Contemporary buildings and traditional haunts in downtown Los Angeles

It's one of those perfect afternoons in Los Angeles - themorning fog has cleared, a light breeze blows off the ocean, andthe temperature drifts into the mid-70s. The freeways are movingand the city is wide open, there for the taking.

This is a Sunday to be outside. But downtown, a few thousandpeople are doing the unthinkable: heading indoors. At the Cathedralof Our Lady of the Angels, the faithful and curious alike are drawnby the dramatic contemporary design, from delicate, playful angelsconces to fresco-styled tapestries that run the length of thesoaring nave, all illuminated by light filtered through alabasterwindows.

A block away, along Grand Avenue, the gleaming stainless steelpanels of the Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex seem to fadedirectly into the high blue sky. There are two indoor venues at thecomplex, which in less than a year has already become one of theworld's most recognizable buildings. The crowd arriving for the LosAngeles Philharmonic's performance of musical director Esa-PekkaSalonen's composition "Wing On Wing" is for the most part properlyproper, with a fair number of business suits and long gowns, evenfor the matinee. They will enter a hall of surpassing beauty, withwalls of Douglas fir that flow as elegantly as the lines of a fineinstrument, a space as soulful in its way as the cathedral'snave.

The other performance space is REDCAT (Roy and EdnaDisney/CalArts Theater), an intimate 250-seat venue created forexperimental theater and less traditional events, such as today'sCharles Phoenix Variety Show. Its crowd is partial to a retrohipster look, with all sorts of vintage rayon shirts featuringmartini, tiki, and palm-tree motifs.

Phoenix comes onto the stage in a bright turquoise cosmic-cowboyoutfit with crystal rhinestones and embroidered roses. He dishes upcommentary on a series of vacation photos and movies - otherpeople's vacation photos and movies- that he has found at fleamarkets, thrift stores, and garage sales. It's part realitytelevision, part variety show, and, with Phoenix preparing anambrosia salad for the audience to eat at intermission, partperformance art and part Tupperware party too.

Phoenix, who is the author of Southern Californialand, a look back at the region in themidcentury, is an unabashed advocate for all things L.A. At leastmost things. While he considers Walt Disney Concert Hall "a unique,bizarre, break-all-the-rules kind of building," the cathedral'ssand-blasted cast-concrete walls, designed to evoke the adobe colorof California's original missions, leave him baffled.

"I think it's supposed to be something super special, but to meit looks like plywood," Phoenix says. "For 500 years, we're goingto be a city waiting for a giant stucco gun to arrive to cover allthat plywood."

Phoenix gravitates to the survivors of earlier eras alongdowntown's historic main drag, Broadway. Gems range from thelight-filled atrium and ornamental ironwork of the 1893 BradburyBuilding to Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria, a themed eatery from the1930s with columns camouflaged as redwoods, a waterfall, and even atiny stone chapel.

Broadway is a few blocks distant but worlds away from thecultural corridor along Grand Avenue. For me, Broadway has alwaysbeen a place to connect to the city's past and to experience a LosAngeles far removed from its reputation for the gaudy andglitzy.

Gritty but vital, Broadway is a bustling commercial districtthat belies the long-standing truism that nobody walks in L.A. Itis said to be the largest Latino shopping area in the country, anda steady soundtrack pours from the thumping and crackling speakersin front of the street's many discotecas. Clothing-store windowsare filled with flouncy quinceañera dresses, while botanicasdisplay folk remedies and statues of saints. It's a street wherehope and despair readily mix. For some, Broadway is part of anupward journey; for others, this is where they have bottomedout.

As Los Angeles boomed in the 1920s, Broadway became the focus ofurban life here. It's home to a dozen classic theaters that composethe largest concentration of historic movie palaces in the country.At the United Artists Theatre, which now hosts church services, amural on one side of the auditorium shows silent-film star MaryPickford fleeing four demonlike figures said to represent the headsof major studios. The mural on the other side depicts her standingtriumphant atop the globe, symbolizing her escape and the foundingof her own studio, United Artists. Opened in 1926, the OrpheumTheatre hosted entertainers from Judy Garland to Aretha Franklin;it has been beautifully restored and is now used for musicals andspecial events. And the Los Angeles Theatre, built as a dreamyescape during the Great Depression, is considered, in a city ofgrand theaters, the most ornate.

For Phoenix, the theaters are part of a local architecturaltradition that the city can tap into rather than searching foranswers from other cities. He has little patience with current talkof turning Grand Avenue into a Champs-Elysées or RockefellerCenter for Los Angeles. "Even after all these years," he says,"many people don't want to acknowledge that Los Angeles can drawinspiration from itself. They're quick to say there's no realhistory. Well, you know the movies have been around almost 100years and are a strong influence on the city. Fantasy environmentsare a huge part of L.A. That's just the way it is."

Today, many of the theaters have been converted to lessglamorous uses, such as housing swap meets, while others are onlyopen for special events or tours. But numerous vintage buildings -together they make up one of the largest intact districts ofBeaux-Arts structures in the country- are being transformed intoloftlike living spaces for people who actually want to livedowntown. (Ironically, decades of neglect had their benefits, notesMichael Tansey, now a general partner with the real estatedevelopment firm Peterson & Tansey. "These buildings weresitting fallow just waiting for the world to catch up to them," hesays. "There wasn't a use for the land, so there wasn't even areason to tear them down.") Meanwhile, just to the north, anotherclassic but long-neglected Los Angeles district, L.A.'s Chinatown,has found new life as a center for cutting-edge art.

Still, of all the places where Los Angeles past and presentmeet, no place blends the two quite so evocatively as the 1917Grand Central Market, an ever-busy collection of food stands thatdraws hungry office workers and grocery shoppers alike. Mygrandparents used to shop here back in the 1950s, and I come towalk the same sawdust-covered floors and soak up an atmosphere thatis about as close as you will find in the United States to thegreat markets of Mexico. There are stacks of mangoes and piles ofnopales, baskets of dried chiles and vats of mole paste. Live bluecrabs stumble around piles of ice, and fish heads bound for theevening's stew stare vacantly from glass cases. It's an amazingscene, real in a way that L.A. supposedly isn't, a reminder thatthis city is more than just vivid surfaces, and that in a placefamous for caring only about the next new thing, some traditionsrun deep.

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