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Illustration from Jamie Polancic

Downtown

The historic heart of the city where all cultures call home

Olvera Street is often referred to as the birthplace of Los Angeles, and with good reason: Its surrounding area dates back to 1781, when the city was first founded by Spanish pobladores. Though it’s since been renovated and renamed, the popular tourist and shopping district still bears plenty of markers of its past. For example, there’s the cross-shaped monument at the entrance to Olvera Street that commemorates the city’s original Spanish name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles.

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Just beyond the monument, and down a brick-lined alleyway is Avila Adobe, the city’s oldest surviving residence, which was built in 1818—two years before the city came under Mexican rule following their independence from Spain—and is now a museum that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby is Pico House, which was built by the state’s last Mexican governor, and was once one of the most extravagant hotels in Southern California.

But Olvera Street today is far from a ghost town. Musicians and dancers frequently perform on the outdoor plaza and the streets are bustling with vendors selling everything from sombreros and maracas to serapes and ceramics. Perhaps best of all, the downtown enclave just across from Union Station boasts one of LA’s oldest—and most delicious—taquito stands: Cielito Lindo, which began as a humble wooden stall in 1934. The fried and rolled beef-stuffed tortillas are always hot and fresh, and with two taquitos for $3.50, the prices are reminiscent of another era, too.

About a mile southwest, past Grand Park—which hosts an annual Dia De Los Muertos festival and other Latinx events—sits a more drink-able nod to the city’s colorful history. La Cita, which has been in operation since at least the 1950s, is a downtown landmark that’s also become a vibrant space for community building, with frequent punk and reggae nights and a women’s vinyl club.

Another of the city’s oldest and most culturally rich neighborhoods sits further east, between the 101 Freeway and the Los Angeles River. Little Tokyo dates back to 1884, when a Japanese immigrant opened the area’s first café on an unremarkable stretch of First Street. More than a century later, First Street is packed with dozens of Japanese restaurants, from ramen shops and sushi bars to teahouses and bakeries. The street itself, like much of Little Tokyo, is so charming, with its brick buildings and neon signage, that it almost looks like a back-lot version of itself designed by a Hollywood studio.

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Two large pedestrian-friendly pavilions, which are closed to car traffic, anchor the neighborhood. On one end of First Street and Central Avenue is the sprawling campus that hosts the Japanese American National Museum and the Geffen Contemporary, a satellite location of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles that hosts special exhibitions and pop-up events like Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair. On the other end of this intersection is the Little Tokyo Pavilion, a maze of shops, cafes, and street performances, all housed under pagoda-style rooftops and Japanese lanterns.

The neighborhood has seen the kind of development boom that has rapidly transformed much of downtown over the last decade. High-rise luxury condos with rooftop pools now surround trendy bars and restaurants, many of which are within walking distance of Skid Row. But unlike other neighborhoods that have lost their character—and their sense of community—due to gentrification, the residents of Little Tokyo have a history of banding together to advocate for their own needs.

BUT UNLIKE OTHER NEIGHBORHOODS THAT HAVE LOST THEIR CHARACTERAND THEIR SENSE OF COMMUNITYDUE TO GENTRIFICATION, THE RESIDENTS OF LITTLE TOKYO HAVE A HISTORY OF BANDING TOGETHER TO ADVOCATE FOR THEIR OWN NEEDS.

In 2003, the community successfully petitioned against a proposal to build a jail near the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, which has long been regarded not just as a cultural center, but also as a site for meditation and reflection. Years later, when Metro proposed an expansion of its light rail line through Little Tokyo, residents convinced officials to build it underground so it wouldn’t disrupt businesses. The connector line is expected to open in 2021, and though it will undoubtedly bring more foot traffic to the neighborhood, some residents and business owners fear it will inflate the rents even more.

Chinatown, too, has undergone significant changes over the last two decades. Community activist organizations have sprung up to advocate for affordable housing and cultural preservation in an area that now serves as a hub for the local arts scene—and as some see it, a sign of more gentrification to come. Art spaces such as Coagula Curatorial, Charlie James Gallery, and Aeterna Gallery are sandwiched between antique stores and Chinese take-out spots on Chung King Road.

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Around the corner, near the recently-renovated Los Angeles State Historic Park, Human Resources has become known for its live performances and video installations from young, emerging local artists. The area also plays host to puppet-makers (the non-profit Automata is known for its experimental theater and film productions); poets (Poetic Research Bureau, another nonprofit storefront, hosts readings from visiting writers every weekend); and perfumers (The Institute for Art and Olfaction offers unconventional workshops about scent).

It’s not only galleries that have transformed Chinatown over the last two decades. Adventurous new bars and restaurants have turned the neighborhood into a dining destination. Brothers Chad and Chase Valencia opened LASA, a contemporary Filipino restaurant, in Far East Plaza in 2017 after a year of cooking in a test kitchen that previously occupied the same space. Meanwhile, Majordomo, chef David Chang’s first LA restaurant, became one of the city’s most buzzed-about restaurants when it opened in a warehouse across from the pharmacy-themed bar, Apotheke LA, in 2018.

But even with the influx of new restaurants and galleries in Chinatown, it’s hard to beat the neighborhood’s long-time staples. Plum Tree Inn and Golden Dragon offer no-frills Szechuan dishes, and Philippe the Original, one of the oldest restaurants in the city of Los Angeles, might just be the best place to enjoy its creation, the French Dip sandwich, before a Dodgers game.

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