A walking tour of DTLA

I love feeling like a tourist in my own city. I love that everyday provides a new discovery, a new level of appreciation for my big ass backyard, a new means of meeting interesting folks and most of all just feeling excited about all that this place has to offer; I’m telling you, it’s really endless. I also finally feel like I’m developing a well rounded perspective of Los Angeles, on account I’ve done some mainstream touristy things, like my walking tour of DTLA about which I’m writing in this post, and the time I explored the working-class neighborhoods of Inglewood and Lennox; just to name a few. A BIG thank you goes to all of the awesome people I’ve met so far, who have made my transition to life in LA a warm, welcomed, hilarious and active one.

Heads up – I’m breaking down my walking tour of DTLA into two posts, because there is a lot to share and I don’t want to leave anything out. Also, sorry for the many floating heads in many of my shots – tourist perspective for you. Here goes part I:

DTLA walking tour


I came across Downtown LA Walking Tours on Facebook a week ago, which is run by Neel and his kickass team of history enthusiasts. Neel is a passionate community member and history buff of sorts who left his swanky job in finance to start this company, which is where his passion has always been. He told me, “Just follow your passions and it will work out,” which I absolutely loved hearing on account the entire premise of my leaving New Mexico for California is to follow my passions. Furthermore, Downtown LA Walking Tours has rave reviews and each of their tours go for a killer price (in my honest opinion) of just $20 a head. They also offer a variety of tours, including: a haunted tour, Little Tokyo and Chinatown tour and Walk of Fame tour (of course), among others.

My cousin happened to be visiting her friend in Long Beach this week and, so, the two came up to LA to enjoy the “Old & New walking tour of DTLA” with me.

angels flight los angeles

dtla walking tours

Our walking tour of DTLA began at Angels Flight (350 S Grand Ave), which is the shortest funicular in the world.

A funicular is a railway that uses a cable traction for movement on a steep slope. I had seen/ridden another in Kyiv, Ukraine long ago, so I was familiar with what a funicular is. The LA funicular transports folks for $1, from the commercial district to LA’s cluster of skyscrapers at the top of Bunker Hill.

bunker hill los angeles

bunker hill los angeles

Back in the day, Bunker Hill (350 S Grand Ave) was prime real estate, because it overlooked the Los Angeles Basin and River.

In the 1860’s, it was developed into a ritzy residential subdivision for upper-class residents and, by the 1940’s, it became the most densely inhabited neighborhood in the city. Sometime in the same decade, transportation began to change geography, bringing about the Pasadena Freeway that, although was intended to bring folks into downtown, actually brought folks out of it, because of their new desire to live cushy lives in the quiet suburbs. When World War II ended, LA began to develop its post-war freeway that nearly emptied downtown of its former working-class residents and in lieu, DTLA became a haven of beautiful abandoned victorian homes that became inhabited by impoverished pensioners.

In the 1980’s, Bunker Hill went through a massive city planning that lifted a previous building height limit of just 150 ft, thus enticing skyscraper developers to build the sophisticated skyline of DTLA as we see it today.

If you’ve read about Detroit, Albuquerque, Santa Fe or any city, for that matter, this is exactly the same narrative when it comes to the timeline of a metropolitan neighborhood. Nonetheless, what’s bringing working-class folks back to empty downtown is gentrification and, as Neel coined it, “a culture shift in the idea of freedom”. I will touch on this later.

The cutest and funniest story about Bunker Hill is that it has an unusual tradition: around September, goats are brought to chomp away the natural overgrowth under the Angels Flight Railway, because traditional lawnmowers are too difficult and dangerous for such a steep slope.

Next, on our walking tour of DTLA was Grand Central Market (317 S Broadway), which sits across the street from Angels Flight.

I have been to GCM many times for its chamoy (a variety of savory sauces and condiments in Mexican cuisine made from pickled fruit) candies, delicious Mexican tacos and mangonadas. It’s also a fantastic place at which to watch people, as well as practice my Spanish; I’m a BIG fruitarian, so, I’m often communicating with the market’s many Spanish speaking fruit vendors.

GCM opened 100 years ago in 1917 and sits on Broadway, a major thoroughfare of downtown. In 1984, the GCM was bought by the civic leader and longtime champion of the city’s historic core, Ira Yellin, who also bought the Bradbury Building, which sits across the street from the GCM and the Million Dollar Theater.

P.s. Home to GCM is Eggslut – a rather expensive, but quality and tantalizing delicious egg sammy that will have you waiting in the longest line of your life for one.

Following the GCM, on our walking tour of DTLA, was the Bradbury Building (304 S Broadway): LA’s oldest commercial building.

125 years old, the Bradbury is a magical place, and so, because of its atrium interior. Constructed with ornate iron railings, brick, mortar and marble stairs, the Bradbury’s light-filled Victorian court is one of LA’s most instagrammed locations. Films produced there include: The Artist (2011) and Bladerunner (1982).

Marvel at its beauty for a moment, won’t you?!

Here are shots of the Million Dollar Theater (307 S Broadway) that opened in 1918 as LA’s first theater. It’s one of the largest theaters in the country with 2,345 seats.

Don’t you just love that Spanish Baroque Revival Style? Ahhhh.

Anthony quinn mural dtla

Just outside the Bradbury is a public mural of Anthony Quinn, known as “the Pope of Broadway”, who was a Mexican-American actor from East LA and the first Mexican-American to win an Academy Award. He died in Boston, MA at age 86 in 2001.

1980s olympic mural dtla

Further down Broadway, between 2nd and 3rd streets is an 1984 Olympics summer sports games mural.

I took a pretty cruddy picture of it in passing, but note The Coliseum and Los Mexicanos. The 80’s were a damn good time for art. These days, many of the 80’s era murals in L.A. have been tagged over and/or completely ghosted, so, enjoy this one via my picture before more damage is done.

Los Angeles is also one of three cities in the world that have hosted the Olympics three times: London, United Kingdom (1908, 1948, 2012) and Paris, France are the others. Los Angeles hosted two in 1932 and 1984, and has drawn for the 2028 Olympic Games. Exciting!

dtla timeline mural

Here is another mural on Broadway. This one is a timeline of Los Angeles’ entire history from beginning to present day.

My New Mexico readers: take note of the Spanish conquest and arrival of the Friars at the top. As you can see, we have a very similar history to Los Angeles, up until they built incredible moneymaking industries, such as: Hollywood and the Internet (which UCLA was one of the first civilian users of the tool), and now LA is a haven of opportunity. Where are we, New Mexico? Well, we could use some work.

la times building

Continuing our walking tour of DTLA, we arrived at the LA Times, located at 202 W 1st St.

Unfortunately, the business won’t be in Los Angeles much longer, as it’s lease expires on June 30 and so it will relocate to El Sugundo, which isn’t even in LA.

lapd hq building dtla

los angeles city hall

Just down the street is the LAPD HQ building, City Hall (which, with 32 floors, stands at 454 ft.) and the DOT.

Prior to the late 1950’s, Los Angeles didn’t permit a building to stand more than 150 ft., therefore, from its completion in 1928 until 1964, City Hall was the tallest building in Los Angeles and is, today, the tallest base-isolated structure in the world.

Next, is St. Vibiana’s Cathedral (214 S Main St), which is actually a former cathedral.

It opened in 1876 and became damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. In lieu, it was thrown into a legal battle between the archdiocese, which wanted to demolish it and build a new one on site, and preservationists, who wanted to preserve it for its historical significance. In 1996, both parties compromised; the archdiocese purchased a nearby site and built The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and in turn, St. Vibiana’s went under ownership of the City. Today, St. Vibiana hosts the Emmy and Grammy parties and, most controversially, serves alcohol on its premises, too.

Here are some sweet street views along our walking tour of DTLA.

main street dtla

Now, this building, with its blue details and whitewashed base, its open ground floor windows, all positioned nicely at a bustling corner of DTLA, surrounded by intricate street art and the hubbub of trendy cafes frequented by up-and-coming Angelenos. You wouldn’t guess that this place was at the heart of Skid Row between the 1970’s and 1990’s and looked like hell on earth.

So, why the facelift? When “starving artists” moved into the area, because they were only able to afford the cheap to nothing rent with its direct access to DTLA’s many fruitful amenities and scenes, they started to paint the area anew, literally and figuratively. This caused waves of visitors to suddenly take interest in what was all but forgotten and, so, with this new interest came boutiques, coffee shops and music venues, thus introducing an entirely new income class to the area. This process, today, is called “gentrification”, although it’s a process that has existed since the dawn of our industrial and developing nation.

So, where did Skid Row go? Well, just one block away! LA has the largest legalized homeless camp in the United States and it will exist here for eternity at the rate in which our politics are going; you can count on that! Aside from the fantastic year round LA weather, the city is a haven for homelessness, because of “Greyhound therapy”, which, although is a derogatory term, I’ve never heard anyone use another in its place. Greyhound therapy has been around since the 1960’s when President Ronald Reagan discontinued the Mental Health Systems Act, which proposed discontinuing the federal community mental health centers program. President Reagan never understood mental illness; being a product of Southern California culture, he associated psychiatry with Communism, thus, today’s America lives with his shameful legacy of violence, homelessness and our mentally ill left on the streets. It’s safe to say that President Reagan led the worst policies on mental illness in generations. And, so, we have the term “Greyhound therapy”, which references the practice by mental-health authorities of buying a ticket on a Greyhound Lines bus interstate to get rid of possible “troublemaker” patients. They all came to LA. No, we did not tour Skid Row while on our walking tour of DTLA.

**In 1999, the city enacted the Adaptive Reuse Law to allow the conversion of previous commercial abandoned buildings into housing. The result has been the creation of several thousand new housing units.

By the way, did you know that the term “Skid Row” actually originated in Seattle? I had no clue! It was a slang term used in the 1800’s for a run-down urban area, was an actual road in Seattle, Washington. The real name of the road was Yesler Way (now better known as Pioneer Square), and it was the main street along which logs were transported.

So, what did Neel mean by our experiencing “a culture shift in the idea of freedom”.

Well, between the 1880’s and the 1940’s, most people relied on public transportation in metropolitan areas specifically. Southern California, during this span, was known to have a large electrically powered mass transit system, and in the 1920’s, the largest in the world. Meanwhile, in the 1890’s, Henry Ford was busy transforming the automotive industry as a result of the domestic market size and mass-production. In 1916, the federal government got involved and allocated $75 million to build state roads and in 1921 the Federal Highway Act followed, which built the great American highway system. The motor vehicle became the new symbol of American freedom and, in lieu, the mass transit system in LA ultimately ended operation in 1961. Nonetheless, buildings built before 1930 have hooks on there facades, remnant of the once incredible sprawling streetcar and trolley system for which LA was iconic. Sorry, I wasn’t able to get a great shot of the hooks during my walking tour of DTLA.

Today, folks are moving back to the metropolis. Why? We already touched on this, remember? But to elaborate, people would rather invest $300 a month in a phone – because how can we live in today’s world without a phone? – than put that money into a car. And, so, here we experience the cyclic process of the “starving artist” -> the new income class -> and, alas, gentrification.

Okie doke, this is all for my walking tour of DTLA part I. Stay tuned for part II in a few days! Thanks for reading!

**My original statement about the Adaptive Reuse Law passing in 1989 and encouraging Section 8 housing was incorrect. This piece has been updated with the correct information.

This post is part II of a walking tour of Downtown Los Angeles and, so, illustrates my experience and the histories I learned regarding this energetic and sprawling City of Angels. You can read “a walking tour of DTLA part I”, here.

Spring Street, also known as “the Wall Street of the West”, is one of the most unsuspecting streets in the whole of Downtown Los Angeles.

Not only is it decorated with 20th century Art Deco buildings like that of Wall Street in NYC, but it’s also completely void of Southern California’s iconic palm trees. Where are the palms, you ask? They’ve been intentionally excluded from the street plan to keep Spring St. popular with film companies, because just by looking at it one would guess it’s anywhere but in Downtown Los Angeles.

Also, the first film that was shot in Los Angeles was shot on Spring Street in 1897. It captured the city’s teeming street life in all its Victorian hustle and bustle.

This is Downtown Los Angeles’ The Last Bookstore (453 S Spring Street). It’s situated on 22,000 sq. ft. and is the State’s largest bookstore. And, man, is it absolutely fascinating.

The downstairs features a vinyl record and rare books section that is overgrown with indoor plants and decorated with interesting art.

The upstairs features the famous book tunnel and book window that everyone has seen on Instagram at least once, as well as a color coded section and a vault with super frightening stories.

Next is the Broadway Theater District (300-849 S Broadway) with its 12 gilded theaters built between 1910 and 1930 and all stretched along six-blocks of bustling boulevard. The district remains the only large concentration of movie palaces in the United States.

One such beauty is the historic Los Angeles Theater that seats a whopping 2,000. It was built in 1930 by S. Charles Lee who was just 21 years old when he broke ground on the palaces’ construction. Apparently he was an extremely confident young man, which connected him to the right people during the right time, despite the fact that he was an incredibly inexperienced architect. Nonetheless, Lee definitely left his mark, adorning the palace with extravagant features, including: custom-made draperies and carpets in shades of royal blue, deep red and gold and stage draperies made of silk that depict a 3D scene of the life and events of the French King Louis XIV who reigned for 72 years and 110 days, making him the longest reigning monarch of a sovereign European State. It is said that these drapes are the most expensive ever made for a movie palace. Another feature of the theater is a crying box where mothers with their babes in arm could watch the performance from a glass box with its own speakers.

Believe it or not, the theater was built in less than six months with the help of Charlie Chaplin who invested his own money to finish the theater in time for his film’s premiere “City Lights”. In attendance were dignitaries, Albert Einstein and 25,000 people who thronged the streets. This extravagant opening night, however, did receive its criticisms as it was during the Great Depression and just across the street were wrapping bread lines manned by poor citizens.

I also learned that the private owners of the many historic Broadway theaters open their doors for just one night out of the year, the last Saturday in January, during a Cinespia event named “Night on Broadway”. I personally can’t wait to check that out!

The Orpheum Theater (843 S Broadway) was named after the God of music and poetry, Orpheus, who was said to move mountains with his music.

The theater opened in 1926 as a vaudeville theater (variety theater) and showed the likes of some of Hollywood’s most venerable names, including: the burlesque queen Sally Rand, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Little Stevie Wonder.

The Pantages Theater (401 W 7th Street) was built by millionaire Greek-born Alexander Pantages (1867-1936) who got his start in show business selling seats for readings of newspapers to Alaskan miners.

Pantages built his fortune in show business and eventually began investing in the development of various theaters throughout the United States.

In 1928, however, he would experience a series of scandals that would eventually put him out of business. Joseph P. Kennedy, businessman and politician, as well as father of American President JFK, was allegedly tied to one of these scandals.

Joseph Kennedy put together RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) in 1928 and started looking for additional theaters to expand his reach. He tried to purchase the Pantages circuit, but Pantages was unwilling to sell. Then Pantages was accused of raping a woman, which damaged his public image, despite he was found innocent. By this time, Pantages was strapped for cash and decided to sell to RKO for a revised price equal to chump change for such a fantastically built piece of architecture on prime real estate. Pantages accused Kennedy of setting him up, but Kennedy was found not guilty of the accusation. Pantages’ name eventually dissipated from the public eye, but Kennedy would go on to make BIG money that financed the political runnings of his children: JFK, Robert Kennedy & Ted Kennedy.

In 1929, RKO decided they didn’t need the Pantages house at 7th & Hill as they had two other large theatres nearby, the Orpheum on Broadway and the Hillstreet at 8th & Hill, thus this one ended up with the Warner Bros who eventually changed the original Pantages marquee into their iconic WB.

This is Downtown Los Angeles’ Jewelry District (with vendors on Hill Street, Olive Street, and Broadway between 5th and 8th Streets), which is the second largest jewelry district in the world; the first is in Hong Kong, China.

This is Clifton’s Cafeteria (648 S Broadway) and it was built in 1931 by Clifford Clinton, during the height of the Great Depression.

Clifton’s Cafeteria is a relic of California’s Golden Age of Cafeterias. During Clinton’s ownership, he never turned anyone away, even if they had no money. It is said that during one 90-day period, 10,000 people ate free before Clinton opened an emergency “Penny Caveteria” in a basement a few blocks away that fed 2 million patrons during the next two years.

This cafeteria takes patrons on a journey through the Redwoods with a 40 ft. redwood tree smack-dab in the middle of the restaurant. It’s named “The Monarch”, which pays tribute to California’s last wild grizzly bear.

It is also said that Walt Disney was a BIG fan of Clifton’s and frequented the place in order to admire the taxidermy displays consisting of a 70-90 years old bison, a 70-90 years old black bear, foxes and a lion. Legend has it that Disney used Clifton’s as inspiration in his creation of Disneyland.

The gothic bar is also a delight and features a real 250 lb. meteorite that was found in Venezuela.

This is St. Vincent’s Court, which was the site of Southern California’s first institution of higher learning from 1868 to 1887 (now, Loyola University) and was founded by the Vincentian Fathers.

The Vincentian Family comprises of organizations inspired by the life and work of St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th-century priest from France.

The court was once a busy space comprising of delicious European cafes and restaurants. Now, it is comprised of Middle Eastern cuisine.

This is Downtown Los Angeles’ Central Park (6th St). In the 1930’s it was an intercity jungle of luscious green palms, grass and subtropical flowers.downtown los angeles central parkAlso, residing there were squatting gypsies until the city decided to build the area into a park, during which the gypsies packed up and moved out. It isn’t the most beautiful city park I’ve seen and is in need of a facelift, especially on account that its fountain no longer works due to State drought laws.

This is the Millennium Biltmore Hotel built in 1923.

It’s adorned with Neo-gothic details, such as gargoyles with engorged human breasts and plump cherubs. There is also a fascinating zodiac clock atop the double staircase in the main hall that part of me wants to believe was put in place by the secret Rosicrucian society. If I find out more about this, I’ll surely write about it here.

There is also a small picture museum on the second floor with photos of Ronald Raegan during his acting years and a young Judy Garland, among other famous people.

Most fascinatingly, JFK won his presidential nomination at the Biltmore, as well as The Beatles had to be airdropped by helicopter on the rooftop for their 1960’s tour, because fans clogged the streets anticipating their arrival.air raid system in dtla

Lastly, here is a remnant air raid siren from the Cold War era (which, in my opinion, the era never ended).

This now neglected old civil defense siren was once supposed to warn the populace of an incoming nuclear attack. According to some folks who lived before and through WWII, they remember the sirens being tested at 10 am on the last Friday of every month. They were put up to warn city residents of Japanese attacks. About 75 percent are still around, but are occasionally torn down during construction projects. The sirens were last used during a test in 1985.

Tour summary:

I am very pleased with this walking tour of Downtown Los Angeles. Neel was a fantastic storyteller and his love for this city and history really made the experience a wonderful one. He gave us ample time to explore each site and I never felt like I was being rushed through the experience, as well as he always elaborated on our questions to ensure we all understood the context of the information he was providing us. Furthermore, $20 for two hours is a super competitive tour price, in my opinion, because most tour companies will charge about $50 and up for the same amount of time and type of tour. In sum, I highly recommend this fantastic experience for all ages.

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