Enjoying coffee and community in downtown L.A.’s hip new Arts District


A pedestrian walks past one of the many bold murals in the Arts District near downtown Los Angeles. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

It’s said (probably erroneously) that Dorothy Parker once called Los Angeles “72 suburbs in search of a city.” But that search, if there ever was one, is long over. On a recent afternoon, I parked my car and ambled about the city center’s southeastern wedge, known as the Arts District, which has come alive with the arrival of young creative types (and their cash). There was nothing suburban about the compact and eccentric neighborhood flanked by Little Tokyo and the Los Angeles River.

Color burst from enormous murals, some echoing the city’s intricate Art Deco architectural patterns, others spelling out words in bold, sprayed-on letters. Amid the industrial yards, cold storage warehouses and factories were trendy shops and eateries fast transforming the area’s vibe. A self-deprecating poster warned: “Beware — Hipsters.”

Good-looking 20- and 30-somethings were chatting away at sunny sidewalk tables. The Puritan in me was revolted at the sight — “on a weekday afternoon!” — but my sleep-deprived self couldn’t have been more delighted. The neighborhood has no shortage of coffee shops, and you can spend a whole afternoon walking a mile, hopping from one motion-picture-perfect cafe to another.

If you go: Los Angeles’s Arts District

Espresso is inseparable from the Arts District’s zeitgeist. Some even credit the area’s transformation to Urth Caffe, which moved in 2008 into what was then a predominantly industrial area. Now you can practically absorb caffeine by osmosis while strolling about: The industrial-chic Handsome Coffee Roasters, with its purist menu (only espresso, with three different amounts of milk), is a prime see-and-be-seen spot; the Daily Dose’s vine-covered brick courtyard is ideal for java and noshes; and Stumptown, opened in September, brandishes its Pacific Northwest coffee cred in a sparse, enormous hall. The trend hasn’t stopped. Verve Coffee, with its loyal following in Santa Cruz, is building a roaster in the neighborhood, slated to open in 2015.

The fact that there seems to be an unlimited demand for $5 disposable cups of coffee shouldn’t come as a surprise. Lofts, the common symptom of gentrification, have slipped into former manufacturing plants, bearing the names of the products that were once produced on the sites, such as toys and biscuits. Although freight trucks continue to rumble down the wide streets, the sidewalks have been taken over by bright young things in trendy clothes. Scaffolding and construction crews have taken over pasture-size lots, creating what’s probably going to be more commercial-residential hybrids popping up around the city — and many other urban centers across the country, for that matter.

So is the Arts District any different?

“This neighborhood has such a sense of community. For L.A., it’s rare,” said Dieter Foerstner, a brewmaster at Angel City Brewery, which officially opened in May. The cavernous pub is an indoor park strewn with picnic tables, featuring large glass doors that erase the boundary between the interior and the rest of the city. In lieu of large-screen televisions broadcasting sports, pieces by local artists adorn the walls. A stockpile of board games and the bring-your-own-food permission give the place a living-room vibe. (If you don’t want to pack snacks, a food truck outside doubles as the bar’s kitchen.) If you show up on a Sunday morning, you may even happen upon a yoga class.

“I can’t help but feel inspired,” said Foerstner, who oversees the brewery’s beer production and also leads free tours of the ale-making facilities on weekends. “There’s all kinds of street art, and lots of local artists have studios here. You see many different characters walking through the streets, from businessmen to hipsters to students.”

There was a time when Los Angeles’s downtown was a hollow core, with half-vacant buildings lining equally desolate streets. Now, with the influx of people into its very heart, you can say that the whole city has come alive. What’s a city, after all, but a sum of its people?

“I’m all for development,” said Ted Vadakan, owner of Poketo. Started as an online shop that sells affordable and usable art objects, the business became a bricks-and-mortar operation in June 2012. The airy store presents carefully curated home decor items, apparel, toys and accessories on the retail corridor of East Third Street, where a number of stores brandish one-of-a-kind objects.

I had to jostle for space between many customers at Poketo, but it hadn’t always been this popular. “When we first began,” Vadakan told me, “we wondered if there would be any foot traffic.” He has been pleasantly surprised by an increasing stream of pedestrians who happen upon the store.

From the outside, Los Angeles may seem like a maze of highways, a dystopia of American car culture. There’s some truth to that — most people still drive to get around in the sunny sprawl. But in the Arts District, or downtown in general, you can easily get around on foot. Vadakan and his wife, Angie, commute from their home in Echo Park by bicycle.

This is clearly not your parents’ Los Angeles, the town that famously scrapped its streetcar system to make its residents dependent on automobiles. In addition to an expanding metro system, the city of L.A. now boasts 431 miles of bike routes, though pedaling can still be a challenge in many parts of town. CicLAvia, part of an international movement, regularly turns major thoroughfares into car-free street festivals for bicyclists and pedestrians. BlacklistLA is a collective of street-art-loving runners who congregate every Monday night and jog in packs through different neighborhoods, the Arts District among their favorites.

Across the sky, the setting sun cast that vermilion glow that seems brighter in Southern California than anywhere else. The neighborhood was becoming livelier, with the myriad bars and eateries attracting more people after working hours. What sets a city apart from suburbs, I mused, isn’t its concentration of trendy goods, but its ability to reinvent itself over the years, or even over the course of a day.

I was supposed to meet a friend across town, so I began reluctantly making my way there. But having walked all day, I couldn’t remember where I’d parked my car.

Chaney Kwak is a writer based in San Francisco and Berlin. His Web site is www.kwak.in/motion.

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