While Bunker Hill, with its many skyscrapers, is synonymous with downtown Los Angeles for many people, downtown is really a diverse collection of neighborhoods. Little Tokyo and New Chinatown join El Pueblo de Los Angeles in celebrating LA’s historic past while the Civic Center, Financial District, Jewelry District and Fashion District focus more on contemporary business and political life. There are many reasons to visit Downtown LA, where you will find both historic and contemporary architecture, even if you don’t have business you need to do there.
The Grand Avenue Project
A lot has happened to revive downtown Los Angeles in the last few years and one on-going effort is the Grand Avenue Project being built on Grand Avenue next to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It is designed to give LA a thriving city center comparable to the Champs-Élysées in Paris or Central Park in New York.
Developers have hundreds of projects—some still in planning stages, others complete—from concert halls to condos that should put an end the image of Los Angeles as a rudderless megalopolis with a rotten core.
The Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall—the fourth hall of the Los Angeles Music Center—opened in 2003. The building features Gehry’s trademark steel cladding —this time on polished concave surfaces that acted like parabolic mirrors to overheat nearby buildings and streets. Additional expense was incurred in the already expensive project to resolve the problem. A uniquely designed concert organ along with widely praised acoustics contribute to the popularity of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Tours are available to visitors daily as performance schedules permit.
Los Angeles Civic Center and City Hall
LA’s Civic Center is home to the Daily Planet from The Adventures of Superman. Or maybe you recognize it from the TV series Dragnet or as one of the Martians’ targets in War of the Worlds. I’m referring to Los Angeles City Hall which was completed in 1928 and designed by John Parkinson and Albert C. Martin. City Hall was the tallest building in Los Angeles until 1964 when other buildings were finally permitted to be built taller.
Sand from each of California’s 58 counties and water from each of its 21 missions was included in the concrete used to construct the tower. Damage in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake was repaired in a major renovation and seismic retrofit project from 1998-2001. As part of the renovation the Charles Lindbergh Beacon was recovered, restored and replaced atop the building.
Bunker Hill Financial District
Bunker Hill is the site of several skyscrapers that dwarf City Hall. First developed with lavish Victorian houses in the late 1800’s by Prudent Beaudry, Bunker Hill became known as a neighborhood of upper-class, educated Los Angeles residents. When the wealthy moved to the suburbs in the 1920s and ’30s they left a funky neighborhood of ramshackle mansions above a gritty downtown until the whole area was bulldozed in the 1950s for high-rise construction as Bunker Hill was transformed from residential neighborhood to Financial District.
Angels Flight Railway
Angels Flight—“The World’s Shortest Railway”—was built to improve access from Bunker Hill to the main business district down a steep grade. Built in 1901 by Col. J.W. Eddy and originally known as “The Los Angeles Incline Railway” it was dismantled in the 1960’s to make way for redevelopment. Angels Flight was being reconstructed and was scheduled to reopen as early as 2006 but a fatal accident in 2001 shut the system down. It did finally reopened on March 15, 2010.
Two specially designed railcars named Olivet and Sinai are counter-balanced and stair stepped to let riders stand or sit level. They pass each other on the double rail section as one goes up while the other goes down. When Angles Flight first opened rides—which take about a minute—cost just one cent each.
Two 1965 movies—Angel’s Flight and Kiss Me Deadly—were filmed on Bunker Hill as was another film, The Exiles in 1961.
Biltmore Hotel and Pershing Square
Playing host to the Academy Awards, Hollywood stars, kings, queens and presidents the palatial 1923 Spanish-Italian Renaissance design Millennium Biltmore Hotel overlooks Pershing Square—the city’s oldest public park. Los Angeles most famous hotel has 683 guest rooms including 56 suites. A $40 million 1987 renovation is responsible for its current 24-stories of red brick and cream-colored masonry with terra cotta tile roof. J.F.K.’s 1960 presidential campaign headquarters were in the lobby which you might recognize from The Poseidon Adventure, except that it was upside-down. Other movies the Biltmore appeared in are Chinatown, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and A Star Is Born.
The Pershing Square Red Line Metro Station provides easy access to the Millennium Biltmore Hotel and to the nearby Los Angeles Jewelry District.
Los Angeles Jewelry District
Known for wholesale prices on watches, precious gems and all types of fine jewelry the Los Angeles Jewelry District attracts millions of visitors a year to downtown. One of the largest jewelry districts in the world, over 14,000 people, including nearly 5,000 jewelers work here. There are several historic theatres downtown that have been put to new uses. Warner Brothers downtown—to the left and at the top of the page, 1919 by B. Marcus Priteca—is now a place to view sparkling gems rather than cinematic stars.
Shops specializing in loose stones, diamonds, pearls, sterling silver, gold, watches and precious gems at 40-80% discount from retail can be found throughout the district.
St. Vincent Jewelry Center is the oldest large center. It opened in 1983 at 640 S. Hill Street which is now a Los Angeles historical landmark. St. Vincent Court—an old alleyway transformed into a pedestrian mall with building facades meant to evoke a Parisian streetscape—is a good place to have lunch.
Not all Jewelry District buildings are in large historic buildings like St. Vincent Jewelry Center. There are many individual shops and other large centers including Pacific Center, the California Jewelry Mart, Los Angeles Jewelry Mart and International Jewelry Center.
The shopping action doesn’t really get going before 11:00 a.m. in LA’s Jewelry District and most shops close at 5:00 p.m.
Los Angeles Fashion District
The area known since the 1930s as the Garment District has been renamed the Los Angeles Fashion District. Spanning 90 blocks and including wholesale, retail, textiles and notions and flowers LA’s Fashion District is the hub of the apparel industry on the West Coast.
80% of the LA Fashion District is comprised of wholesale-related businesses which do over $7 billion worth of business a year. A bargain hunters paradise, independent retail stores are also an important part of the LA Fashion District. More than 200 textile stores sell fabric, trim and beading for apparel, home decor and crafts at wholesale or retail.
Many wholesale-only stores sell to the general public on Saturdays. While only about 30% of all stores in the district are open on Sundays, Santee Alley and some nearby stores are open 365 days a year.
Los Angeles Flower Market
The LA Flower Market—largest flower market in the U.S.—is centered along Wall Street between 7th and 8th Streets. More stores can be found on 8th Street between Wall and San Pedro. Both wholesale and retail plant and flower vendors are represented.