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).

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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.

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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. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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.

  7. 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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