Friday, May 8, 2009

walking around looking at things

So I'm downtown yesterday, this is Los Angeles, around Pershing Square, but over on 5th St, walking towards Main. Now if you are not familiar with this part of town, let me explain. This means I crossed Broadway and Spring Streets. Back in the day, say earlier last century, but even into the childhoods of late middle aged native Angelinos, Broadway was a grand thoroughfare, lined with huge splendid theaters and the flagship stores of all the big department stores. Spring was "The Wall Street of The West." M.F. K. Fisher gives us to understand that at one time it was the alley of all the most excellent restaurant food to be eaten in the city. (Well a good deal of it at least.)

With one thing and another, all the grand old building have been pretty much left to quietly moulder, while a teeming marketplace of tiny businesses has grown up around their ankles, and Mexican evangelists preach in the old theaters. "The Jewellry District" is down here now too. Faded old signs can still be made out everywhere, advertising residence hotels and apartments, some at weekly rates that nowadays could get you a really swell 20oz. coffee beverage. That's how old and long unmolested the signage is.

I'm looking up at these plentious old residences, intensely curious about what this street was like in May of say, 1926, or 1921, or 1915. Some of it, as best I can tell, would have been pretty snazzy living. Some places have been patched up enough to funtion as residence hotels, but not at all the kind they used to be. Some are rehabbed to the nines and offered as LOFTS. One place offered "micro-lofts." (Huh?) But imagine--living above the crossstreet, between two of the most splendid and important streets west of the Mississippi! Back in the day. (Now there is PLENTY to be said about candidates for "the most splendid and important streets west of the Mississippi.") I'm trotting along with the crowds on the sidewalk, wondering about the hardworn little glass blocks set into the pavement beneath my feet--they let light into a subterraian storage room?--and the curbs' differing heights, and what their ages may be. One building gives evidence of what looks like it was at one time a second story balconied ballroom.

Most of the people around me look rather eccentric. They greet eachother with pleasure, pass around cigarettes, discuss vicodin prescriptions and how they might be shared, and sit discussing the news in the sun. I arrive at the Nickel Diner, a very pleasant place for breakfast or lunch. The entrees are affordable for me if not for the folks outside. I eat eggs and hash and a homemade "pop-tart" and read Isabella Bird's account of travelling through Persia in 1890. She is forever mentioning the "melancholy aspect" of land once rich and well irrigated lying now as a waste, the intense and wretched poverty of people living amid the ruins of once-mighty cities, now brought low by long neglect and inefficient goverment.

When the owers of the Nickel Diner took over this space, they had to rip out crappy 70's panelling and the cheap tiles that lowered the ceiling to eight feet. After doing so, they found soaring ceilings, and the original menu still painted on the wall, from perhaps the 40's, from the decent good diner previously there. One of the owners, looking at the legend over the door, said, "Sometimes the space just tells you what it wants to be."

"This is the Place
there is no place
quite like this place
anywhere near this place
so this must be the place"

Heroditus wrote something in his Histories that I don't quite remember about the changing fortunes of cities.


Marnie said...

Nice perspective. I avoid downtown like the plague - it's very run down and almot inhabitable.

Marnie said...

I meant to say "uninhabitable".

austen cornell said...

If you can visit during the day, it is perfectly fine. Like any other place, don't act stupid & keep your wits about you, and you can have fun, look at things, and eat delicious food.

I'm amazed at the number of lofts being offered. I've no idea where these folks would get their groceries--maybe I'm not spotting the bodegas.