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.
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.
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