Henry Jeffreys

Downtown Los Angeles

In Downtown, you glimpse the city LA might have been – and might yet still be

There’s a certain kind of Englishman who falls hard for Los Angeles. Men such as Graham Nash, who swapped the Hollies and rainy Manchester for Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and Laurel Canyon. The LA of beaches, semi-rural hills and freeways can work wonders on an English heart. But the city has another side — a place most Angelenos never venture. Downtown.

The old heart of the city is a vision of how LA might have turned out. It has skyscrapers, art deco buildings and even an underground railway. It feels like Chicago, except that even on a Saturday afternoon, many streets are deserted. Some of those gorgeous pre-war buildings are dilapidated or boarded up. The shops sell cheap jewellery and Mexican food. There’s destitution on every corner.

It’s a similar story underground. The LA metro has the intimidating feel of the New York subway, yet it was built between 1990 and 2000. My wife’s family were incredulous when we said we would use it. They didn’t even know there was a stop near their house.

Fans of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? will remember that LA once had the most extensive public transport system in the world. It was dismantled to be replaced with freeways in the 1950s and Downtown began to decline. Despite countless regeneration initiatives, parts of it now look like photos of the Bronx from the 1980s. Yet finally things seem to be changing. Old buildings are being renovated. We stayed in the new Ace Hotel at the corner of Broadway and 9th Street, in the old United Artists building. It’s a cathedral of art deco with a 1,600-seater Gothic movie palace inside.

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