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Downtown Los Angeles

Yesterday and today

By Louis OrtegaPublished 3 years ago 4 min read
Yesterday and today

Growing up in Los Angeles back in the 1970s through the 80's going downtown meant hanging out on Broadway Boulevard. I am not a historian or a researcher but having lived and worked in the Los Angeles area all my life I have seen entertainment venues, restaurants, movie theaters decay and pass on.

In the ’70s mostly Hispanic working-class families would come in their Sunday best or to pick up groceries at Grand Central Market that would gravitate downtown. Later Korean and Chinese immigrant merchants opened all sorts of business as the real estate market plunged lowering rents. Middle-Eastern and Jewish immigrants likewise opened jewelry and electronic shops. By far most jewelry stores opened on Hill Street between 7th and 6th street to become what is now known as the jewelry district.

The old RKO theater was gone by the time I was a teenager in 73. Back then it was lined with movie houses: The State, Orpheum, Rialto, and the Globe to name a few. By the ‘70s they were already rundown and seedy shadows of their glorious past when women in evening dresses and men in suits and tuxedos would mill about the lobby during intermission. Now your shoes would often stick to the floor and the bathrooms were toxic waste pits but at $1.25 for three reruns of old spaghetti westerns, it was a deal for working families and people, such as myself, with a limited income.

There was Clifton’s cafeteria, that fed the largely blue-collar masses, especially on the weekends, the homeless, mentally unstable, and the social security crowd that would wander in from the seedy rooms and flophouses on Main, such as the Cecil, and other hotels on Los Angeles streets for cheap hot meals and coffee.

institution-style entrees consumed the in the midst of a faux forest setting complete with a small running stream. By far the best was the neon-colored blocks of Jello they had on their dessert showcase.

At the time they had a smaller location on 7th between Hill and Grand, on Hoover near Wilshire, and one in Lakewood. By far the best one was the main location on Broadway, their original location on Hill Street long gone by the '70s. As a young man, there were plenty of pretty girls behind the cafeteria-style counters and cashiers to flirt with.

Just like the grand old days of entertainment venues, there were the fine shops like J.W.Robinson’s, Bullocks, The Broadway. These were the swanky retail stores. They had great restaurants to feed the hungry customers in between shopping jaunts. Broadway Boulevard still retained fine clothing and shoe stores: Bond clothiers, Tom McCann, and other fine stores, including Canada shoes, a venerated Mexican shoe store on par with Thom-Mcann.

Those who had spiraled into alcohol and drugs ended up on Main Street, with the worst of the dregs a block down on Los Angeles Street. The skid row area was bounded on Main to Alameda east, and from 1st street to about Pico Avenue. This is where you hit the bottom of the barrel. When I was younger you didn’t really stray into that area.

Besides the Alcoholics and drug addicts, the various seedy hotels such as the Cecil, Rosemont, and other flophouses that housed the broken, the old abandoned retirees living only on social security or welfare. The streets were filled with the predators, victims, the sick, unwanted lost souls. If you didn’t need to be downtown after sundown you left as soon as possible.

After decades of decay between 1970 to 2014, it has not changed much. The streets are still filled with mentally unstable, homeless, lost souls. You don't really see the alkies trying to scrape up for a "short dog" – 45 cent bottle of cheap port wine- any longer.

A new generation of crack cocaine, Meth, heroin addicts now wander the streets. Living in makeshift shelters, tents, cars, under bridges. Begging, borrowing, and stealing for a fix.

Today It seems that most alcoholics are very functional and have managed to hang on. Perhaps it’s the children and grand-children of addicts. They’re here in scattered about in downtown L. A and Hollywood.

Downtown Los Angeles is undergoing gentrification. The seedy bars have been replaced by Gastro and craft beer pubs, art galleries, fancy eateries catering to the new young affluent hipster generation. They have flocked to these rundown streets and decaying buildings bringing renovation and hope in the restoration of the once-grand DTLA. Even the darkly famous Cecil Hotel is now rebranded to “Stay on the Main.”

I have actually seen young bohemians walking after dark on Broadway Blvd on their way to clubs and eateries. Frolicking with glee in their own rediscovered noir Los Angeles skid-row.

However, it's not without a price. The homeless and other lost wandering souls are being pushed east, towards the garment district. Tent cities line the sidewalks, under bridges, and anywhere else they find room.

It’s a strange and clashing sight to see someone walking their dachshund or poodle in the midst of junkies nodding off on the sidewalk in front of shuttered storefronts, and the small-time street hustlers.

It remains to be seen how much progress is made in the next decade to make downtown comparable to NYC Times Square and to provide support and assistance to the poor, addicted, and mentally ill homeless.

Until next time


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