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DOWNTOWN LIKE NEVER BEFORE | PERSPECTIVE

They were here first

Loft-dwellers since the '70s, artists and their visions shaped the urban revolution of today.

October 16, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Though the artist known as Gronk has lived in the same funky, baroquely attired Spring Street loft for the last 14 years, you could say that he is really, at heart, a street person. You're just as likely to find him pounding the downtown pavement in his red Converse high-tops -- browsing the mom-and-pop tiendas along Broadway, eyeing a fluorescent slice of pie at Clifton's Cafeteria, or hopping the Gold Line train from Chinatown to the Pasadena Trader Joe's, where he's careful not to buy more than he can carry home in one trip.

"That's one of the ways you learn to survive down here, is shopping for 15 items or less," says Gronk, a painter, set designer and conceptual performance artist who has collaborated with the likes of director Peter Sellars and the Kronos Quartet, and whose richly enigmatic, neo-expressionist paintings and prints fetch hefty prices.

Since the late 1970s, when a few intrepid souls with more creative zeal than cash flow began rehabbing abandoned warehouses into live-work spaces, artists like Gronk have formed the backbone of residential downtown Los Angeles. For decades they've put up with the area's inconveniences (no supermarkets, spotty public transportation, skanky sidewalks) in exchange for being able to tap its freewheeling and dynamic ambience.

From the Brewery arts colony northeast of Chinatown to the Staples Center and beyond, artists have brought creative vision to L.A.'s central core, which many middle-class Angelenos gave up on generations ago. To Gronk, downtown remains the heart of L.A., and "the heart of L.A. is 7th and Broadway," a neighborhood that's constantly being re-imagined and remade by those who make their homes there.

"It takes a certain kind of person to be here, I think," Gronk says. "Sometimes people who come here want to make significant changes overnight, and like anything else, it's a process."

While downtown's heyday as a low-budget mecca for artists may be over, the reverse-migration movement that they started in the '70s and '80s is gaining speed: The recent surge in loft-conversion and residential construction projects that already has brought thousands of new residents to downtown coincides with this month's official opening of the $274-million Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. Finally, downtown may be ready to emerge as a bona fide, full-service neighborhood, as well as the region's premier cultural hub.

As a result, artists like Gronk increasingly find themselves living side by side with a variety of newcomers. Besides actors, playwrights, painters and musicians, downtown is home to lawyers, emergency medical technicians, architecture students, film industry professionals and Orange County empty nesters. "You tend to notice the recent arrivals because they're usually wearing flip-flops and they're walking a dog," Gronk says with a chuckle.

John Belluso, a playwright ("The Body of Bourne") and director of the Mark Taper Forum's Other Voices program for disabled artists, has lived in the Promenade Towers at the edge of Bunker Hill since moving here from New York City about three years ago. He loves being close to the Taper and the Byzantine-Egyptian Central Library, where he often goes to read. The city's tumultuous atmosphere energizes his work.

"Sometimes I go out on my patio with my laptop and do some writing there," he says. "Then I oftentimes will go ... [to] the Marriott. I go to the restaurant or sit with my PowerBook in the lobby. It's definitely the company of other people that inspires me more than solitude. I'll never be a nature poet."

Elizabeth Cook-Shen, a horn player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has lived downtown since moving here from Houston in 1995. She and her husband, a classical conductor, reside in a two-bedroom apartment in Bunker Hill Towers, with a front-row view of Gehry's curvilinear structure. A number of her Philharmonic colleagues live in the same building.

"I originally moved downtown because I didn't know anything about Los Angeles, and I thought it would be a good place to get to know the area and the highways," she says. "I ended up loving it down here so I just never wanted to move away."

Not surprisingly, Cook-Shen appreciates her home's close proximity to her place of employment. Once, the elevator in her building wasn't working and she had to run down 28 flights of stairs to get to a rehearsal at the Music Center. "I was almost late, but I made it."

But she also likes being able to pop out to Sushi Boy or Koo Koo Roo for takeout, going for walks in nearby Echo Park, and the boon of not having to commute on weekdays so that she and her husband can explore other parts of L.A. on weekends without begrudging the drive time. "When you live downtown you can just look out your window when you're bored and see people doing stuff," she says. "One day I looked out my window and saw Jennifer Lopez filming a video."

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