Charles Siskin: Historic Downtown Los Angeles

Saturday, November 19, 2016 - by Charles Siskin

It’s a Sunday afternoon in October and I’m hanging with my cousins in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. There is music and dancing and food trucks and plenty of sun casting a warm glow on a very lively Southern California scene. 

I’d come out to the West Coast for a family week end and after spending two days in Topanga Canyon, part of the Santa Monica Mountains, I’d come to downtown LA to catch up with all the drama of the Renaissance that has taken a seedy mostly avoided area of Los Angeles and turned it into a very lively scene thanks to the “Millenniums” who have discovered a city filled with art deco buildings, wonderful new restaurants and warm hospitality.

I was being guided by my cousins whose enthusiasm for the area made the whole scene a complete blast. They were totally “spot on” with firsthand knowledge of what to see and where to go. As my grandchildren might say, “They were the funiest!” So leaving Pershing Square, which incidentally was within walking distance of my Airbnb, we headed over to Grand Central Market on West 3rd Street.

Eye popping and where you got a sense of who the real Angelinos are. The ethnic makeup of this sprawling city, nation’s second largest, is found in the labyrinth of food stalls and exotic produce and the multitude of languages spoken at Grand Central. This is the place where I had my first introduction to the Egg Slut. It’s a food stall and has nothing to do with the morals of the chicken. 
As for the chicken it shows up in one of their clever sandwiches. Oh and this slut happens to be their cage-free coddled egg which is poached in a glass jar. There is also an abundance of Mexican inspired stalls, Italian options and foods from Asia and Africa. The oyster bar was jammed.

After scoffing down a perfectly char-crusted pizza with traditional cheese and tomatoes, I followed my guides over to the Bradbury Building. To call its interior breathtaking would not do it justice. In addition to the filigree cast iron that encases the elevator and the stairways, there is this five story skylight that is seriously mind-blowing.
Built in 1893 by Lewis Bradbury, who made his millions in mining, the building was designed by George Wyman. While the outside does not give any indication of what lies inside, the façade is brown brick and sandstone terracotta, it’s the splendid lobby that will make it a worthwhile stop on any tour of downtown.
From there we headed to Perch, a watering hole with dynamite views from its “13th floor” perch. Well actually there is a floor below where diners can have spectacular views of the city as well. Up on 13 it is mostly a drinking scene for those young Millenniums; a high in the sky Meet and Greet rendezvous.  While I appreciated being part of the scene, I forgot to tell my tour guides that I have a giant fear of heights. I’m the male counterpart to Kim Novak in “Vertigo”. 

The next day I started out early because I was meeting a close friend for lunch and I wanted to have enough time to make my way to Union Station. It is an icon for Los Angeles and a perfect example of art deco design as well as Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival architecture.

I boarded the subway, yes; there really is a subway in the land of automobile gridlock. I should note that from where I boarded it only went two stops to Union Station, and heartbreak alert, not out to the airport.  I did take their DASH bus service back to my origination point and realized I could have walked to the station.  It reinforced the fact that I had chosen a central location for my overnight stay and that downtown was very navigable by foot.

Known as the last great railway station built in the United States, Union Station was placed on the National Historic Register in 1980. While the mosaic tile flooring and vaulted ceilings in the main terminal are reason enough to visit, I was enthralled by the oversized Mid-Century upholstered wood chairs that begged passengers and tourists alike to please sit down and enjoy the surroundings.

There is an outside garden complete with a mosaic tiled fountain on one side of the main terminal also worth exploring. Or just stand outside of the main building itself and consider, if you are old enough or a movie buff, the number of movies that used that entrance in the 40’s and 50’s. To me to this day it symbolizes and is the personification of the real “Los Angeles” not the glittery hi-rises that dot the landscape today. 

Across the street from the station is Olivera Street and Paseo de la Plaza. I was there prior to the famous Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos)  All the stalls along this narrow strip of land were featuring appropriate clothing and masks to mark the holiday. Had I walked a little further I would have been in front of the Chinatown Gate and in another direction I’d have been in Little Tokyo. It’s the diversity of this city, as I said previously, that makes it so appealing.

Another must see in the Historic District is Clifton’s Cafeteria. A cafeteria you ask? Hardly. This puppy embodies the golden age of Hollywood style cafeterias with its art deco soda fountain in a forest themed environment. Clifton’s was several years ahead of Disneyland with its concept and a must see for anyone who values kitsch. Footnote: Clifton’s is the world’s largest public cafeteria after sharing lunch with our dear family friend it was time to head out to the airport. I had taken time while at the train station to inquire from one of the the red coated transit personnel, an immensely helpful gentleman as was everyone I spoke to during my visit, how to manipulate the Los Angeles transit system should I ever decide to take it to the airport? Don’t he answered!

Instead I grabbed an Uber ride which got me there in record time for a mere $9.00.

Airbnb, Uber and Roku are new words now ensconced not just in my vocabulary but several on my cell phone. The first two are worthwhile ways to travel and the third a new way to view television. Los Angeles Historic Downtown, ensconced in my memory. The best.


Where to stay 

There are well known hotel brands downtown but maybe it was luck or the help of family choosing West 3rd to 6th Street near Pershing Square Park if you consider Airbnb

Also I chose a price range, while not much cheaper than a hotel, that put me into a more upscale arena. I got a loft with a full kitchen, separate bedroom and private bath and my first introduction to Roku. 

Where to go

Grand Central Market on Broadway between West 4th and 3rd Street
Bradbury Building  304 South Broadway
Perch 418 South Hill Street
Union Station Alameda Street
Clifton’s Cafeteria W 7th Street


Go to
Download or request a Dash Downtown Los Angeles information booklet 
It’s “Places to Go” Section list numerous sites and inside there is a map showing the locations of these places along with the type of transportation to reach them.

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