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Downtown L.A., the best place you haven't been?

Image: Scott Vogel

Having witnessed part of the most recent World Series from a seat in Dodger Stadium—a doubly uncomfortable experience for anyone who is 1) an Astros fan, and 2) reckless enough to consume a Dodger Dog and garlic fries in one sitting—we are not in the habit of praising La La Land (or “Nah Nah Land,” as the Los Angeles Times announced in 50-point type on the morning after game 7). Being a charitable people, however (especially when the Astros win), we will always have a soft spot in our hearts for destinations that confound expectations. And believe it or not, Los Angeles can still do that.

Not all of it, mind you. Much of L.A. is exactly what you think it will be, and unashamedly so. Still, there are a few delightfully surprising square miles in the center of town that could stand to receive more attention from tourists, although locals too ought not overlook them. At a time when weariness and frustration seem to be prevailing sentiments among many Angelenos, downtown might provide a welcome antidote, drawing a direct line to L.A.’s boomtown past and all the vibrant optimism that went with it.

“Dry, brown and cracked, all the way to the ocean,” groused the old Angeleno next to us, shaking his head as the plane descended into haze this past September. We looked down. It was true. From the air, all of L.A. resembled Grizzly Gulch at Disneyland (the one in Hong Kong, but still). And the terrain appeared no less forbidding on the ground, as LAX and environs are in perpetual renovation mode, with passengers routinely reporting hours-long traffic jams, hours-long flight delays, hours-long everything. An article in the Hollywood Reporter last year noted that roughly a fifth of all the stars on the Walk of Fame are in need of some refurbishment. That stat seemed likely to hold for the rest of the city too.

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The Hotel Indigo, a place to cheer past virtues and vices alike.

“We really need this,” noted the deadly serious, pony-tailed taxi driver during our chaotic, stop-start, horn-honking, loud-sighing drive downtown. The “we” was Los Angeles, and the thing it really needed was for the Dodgers to win the World Series, a feat the team had not accomplished since 1988—and of course still hasn’t. But this was September, when the question was not whether the Dodgers would win it all but how soon, and all the talk was of how a World Series victory would help the city reclaim its glorious past.

1988 was indeed a glorious year for the city of Los Angeles, at least sports-wise. The Dodgers were champions of baseball, the Lakers champions of basketball. It was the year of the Summer Olympics in Seoul, with Angelenos Florence Griffith-Joyner and Janet Evans vanquishing the world on the track and in the pool. A jockey from L.A. even rode a horse to victory in the Kentucky Derby, a horse whose name, inevitably, was Winning Colors.

With all due respect, however, 1988 is not the year the city needs to reclaim. 1988 has nothing on the last years of the 19th century, nor the early ones of the 20th, when L.A. exploded from a hamlet of 5,000 into a thriving metropolis and world capital for the emerging art of motion pictures. It was perhaps the most glorious of all L.A.’s glorious pasts, and one which, happily, the city is recapturing with a vengeance these days.

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Even the Indigo's lobby-level restaurant is an homage to the underground tunnels of L.A.'s speakeasy days.

“Ah, finally,” said the taxi driver, circling the block no fewer than twice before finally finding an entrance to a massive condo-and-hotel complex known as Metropolis. (Downtown is not only foreign to tourist types, it seems.) Before us, in various stages of completion, sat three gleaming residential towers of 36, 40 and 56 stories each, along with a handsome 18-story structure sheathed in turquoise glass nestled among them. This last was the Hotel Indigo, whose exterior is of a piece with the sleek futurism surrounding it, but whose interior is something else altogether. From the moment you enter the lobby, the mood turns whimsical, parti-colored, and above all nostalgic. Chandeliers fashioned out of brass wagon wheels light up a penny-farthing bicycle, both reminders of the energy and relentless industry of early L.A., that heady period when the city made the world fall in love with movies. The floral wall patterns, meanwhile, are a nod to Fiestas de los Flores, an 1890s precursor to the Rose Parade. On a pair of tall glass shelves, row after row of homburgs, bowlers and other turn-of-the-20th-century hats float high over the proceedings, even as the lobby’s suave settees are plastered with lurid tabloid headlines from L.A.’s mobster era.

There are archways that call to mind the extensive network of underground tunnels—11 miles in all—that bootleggers once used to circumvent Prohibition laws, and large ancient photos of paparazzi stalking the stars, both the shooters and their prey long gone. In other words, the Indigo is a place to cheer past virtues and vices alike, one where schemers and dreamers are kin, fame and infamy are intertwined, and broken norms and broken laws are close on the continuum.

Manipulative? Sure, but here, as opposed to much of L.A., the nostalgia feels elegant rather than cheap, clever not corny. And the energy it generates, infectious in the extreme, is everywhere in evidence, from the conference rooms to the pool area, to the rooftop bar—where an FDR martini is the signature drink—to the 350 guest rooms. In effect, staying at the Indigo is like indulging in a séance of sorts, communing with the confident, swaggering spirit of L.A. past, a surging and vital metropolis of outsize dreams and apparently boundless good cheer.

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The Broad Museum's third floor: a sun-splashed gallery of surprises. 

Image: Scott Vogel

That such a spirit remains alive and well today, at least downtown, is evident not only at the Indigo but the Broad museum, a new temple of contemporary art not far from the hotel. Open just two years, the Broad has already achieved wild success thanks to free admission and the crowd-friendly, dazzlingly immersive light installations of Yayoi Kusama (50,000 tickets to the Japanese artist’s recent exhibition were gone within an hour). But its true gift is for reinvigorating the museum experience. The vastness of the Broad family’s peerless collection of postwar art is evident in its galleries, but also may be glimpsed from certain stairwells, which overlook a capacious storage vault of all the works not currently on exhibit. And then there’s the top-floor gallery, where a rush of natural light brings freshness to works by Basquiat and Kruger, Rauschenberg and Warhol, and throws into stark relief many more provocative, jaw-dropping surprises.

All told, the Broad is quite simply one of the boldest and most successful art spaces we’ve seen in years, and a perfect complement to the breath-taking home of the L.A. Philharmonic across the street, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Frank Gehry’s still-amazing-after-all-these-years symphony of swooping and diving stainless steel panels. Like the Broad—and the Indigo, for that matter—there’s a welcoming, life-affirming mischievousness to the place that, from certain angles at least, appears to capture L.A. at its loveliest.

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Grand Central Market, dating back to 1917, is a food hall for the ages.

Image: Scott Vogel

Hints of the city’s old impish ethos may be found all over downtown, though, at Grand Central Market, say, a food hall that dates back to 1917 and whose current establishments, eateries with names like Eggslut and Ramen Hood and Horse Thief BBQ, are all telegraphed in bright neon. Over on S. Spring St., meanwhile, sits a used/new book and record shop with a cheeky name—The Last Bookstore—and a vibe even cheekier. (“What are you waiting for?” reads the slogan on its website. “We won’t be here forever.”) Comfortably housed in a 1915 bank building, the LB does for the book-buying experience what the Broad does for museum-going. There are books arranged by color, books hanging from the rafters, books turned into sculptures, even a giant tunnel of books you can walk through.

Which brings us back to the extensive network of passageways that courses beneath the streets of downtown L.A. That liquor is crucial to the Angeleno experience (it’s a town full of actors, after all) is a truism that was even truer in days gone by, when alcohol sales provided a mighty boost to the local economy and Prohibition threatened to put a dent in far more than the city’s fun. Unfazed, residents swiftly began tunneling their way into speakeasies, basements—any place that Angelenos might get their drink on in peace. Banks stored piles of cash in these underground corridors too, even as mobsters stashed bodies in them. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

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A Prohibition era bar lies pristinely preserved under a downtown L.A. street.

Image: Scott Vogel

After Prohibition, L.A.’s underground tunnels fell into disrepair and most have been closed to the public for many years, thus depriving both visitors and residents access to one of the city’s earliest and most prodigious instances of where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way-ness. Recently, however, a firm known as Cartwheel Art—in partnership with the Hotel Indigo—began leading small groups down dark, rickety stairwells and into that inky underground world of low-ceilinged archways, still-handsome barrooms, and collectors’ quality murals and other art pieces. 

Subterranean L.A. has little in common with the sun-splashed, palm-treed town of your imagination. The air is dank, the surfaces dusty. But the luck of neglect has left its corridors a time capsule, one in which the Los Angeles soul—along with its verve, moxie and other moribund terms of art—has been pristinely, mercifully preserved. The next time a Dodgers fan laments the team’s recent World Series loss, tell them to lose the frown. They might not ever see 1988 again, but 1908 and 1918 remain conspicuously available. And really, those are the years L.A. ought to be pining for.

LAX airport is served by numerous carriers at both IAH and Hobby, with fares sometimes as low as $108 roundtrip. Meanwhile, rooms at the Hotel Indigo start at $191 per night, and Cartwheel Art tours of L.A.’s underground tunnels cost $85 per person. (Days and times vary, and other off-the-beaten-path tours are offered. Check the website for details.) And DowntownLA.com is a great resource for information on the city’s urban core.

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