On My Feet in Downtown LA

I don’t usually think “walkable downtown” when contemplating Los Angeles. But recently I explored downtown LA—by foot and by bike—and found the bones of the city that existed before Los Angeles became synonymous with freeways. From my hotel on South Grand Avenue, I walked past gems of the 1920’s and 30’s in neighborhoods bearing names like “The Old Bank District”, the “Jewelry District”, the “Historic Theater District” and the “Toy District”. I could almost be in …New York!

But wait, let’s step back a century or so. Before Art Deco, before Neoclassical, before even the railroad, California was part of Mexico. And the center of the City was Los Angeles Plaza which miraculously has survived the wrecking ball of development since 1781. Clustered around the Plaza are a few remnants of old Mexico: the tienditas of Olvera Street, the 1822 Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles, still an active Catholic Church known as La Placita, the 1818 Avila Adobe, the oldest house in Los Angeles, and the 1869 Pico House, built by Pío Pico, the last governor of California under Mexican rule.

Olvera Street was actually saved from demolition and turned into a Mexican street market in the 1930’s
Inside Avila Adobe, once a home of a prominent family

I have a soft spot in my heart for Olvera Street. In 1969, at the age of 13, I visited Los Ángeles for the first time with my family. Four girls, the youngest 6 months old, and two parents had made their way across the country in a Winnebago. Los Ángeles was the end of the line, the place where our New York relatives had fled for a new life. On that trip we stopped by the market on Olvera Street. I, in my teenage angst, decided I could not live without a rust-colored suede vest studded with beads and sporting fringe down to my knees. I wailed and harangued my mother to buy it, her ultimately breaking down and spending the $50 which at the time was a barely contemplatable extravagance. I think I wore the vest once and felt a little silly in it once it got home to my suburban high school. I have no idea what happened to it. But Olvera Street makes me think of my mother.

In a restaurant on the Plaza. -a chiguacle is a pepper found in Oaxaca and is used to make black mole.

Olvera Street also makes me think of Mexico, a place I’ve come to love. Admittedly touristy, the vendors speak Spanish and sell the same Mexican tchotchkes you see in the mercado in Mexico City. And I’m a sucker for Mexican tchotchkes. Yes, I have purchased tequila shot glasses with little cacti inside.

I’m the queen. You got a problem with that?

As we were walking past La Placita that Saturday morning, throngs of families were gathering in front of the church. Little children were resplendent in impeccable white frilly organza dresses and mini-tuxedos. The parents were dressed for a celebration. And we were reminded that La Placita, though a historic monument, is still very much a part of the life of the community.

Entrance to La Placita

Our last stop in the Plaza was at the Museum of Social Justice. Housed in a historic Methodist Church, the Museum is dedicated to telling the stories of the marginalized and neglected people of Los Angeles. A fitting mission in a place that has held on to tell the story of California without triumphalism.

Above- Biddy Mason, a formerly enslaved woman who won her freedom and went on to found the First AME Church in Los Angeles. Below, Katherine Higgins, a member of the Methodist Church, who founded in 1918 a community center to serve African-Americans

A bit later in the day, after a walk over to The Broad to feast on galleries of Warhol, Rauschenberg and Basquiat, we wandered over to Grand Central Market, bustling, noisy and exuberant, to meet up with Jen, the owner and guide extraordinaire of Handlebar Bike Tours. We had registered for Jen’s Pretty Gritty Arts District Tour. Jen led us at an easy pace through Downtown LA (or DTLA as it’s trendily branded) to the Arts District, a neighborhood reminiscent of so many urban neighborhoods where artists moved into cheap loft warehouse space, created collective galleries and art making spaces, and eventually high-end condos and fancy restaurants followed.

Manuela, the restaurant in the Hauser & Wirth gallery in the Arts District. Enrique Olvera, the celebrated Mexican chef, also has a restaurant in the Arts District called Damian.

But more than a tour of gentrification, the Pretty Gritty tour was a celebration of Los Angeles street art and the artists who make it. Jen was a fountain of knowledge about seemingly every mural on the walls of the Arts District, really bringing the art and the people alive for me. It seemed to be a place that had more or less made peace with guerrilleros artists, not totally taming them, not always celebrating them, but acknowledging the vibrancy they can bring to an urban neighborhood.

Me against a mural that needs no explanation. Wearing a shirt I bought in Oaxaca, one of my many Mexican purchases.
Malala and Basquiat.
La abuelita
One artist specializes in eyes
One artist specializes in these “typewritten” messages. This one speaks to me.

At the end of a long and satisfying day exploring downtown LA, we were not done eating. At the end of the bike ride, we stopped by La Tostaderia in the Grand Central Market for some killer octopus tacos and possibly the best guacamole I have ever eaten (or maybe I was just really hungry). Later that evening we walked from our hotel, the Hotel Checkers, to Woodspoon. Yeah, the walk is through a neighborhood that has seen some better days (though there is an Apple Store in an old theater) but then you arrive at a Brazilian bistro that makes you feel at home. This is not the Brazilian steakhouse scene of Fogo de Chao, this is Brazilian of the coast, of Salvador de Bahia, seafood and African-influenced dishes. We finished off the day with an exquisite moqueca, a spicy coconut-based seafood stew and a chicken-okra and polenta combo. We walked home with a new appreciation of Los Angeles, the one you can’t see from a car.

Grand Central Market
Moqueca, my new favorite dish. Thank you Woodspoon!

11 Replies to “On My Feet in Downtown LA”

  1. So glad to read about the other parts of LA that I missed during my many visits to that complicated city. While I loved visiting the museums and the occasional restaurant, I was overwhelmed by the poverty and the growing tent city. Great to hear about the roots and enduring Mexican culture.


  2. I love reading your pieces, Sharon. Despite visiting family in the ‘valley’ a number of times, I don’t remember the last time I’d gone into downtown LA. This does make me want to return – and to Mexico! Hope to hike with you and Judy sometime before the winter!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: