By Brenn Richard
The Arts District in downtown Los Angeles has not always been a safe neighborhood but over the past decade it has become a bustling center of commerce and entertainment.
Vibrant, bubbled lettering is sprawled across a cement block wall inside of a valet parking lot. Bougainvillea flowers frame the graffiti, while a couple walking a black French bulldog strolled past the parking lot and sipped coffees.
“It’s like being in a bubble,” said Viviana Morales, retail manager at Angel City Brewery. “Now you can walk down the street and not be worried. I can walk to my car at night and be totally fine.”
The Arts District downtown has not always been so welcoming. After World War II, the area was home to numerous industrial buildings, factories and freight companies. During the 1990s, crime rates escalated and many vacated the area.
There are mixed opinions about the safety of the Arts District, depending on who is asked. Lillian R., barista at Pie Hole, has lived here for 4 years and said that crime has gotten a bit worse due to tourism.
“Tourists are willing to give more money to panhandlers,” she said. “Skid Row is right around the corner and more homeless people are being attracted to the area.”
The homeless community has changed. Despite some of the negatives, Lillian said that a few of the long-term homeless people in the neighborhood have been able to get jobs and find places to live in the Arts District.
“I would love to have some of my art featured here,” said Ashley Robison, a local artist known as “spacegoth.” The 25 year old has colorful tattoos on her right arm. She creates watercolor images with captions such as, “I’ve been apologizing my entire life and I don’t even know if I’m sorry” and “Everyone is judging you and they can’t even help it.”
In 2005, the Business Improvement District provided the area with funding to assist with gentrification. Abandoned warehouses and dilapidated industrial buildings are gradually being restored and re-inhabited.
It has become trendy to live downtown and the area is attracting more individuals who work in film and television as well as other artistic types.
“I like the area but the people not so much,” said Tess Henderson, prep cook at Wurstküche. Henderson moved to the Arts District from Portland, Oregon about a month ago to live with her boyfriend. She said people in Oregon are friendlier and that there is a bit of a stuck-up vibe downtown.
The area has attracted more than just artists. Food trucks have become a staple in this area.
Some of the popular trucks include Foodism, Taqueria El Severo, DogTown Dogs, Kai Kai Dumplings, Rice Balls of Fire, and Southern Fried Vegan. Many food trucks post their location schedules via Twitter.
Amid a plethora of unusual eateries, one can find live-work loft spaces and open co-working spaces where local freelancers, students, artists, and entrepreneurs can meet and exchange ideas.
Food trucks enhance the community vibe in the Arts District. In addition, the farmers market also helps locals connect with each other.
Every Thursday from 5-9 p.m., there is a farmers market that is sponsored by Angel City Brewery and Los Angeles River Artists and Business Association. Joel Bloom Triangle Square hosts dozens of vendors who are carefully selected and screened to assure that locals and visitors are enjoying the highest quality produce and artisanal goods. Every vendor must have a permit, a food-handlers card, and all must follow a specific list of rules and regulations.
Giovanni Giusti said that his friend Tiger Moon sells jewelry at the farmers market every week. He said that the community is full of artists and activists and also home to former members of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
When asked about the safety of the neighborhood, Giusti said,
“The one-bedroom apartments across the street go for $2,800 a month if that tells you anything.”
Although the Arts District is a small neighborhood, the safety changes block by block.
“Pie Hole is part of the gentrification. They have been here a couple years. Most of the homeless [people] have been here longer than half the businesses,” Giusti said.
While sampling locally grown fresh vegetables and fruits, locals and tourists can also check out prepared foods, baked goods, beer, and art that is made and sold by neighboring residents.
The farmers market attracts a lot of young couples with newborn babies and small children. The environment seems very family-friendly. People bring dogs of all sizes and most seem to enjoy the attention of passersby petting them. There is a vendor who sells small, handmade hanging terrariums filled with succulents. Customers can find everything from herbs, baskets of fresh berries, tamales, jewelry, rotisserie chicken, and bath products here.
Despite being neighbors with the infamous Skid Row, which is known for its tremendously large homeless population, the Arts District seems somewhat secluded and protected.
“About 10 years ago, there were homeless people here who would straight up murder you,” said Tim Severtson, security for Angel City Brewery. Severtson has worked in the Arts District for a little over a year. “It’s much better now.”
Little Tokyo is another neighbor of the Arts District. During World War II, most of the Japanese residents in Little Tokyo were evacuated and put in concentration camps. The neighborhood suffered tremendously because of this but has been rebuilding itself since the 1970s.
Uber serves the downtown community as well as the Arts District. Driving in this neighborhood can be a bit tricky, and most of the parking lots charge a flat fee of $10.
“I live in Glendale so it’s cool to be able to take Uber versus driving,” said Jessica Rios. “My friends and I like to go to the bar around the corner. They have arcade games and pretty cheap drinks. Uber is cool because then we don’t have to worry about drinking and driving. It’s nice to just relax and EightyTwo is pretty unpretentious.”
EightyTwo is a popular bar in the area known for arcade games, pinball machines and a cool outdoor patio with a food truck.
The Arts District is also home to Villain’s Tavern, Tony’s Saloon, and Pour Haus Wine Bar.
Bicyclists, tourists, artists, and hipsters stroll down Traction Avenue while some dine at popular cafes or browse small boutiques. There is no shortage of flannel shirts, beards and man-buns.
Often there is a long line outside of Wurstküche. Their menu is mostly limited to sausages, bratwurst and beers on tap. Nearby there is an Urth Caffé, which is mentioned by Zagat as one of the Best People-Watching Restaurants in LA. Church & State features charcuterie plates and popular French dishes while BADMAASH offers Indian gastropub-style fare.
Past the food truck parked outside of Angel City Brewery and past the cartoonish walls of the valet parking lot, the sun is beginning to set.
“It’s fine here,” said Kevin Phelps, a 21-year-old with a skateboard under his arm. “Just watch your surroundings and you’ll be okay.”
Amid the juxtapose of valet parking lots, new buildings mixed with ancient warehouses, graffiti and bright flowers, the Arts District almost feels like its own world. Like Morales said, it’s like being in a bubble.