Nickel and Dining It: Gentrification in Downtown LA

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Nickel Diner is on the front line of the gentrification of downtown LA. It is on Fifth and Main, which puts it a block west of Skid Row, but the borders are fluid. Knots of homeless guys loiter on the pavement nearby.

There was a rundown taco shop in the building before, but the authorities closed it because it was being openly used by dealers. It lay empty for years and, when Nickel Diner’s owners took out a lease in the noughties, pigeons were nesting inside. When they stripped the paneling, they uncovered a menu from the 1940s painted on the wall in bubbles of cheerful colour: Boston baked beans 15¢, Chili with beans 30¢, Hot dogs 19¢, Delicious sandwiches, salami or cheese 20¢, Hamburger 25¢, Root beer 10¢. They made it a feature of their nouvelle diner with its burgundy leather, austere tables and downlighters, which are said to be uplighters glued upside-down to the roof.

The menu is a hipster twist on diner food. Steak and fries, but served with chimichurri and a rocket – arugula, I should say – tomato and avocado salad.  The beef stew comes garnished with an ancho chilli sauce. The hash is pulled pork, instead of corned beef. The pastry chef used to work for Thomas Keller at Per Se and Bouchon. The maple-glazed bacon donuts are justly famous.

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The immediate neighbourhood is smarter now than it was when Nickel Diner first opened and the staff carried pepper spray on their way to work.  Just across the road is the Beaux Arts former Hotel Rosslyn, the biggest and possibly grandest hotel in LA when it was built in 1913. Old photographs show it towering above everything around it, with the proud illuminated sign on its roof announcing “the New Million Dollar Rosslyn Hotel”. (The much-derided Mel Gibson movie The Million Dollar Hotel is named for it.)

In its heyday, the Rosslyn competed for the custom of business travellers with the notorious Cecil a block to the south, but – like it – ended up in single room occupancy, better-known as a flophouse. Back in 2001, the LA Times ran a feature about drunks and crackheads and junkies and dealers who lived, did business and overdosed there. But now it’s been cleaned out and converted into lofts and is marketed at young professionals who want to live in this “vibrant urban area”.

They are all lofts in LA. They might be in the roof space, where lofts are traditionally found, but might just as well be in the basement. Every flat on every floor of a twenty-storey building is a loft, and you might think that is wrong on so many levels.

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The Pacific Electric Building along the street opened in 1905 as offices and a gentlemen’s club, before that meant strippers and lap dancers. The Pacific Electric Railway had a terminus at ground floor level, and there are still “Danger” signs from when you had to look out for trains. But now it’s the Pacific Electric Lofts.

There are coffee shops where you can get a cappuccino with your choice of beans and milk and sit and drink it among digital nomads with beards and full-sleeve tattoos; there is a deli selling superfood salads, craft beers and quinoa.

Yet, drop one street, and there is no sign at all of gentrification: just discount stores and empty units. East of that, every pavement is lined with tents and old sleeping bags laid out on cardboard and litter and old shopping trolleys, and several thousand homeless people, many disabled, sitting in wheelchairs or hobbling on crutches, many obviously mentally ill. It is not somewhere to linger, or go anywhere near at night.

© Richard Senior 2016

At the Movies in LA

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All of LA’s a set and all the men and women in it merely actors.

Everything seems a cliché from the movies. The pap-pa-pap-pap of impatient drivers. The apocalyptic howl of the siren on a ladder truck. The Harpo Marx horn on the fire truck behind it. The cops congregating in the coffee shop. Their angular black and white cars with chirping sirens and “To protect and to serve” on the doors.

There is, in the hills, the establishing shot from numberless movies – the stock symbol of the movie business – a seventies replica of a twenties advert for a housing development: forty-five foot letters erratically spaced to spell HO LLY W OOD.

‘Hollywood’ is an anachronistic shorthand now, like ‘Fleet Street’ for the London press. Of the old majors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, roughly between Warner’s The Jazz Singer in 1927 and Universal’s The Birds in 1963, only Paramount remains. The rest of what is now the Big Six long ago moved out into Los Angeles County.

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Hollywood Boulevard has the much-photographed, much-parodied Walk of Fame with its 2,500 pink stars embossed with the names of the biggest stars in this city of stars; it has Grauman’s Chinese Theater with the hand and footprints of more big stars, and the Dolby Theater where another constellation of stars assembles each year for the Oscars. But it soon fades to the west into soulless suburbia and to the east into discount stores and beyond to Thai Town and Little Armenia. Drop two blocks south and you are on the legendary Sunset Boulevard, but east of the Strip, it is a characterless stretch of gas stations and orthodontists.

Universal Studios is not technically in LA, because it stands on a 415 acre plot of unincorporated land within the city boundary. Los Angeles firemen have access to it but Los Angeles taxmen do not. It is part working studio, part theme park, and all tourist trap. But it is as good a way as any to pass an afternoon in LA, if you check your pretensions in at the door.

A tram takes you through generic sets which you have seen in dozens of movies: a Wild West town, a Mexican village, the business district of every city in the world with skyscrapers which stop at third floor level and a square of townhouses which can be anywhere from eighteenth century Vienna to Hell’s Kitchen last week. It passes through the sets of War of the Worlds, with a real Jumbo Jet chopped into pieces among ruined houses, Jaws, where ‘Bruce’ the mechanical shark breaks out of the water as the tram approaches, and Psycho where an actor dressed as Norman Bates dumps Marion’s body in the trunk of the Ford and stumps towards you with a knife.

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There is a simulated flash flood and a simulated earthquake, in which the tram shakes and everything around it disintegrates; there is a collection of cars from the movies, a demonstration of special effects, a room of memorabilia, and movie-themed roller coasters.

It is crassly commercial, of course; it is as cheesy as a family-sized quattro formaggi pizza. But you can hardly attack it for that. Might as well attack an elephant for being big and having a trunk.

© Richard Senior 2015