Orient Express

Once sleepy, now hot, L.A.’s Chinatown strives for a balance between newfound prosperity and artistic soul. Alexandria Abramian-Mott reports on a neighborhood influx.

Richard Liu

Richard Liu in his home accessories store, Realm.

Lisa Romerein

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The plot is as predictable as a Hollywood script: Artists discover an almost-forgotten neighborhood, chic boutiques and bistros move in, developers get wind of the action, and then the artists are priced out.

Los Angeles' Chinatown seems to provide the ultimate backdrop for this gentrification story line. A 24-block enclave between downtown L.A. and Dodger Stadium, it was once a playground for movie stars and locals. A fleeting punk scene brought a burst of energy in the '70s, but by the '80s the community had started to wither. By 1998, its streets in need of a facelift, it was the perfect place for artists Roger Herman and Hubert Schmalix to open a gallery in a former kung fu studio.

Cut to seven years later, and Chinatown has morphed from an area littered with FOR LEASE signs into something approaching official hot-spot status. More than 20 galleries coexist with a handful of nightclubs, boutiques, bookstores, and cafes. The Metro Gold Line's Chinatown Station opened two years ago; bulldozers are poised to raze Little Joe's Italian restaurant (one of the area's more important, if improbable, icons) to make way for a mixed-use development; and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino will reopen the classic King Hing Theater by year-end.


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