Contemporary buildings and traditional haunts in downtown Los Angeles

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

This is a Sunday to be outside. But downtown, a few thousand people are doing the unthinkable: heading indoors. At the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the faithful and curious alike are drawn by the dramatic contemporary design, from delicate, playful angel sconces to fresco-styled tapestries that run the length of the soaring nave, all illuminated by light filtered through alabaster windows.

A block away, along Grand Avenue, the gleaming stainless steel panels of the Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex seem to fade directly into the high blue sky. There are two indoor venues at the complex, which in less than a year has already become one of the world’s most recognizable buildings. The crowd arriving for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performance of musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s composition “Wing On Wing” is for the most part properly proper, with a fair number of business suits and long gowns, even for the matinee. They will enter a hall of surpassing beauty, with walls of Douglas fir that flow as elegantly as the lines of a fine instrument, a space as soulful in its way as the cathedral’s nave.

The other performance space is REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), an intimate 250-seat venue created for experimental theater and less traditional events, such as today’s Charles Phoenix Variety Show. Its crowd is partial to a retro hipster look, with all sorts of vintage rayon shirts featuring martini, tiki, and palm-tree motifs.

Phoenix comes onto the stage in a bright turquoise cosmic-cowboy outfit with crystal rhinestones and embroidered roses. He dishes up commentary on a series of vacation photos and movies—other people’s vacation photos and movies—that he has found at flea markets, thrift stores, and garage sales. It’s part reality television, part variety show, and, with Phoenix preparing an ambrosia salad for the audience to eat at intermission, part performance art and part Tupperware party too.

Phoenix, who is the author of Southern Californialand, a look back at the region in the midcentury, is an unabashed advocate for all things L.A. At least most things. While he considers Walt Disney Concert Hall “a unique, bizarre, break-all-the-rules kind of building,” the cathedral’s sand-blasted cast-concrete walls, designed to evoke the adobe color of California’s original missions, leave him baffled.

“I think it’s supposed to be something super special, but to me it looks like plywood,” Phoenix says. “For 500 years, we’re going to be a city waiting for a giant stucco gun to arrive to cover all that plywood.”

Phoenix gravitates to the survivors of earlier eras along downtown’s historic main drag, Broadway. Gems range from the light-filled atrium and ornamental ironwork of the 1893 Bradbury Building to Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria, a themed eatery from the 1930s with columns camouflaged as redwoods, a waterfall, and even a tiny stone chapel.

Broadway is a few blocks distant but worlds away from the cultural corridor along Grand Avenue. For me, Broadway has always been a place to connect to the city’s past and to experience a Los Angeles far removed from its reputation for the gaudy and glitzy.

Gritty but vital, Broadway is a bustling commercial district that belies the long-standing truism that nobody walks in L.A. It is said to be the largest Latino shopping area in the country, and a steady soundtrack pours from the thumping and crackling speakers in front of the street’s many discotecas. Clothing-store windows are filled with flouncy quinceañera dresses, while botanicas display folk remedies and statues of saints. It’s a street where hope and despair readily mix. For some, Broadway is part of an upward journey; for others, this is where they have bottomed out.

As Los Angeles boomed in the 1920s, Broadway became the focus of urban life here. It’s home to a dozen classic theaters that compose the largest concentration of historic movie palaces in the country. At the United Artists Theatre, which now hosts church services, a mural on one side of the auditorium shows silent-film star Mary Pickford fleeing four demonlike figures said to represent the heads of major studios. The mural on the other side depicts her standing triumphant atop the globe, symbolizing her escape and the founding of her own studio, United Artists. Opened in 1926, the Orpheum Theatre hosted entertainers from Judy Garland to Aretha Franklin; it has been beautifully restored and is now used for musicals and special events. And the Los Angeles Theatre, built as a dreamy escape during the Great Depression, is considered, in a city of grand theaters, the most ornate.

For Phoenix, the theaters are part of a local architectural tradition that the city can tap into rather than searching for answers from other cities. He has little patience with current talk of turning Grand Avenue into a Champs-Elysées or Rockefeller Center for Los Angeles. “Even after all these years,” he says, “many people don’t want to acknowledge that Los Angeles can draw inspiration from itself. They’re quick to say there’s no real history. Well, you know the movies have been around almost 100 years and are a strong influence on the city. Fantasy environments are a huge part of L.A. That’s just the way it is.”

Today, many of the theaters have been converted to less glamorous uses, such as housing swap meets, while others are only open for special events or tours. But numerous vintage buildings—together they make up one of the largest intact districts of Beaux-Arts structures in the country—are being transformed into loftlike living spaces for people who actually want to live downtown. (Ironically, decades of neglect had their benefits, notes Michael Tansey, now a general partner with the real estate development firm Peterson & Tansey. “These buildings were sitting fallow just waiting for the world to catch up to them,” he says. “There wasn’t a use for the land, so there wasn’t even a reason to tear them down.”) Meanwhile, just to the north, another classic 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 present meet, no place blends the two quite so evocatively as the 1917 Grand Central Market, an ever-busy collection of food stands that draws hungry office workers and grocery shoppers alike. My grandparents used to shop here back in the 1950s, and I come to walk the same sawdust-covered floors and soak up an atmosphere that is about as close as you will find in the United States to the great markets of Mexico. There are stacks of mangoes and piles of nopales, baskets of dried chiles and vats of mole paste. Live blue crabs stumble around piles of ice, and fish heads bound for the evening’s stew stare vacantly from glass cases. It’s an amazing scene, real in a way that L.A. supposedly isn’t, a reminder that this city is more than just vivid surfaces, and that in a place famous for caring only about the next new thing, some traditions run deep.

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