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DOWNTOWN LIKE NEVER BEFORE | The Eye by Barbara King

Wonder awaits you

A vibrant, seductive city is begging to be rediscovered.

October 16, 2003|Barbara King

I moved to Los Angeles without benefit of preparation, because I'd been offered a magazine job that I hadn't been looking for and that I surprised myself by accepting. The offices were in the mid-Wilshire area, and I naturally assumed I was in the heart of the city. It didn't occur to me until a month or two into my work life there that this was a pretty lame excuse for a downtown, this ill-defined, impossibly bleak strip of undistinguished buildings.

Well, it was L.A., I reminded myself, not New York, it wasn't supposed to have a dynamic center; leave the glory of skyscrapers to the East Coast. We had mountain ranges, ocean air, big waves, boulevards of palms. Rodeo Drive. Who needed a real city?

For almost a year, I'm shamefaced to let you know, I thought I had seen downtown, although I couldn't figure out where, exactly, all those artists' lofts I'd heard about could be. Then, on a late afternoon in late December, I started driving on 3rd Street toward Broadway. I'm glad, now, that I was a total innocent, or to be more precise, a total ignoramus, glad that no one had described the skyline to me. Because when it appeared with such suddenness -- and such looming, portentous magnificence -- I nearly lifted off.

Storm clouds of deep slate and voluptuous proportions swallowed up the immediate sky, creating a theatrical backdrop to the engulfing skyscrapers: An amber glow spilled with eerie luminosity over one of them. I heard myself gasp, and exclaim, and then start talking out loud: "I can't believe this, how could I not have known?"

And how to describe the sensation? A little like those dreams you have when you're walking around in an ordinary, maybe puny landscape, or you're in a tight, narrow, dreary space, and you go up a hill or turn a corner or walk through a door, and there, without warning, is this magical, sparkling kingdom, expansive and full of every unrealized possibility. (How could you not have known?) A little Spielbergian too, like riding your bike across the moon, toward home.

After a high-drama introduction of that sort, it would be hard to convince me that we're not in possession of one of the great cityscapes in the whole country. Even when I lived in New York, I didn't experience the skyline with quite that kind of thrill, maybe because I knew what to expect. Our downtown is an overlooked wonder.

Some of the best architecture in Southern California is here. Just drive slowly, walk around, look closely at City Hall, St. Vibiana's Cathedral, Union Station, the Mayan Theater, the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, the Continental Building (pictured on the section's cover).

Go from neighborhood to neighborhood, see how different they feel, how the mood changes every few blocks, from fast-paced to slow, exuberant to doleful, all-work to all-play, Asian to Latino to international. Stop in at the Figueroa Bar, eat oysters at the Water Grill. Go to the roof of the Standard Hotel at night and look down at the street action, all around at the illuminated floors of the apartments and lofts. Go to the Flower Market, the Fashion District; buy what the hip designers buy. Get into it.

You won't love everything about it. You can't. I don't either. But you'll be just as surprised as I was at what you discover, even though you already knew there was a downtown, and it wasn't mid-Wilshire -- and even though you've been there before. Because this is downtown like never before.

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Barbara King is the editor of the Home section. She can be reached at barbara.king@latimes.com.

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