaurants. This one is a bar with a pop-up restaurant in the back and a performance space on top of that. Every structure seems to house artists, musicians, designers, tech developers, chefs—the whole Who are the people in your neighborhood of the creative class. After decades of being all but forgotten, Downtown has approached a critical mass of cool that even the most hard-core resident of Venice or Santa Monica or West Hollywood or Silver Lake would find impossible to deny.

“And we're still at the tip of the iceberg,” says Moses, whose Downtown bars have done as much as anything to spur on the development. “Right now, Downtown is like Brooklyn, but that's going to change. This is going to be Manhattan. And all the outlying areas, the rest of Los Angeles, that's going to be the boroughs. I don't have a doubt in my mind.”

Westwater, who both leads tours of Downtown and pops up in meetings with developers and politicians, is somehow in the center of this frenzy of activity—something between a fixer, a booster, a town historian, and the local eccentric, part Boss Tweed, part Joe Gould. In other words, the kind of great character produced by great cities. And that, of all things, is what Downtown L.A. is trying to become: a Great City in the heart of the City That Destroyed Cities.

The first time I ever loved L.A. was Downtown.

Nowadays, as the important cultural battle lines have shifted from east versus west to red versus blue, and as New York has become ever more generically American, it's easy to forget the old cosmology of New York and Los Angeles as polar opposites. But for somebody raised in Brooklyn through the '70s and '80s, a knee-jerk hatred of L.A. wasn't an informed choice. It was DNA.

Then, while I was staying in Beverly Hills on a work trip, my friend Oliver, an East Coast transplant, took me to Philippe the Original. Philippe is a wedge-shaped 105-year-old cafeteria on the corner of North Alameda and Ord Streets that claims to have invented the French-dip sandwich. From the moment I saw the sawdust-covered floors, the uniformed ladies behind the counter, the wooden phone booths, the Dodgers game on the grainy TV, I knew this was something different from the plastic, sterile, sunny L.A. I'd expected. We shuffled forward with the rest of the customers—a mix of blue- and white-collars, bookies, hustlers, construction workers, and lawyers. I ordered a lamb sandwich, the clove-scented meat cut off the leg in front of me, swaddled in bread and then double-dipped in jus. I added a side of potato salad. And a pickled egg. And some beets. And a baked apple, a slice of coconut pie, and a cup of coffee. It came to something like $8. Afterward, we walked down the street to the grandly tiled Union Station, where trains come and go into the night in full view of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, just about the most noir thing I'd ever seen. For the first time, I understood how one—how I—could feel deeply for this city.

Philippe then was a remnant of the urban center left behind when L.A. spread west, becoming the world's model of car-centric suburban sprawl. Even the financial institutions of Downtown had long since left behind their gorgeous Beaux Arts homes for characterless glass towers on Downtown's western edge, with easy egress the moment work ended. The result was something like Panama City's Casco Viejo, the old Spanish Colonial district that was all but abandoned for decades while the country's rich built skyscraper after sterile skyscraper on its periphery: an empty city, preserved in amber, waiting to be rediscovered and reoccupied.

If it proves lasting, the reoccupation will be the greatest example of the phenomenon in which downtowns across America are re-attracting the middle and upper classes that once fled them for the suburbs. It will also be notable for being driven not by the traditional avant-garde of gentrification—galleries, antiques stores, theaters, and the like—but by bars and restaurants, a pointed reflection of what members of those classes are looking for in a city circa 2014.