LA’s Historic Downtown

We spent the Tuesday before Christmas in historic downtown Los Angeles. It wasn’t what I expected. In downtown LA I expected tall gleaming modern buildings, like in the opening scenes from “LA Law” (remember that show?).

Actually, downtown LA feels more retro than futuristic. Daniel explained to me that Los Angeles is “polycentric” – practically speaking it has multiple downtowns. (Danny goes to graduate school and is into urban policy stuff.) Those gleaming modern skyscrapers can be found, but mostly elsewhere.

North Hollywood station
North Hollywood station

We decided to take the subway, partly because Daniel is a big transit nerd. Yes, Los Angeles has a subway. It’s fairly new and has a futuristic feel.

Mural in the subway on LA history
Mural in the subway on LA history

I liked the murals they had at the North Hollywood station (UPDATE: actually, this was the Universal City station).

2014-12-23 16.06.27

For our first stop we visited Keith, an old High School friend who now lives in Los Angeles. We met him at his office, which is located in the old Bradbury Building.

Inside the Bradbury
Inside the Bradbury

The Bradbury is LA’s oldest commercial building still standing. It was the setting for the movie Blade Runner.

Grand Central Market in Los Angeles
Grand Central Market in Los Angeles

Keith took us all to the Grand Central Market for lunch. The Market, which has been operating since 1917, is a lively and bustling collection of vendors selling all kinds of produce and prepared food.

Tomas x, where we got lunch.
We got lunch at Tacos a Tomas, a popular place with a long line.

We went to a popular taco place where the lines were long, the service fast, and the tacos piled high with toppings.

Danny choosing mole.
Danny choosing mole.

After lunch we wandered around the Market. Before leaving Daniel bought some mole paste to take back to Chicago, though he cooked some for our Christmas dinner.

Another historic building in downtown LA.
Another historic building in downtown LA.

After saying goodbye to Keith, we walked towards Los Angeles City Hall, mainly because we were told there were stupendous views from the top.

Los Angeles City Hall
Los Angeles City Hall

The City Hall tower was modeled after a mausoleum designed by the ancient Greeks. The building is supposed to be able to withstand a magnitude 8.2 earthquake, which I suppose is comforting.

2014-12-23 16.22.10

On the way in we passed a memorial to Frank Putnam Flint. Flint was a politician and banker who was pivotal in creating LA’s aqueduct system. The new water made LA’s explosive growth possible. Flint’s memorial had a fountain, which had been turned off due to a water shortage. Ironic, eh?

A view of the mountains that encircle LA.
A view of the mountains that encircle LA.

We found our way to the top of City Hall after getting some directions from some very friendly and obliging city employees.

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Another view, this one including the concert hall designed by Frank Gehry.

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And here are some of those sleek modern skyscrapers I mentioned earlier.

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On the way to see the views we passed a gallery of mayoral portraits. Not sure who this guy was, but I like his style.

Mosaic in LA City Hall.
Mosaic in LA City Hall.

Before leaving we checked out the third floor where the City Council chambers are found. There were nice mosaics on the walls and ceiling.

After we left City Hall we walked to Little Tokyo, which is fairly close by. We visited the Japanese American National Museum, which is definitely worth seeing. Then we headed over to Union Station, which was built in 1939 and is considered the last of the great train stations in the USA.

The Last Bookstore
The Last Bookstore

Last stop of the day was The Last Bookstore, which has a massive selection of mostly used books. This is a must for book lovers visiting LA.

Arches of books at The Last Bookstore
Arches of books at The Last Bookstore

Despite its size, The Last Bookstore has an informal, even playful atmosphere. Books are stacked in arches.

LA last bk st2

Also, the crime section is in an actual bank vault.

We all bought at least two paperbacks each – it was hard to resist as most were priced at $5.

At this point it was getting late. This was an unusually intensive day of sightseeing by our standards. We headed back to the Pershing Square subway station, and then home.

49 Comments on “LA’s Historic Downtown

  1. that is a great tour ! I went to the market but had not idea about Bradbury building…I will do this next time we are in LA this year…thanks so much.

  2. Thanks for the tour! Your story about Mr. Flint and his ironically dry fountain made me laugh, even though it’s mean to laugh at such serious matters. I hope it rains on LA soon!

    • Don’t feel bad about laughing at Flint, he and his cronies were a hard-hearted bunch who had little compassion for others. Securing water for LA was actually a dirty business. Did you ever see the movie Chinatown with Jack Nicholson?

  3. A great tour of LA. I´ve been to LA back in 1989, but never saw any of this. But LA is a big city, so next time I know what to look for. I like the hair style of the man in the portrait..

  4. Thanks for the photo tour. We’re going to LA in June for CatCon that will be downtown. I’m looking forward to seeing the sights you mentioned.

  5. Wish I had the time and unlimited resources to travel to all the interesting cities in our country! We landed at LA airport but took taxi to Pasadena where we spent a few days – also an interesting place…. How I’d LOVE to check out this bookstore for myself – and the market!

  6. What an interesting, off-beat look at Los Angeles. The Grand Central Market reminds me of Philadelphia’s Reading Market. Phenomenal bookstore. Thank you for the tour.

  7. Not what I expected, guess I always had an LA law view of the city and this perspective makes me halfway consider visiting!

  8. I loved that bookstore, I could have happily spent the day in there alone! What a fascinating place to visit, I had no idea it was like that, as you say, you do imagine skyscrapers! Very interesting post, I did enjoy

  9. Nice! I love seeing the lesser known parts of a city. Beautiful architecture, beautiful views. Love how the fountain has been turned off. If Grand Central Market is anything like Vancouver’s Granville Island Public Market then I can just imagine the yumminess. I love wandering through places like that. Yep. L.A. has a lot to offer.

    • We’ve been to Granville Island! Though what I remember mostly is a place just off Granville called Go Fish that had the best fish and chips we’d ever eaten.

  10. I would enjoy that bookstore, though I wonder how I would get a book down if it was inside one of the arches. I promise my selection would be at the top of the arch! Thanks for all the views of L.A.

  11. Thanks for the tour of LA – it looks a bit different than I had imagined. The Bradbury building is gorgeous. I might not be happy in LA – it’s all so new!

  12. I was thinking you were nuts when you said LA for Christmas, but now I want to go too. You seem to have a knack for finding the good stuff. The market looks like fun, fun, fun.

  13. Reading this series has been interesting because you’ve seen a very different side of LA than I’m used to. I had no idea LA had a subway.

    • Tammy, our oldest son is a public transit fanatic. Everywhere we go, we find and try out transit. Usually, it’s terrific. The trains in LA were great. When we were in Austin, where there is one train line that goes to very boring suburbs, our son somehow discovered a really great brewpub was at the next to last stop, suddenly making the trip a real must for our second son.

  14. I can almost hear Jack Webb saying “This is the city…”
    It was really clear that day and you had great views from City Hall. I’m trying to remember which TV show opened with a shot of that building but so far no luck.

  15. Very interesting, Jason. You brought back some fun memories. As an 8 year old, I lived for a year in Hollywood, lived just a few blocks from Hollywood and Vine, and spent times running around the area that is now infested with druggies and other savory characters. Back then it was safe and fun.

  16. He does have a lovely hairstyle!!! And I never knew there was a retro vibe going on in LA! I have never been but by the looks of your photos can see that it is a place I should visit. That bookstore and market are fantastic!!! And thank you for your words on my last post…I did look into the Arboretum but unfortunately they are currently not expecting any new students for the certificate programs which is disappointing as we are there a lot. I will push forward in taking courses at the Chicago Botanic Garden…though with our schedule it will take me many years to finish….as I am limited to mostly night classes…so I figure I better start now! HA! Have a great week!! Nicole

    • Yup, I’m taking that guy’s picture with me next time I get a hair cut. “Make me look like this,” I’ll say. I was also doing evening/weekend classes at CBG. Are you starting with Botany? Are you thinking of a career switch of just building up your gardening knowledge?

  17. I agree, LA does seem futuristic. I also like seeing the architecture when I visit places. Frank Gehry’s work always amazes me. As an architect, I appreciate the creativity, but also as an architect, I feel it should be complementary or make gesture to the surroundings in which it finds itself, being a harmonious part of the existing city fabric. I think this point misses him every time. His buildings are always a standout.

  18. Great tour of a city I’ve seen change, but from a distance…like the gleaming skyscrapers you have that were not there until more recently. The historic and new downtown areas are worth a look to see how they work at street and building level.

    Gehry is a great sculptor and salesman…as many landscape architects are actually great graphic designers!

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