Los Angeles: Downtown is looking up again

After the golden Twenties came decline, but today the oldest neighbourhood in LA is thriving, says Edmund Vallance

On the rooftop bar of the newly opened Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, I'm deep in conversation with Jesus. "Cocktail?" he asks, with deadpan delivery. Without waiting for an answer, he reaches a hand into the folds of his flowing white robe to retrieve a black leather wallet.

Kevin Lee Light (otherwise known as Jesus of Hollywood) has been dressing as the Son of God since 2005. He was born here in the heart of Downtown – the oldest neighbourhood in LA – and is well versed in its noirish history. We talk about its Hollywood heyday in the Twenties and Thirties, when Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin filmed here; about the grimy, crime-ridden side of Downtown, which captured the imaginations of Raymond Chandler and James M Cain; and about its decline and virtual abandonment in the Sixties and Seventies.

"I had a loft space around the corner in the Eighties," he says. "I would climb down the fire escape onto the sidewalk at night, and I would be the only person on the street."

Looking at Downtown in 2014, it's hard to imagine that it was once a ghost town. The local newspaper lists no less than 97 building projects, including The Broad, a vast new contemporary art museum due to open early next year. There are also plans for a subway station in the Arts District, a streetcar on South Broadway's burgeoning shopping strip and a light rail linking the city to the beach.

And it's not just new developments: Grand Central Market, built in 1919, was lovingly refurbished last year, and many of the area's Beaux Arts and Art Deco buildings have been repurposed as loft apartments, restaurants and hotels. The Ace Hotel, where Jesus and I are busy swapping stories, is converted from the 13-storey former United Artists building, erected in 1927 by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

We've finished our drinks now, so it's time for Jesus and I to part company. There's a slightly awkward moment in the lift, when I can't think of anything to say. "How old you are?" I ask, attempting to break the silence. Jesus laughs quietly, as if at some private, cosmic joke. "Eternal," he says.

Unpack

Inspired by silent movie star Mary Pickford's impression of Segovia Cathedral in Spain, the Ace Hotel (001 213 623 3233; acehotel.com/losangeles) is a stunning piece of architecture in its own right, but it's the adjoining theatre that's the jewel in the crown. "We'd never seen another building like it," says Kelly Sawdon, the executive vice-president. "We were lucky that it was loved and taken care of for such a long time." Besides a busy music schedule (Spiritualized played here on 14 February) the Beaux Arts theatre will screen films later this year. Doubles start at $189 (£126), room only.

Think local

"Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town," wrote Raymond Chandler in 1942's The High Window. Bunker Hill is just one of the noir-related neighbourhoods that can be explored on Esotouric's (esotouric.com) literary tours of Downtown and its environs. Nowadays, skyscrapers are more in evidence, but low-lit Art Deco lobbies and narrow alleys still hark back to the dark world of Chandler's antihero Philip Marlowe. Choose between two half-day tours: "Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles" and "The Birth of Noir: James M Cain's Southern Californian Nightmare" ($58/£39pp).

Bunker Hill Bunker Hill Eat

Serving farm-to-table southern Californian cuisine, 28-year-old chef-proprietor Ari Taymor's Alma (001 213 244 1422; alma-la.com) is at the heart of Downtown's gourmet vanguard. What started as a pop-up in 2012 has swiftly become one of LA's most compelling success stories. "When we opened, there was nothing on this street. On some nights, nobody came," says Ari. But after a string of press accolades, including Bon Appetit magazine's "Best New Restaurant in America", that all changed. "When we came back last summer, we were immediately booked out for three months. It's pretty wild how this neighbourhood's changed – even in the last year," he says. The nine-course tasting menu is $95 (£63)pp.

Drink

Amid the glamour and gleam of Downtown's high-end development, it's easy to forget that the area is also home to some of the best dive bars on the planet. Take King Eddy Saloon (001 213 629 2023; kingeddysaloon.com). Refurbished earlier this year and decorated with murals of some of its most famous bar-proppers (John Fante and Charles Bukowski were regulars), this place has a lively clientele and a legendary jukebox. Talking over the pleasant din of Morrissey's "Suedehead", I ask Frank, a local patron, if he ever met Bukowski. "I used to drink with him right here, back in 1978. He was a phenomenal writer," says Frank. "And a total bozo."

Spend

"That's where Johnny Depp lives," says Jesus, pointing at a blue Art Deco monolith opposite the rooftop bar where we're standing. "Well, it's one of the places he lives." The edifice in question is the 1930 Eastern Columbia building. While the penthouse may be out of most people's price range, you can enjoy the recently opened Swedish clothing store Acne (001 213 243 0960; acnestudios.com), that occupies part of the street level space. And there's more to come: Brooklyn-based Kinfolk Studios (kinfolklife.com) recently announced the opening of a bar, gallery and event space in the basement.

The Museum of Contemporary Art The Museum of Contemporary Art Don't miss

"LA is in a sweet spot of cultural growth right now," enthuses Joanne Heyler, founding director of Downtown's latest work-in-progress, The Broad (001 310 399 4004; thebroad.org). Showcasing the contemporary art collection of billionaire philanthropists, Eli and Edythe Broad, the museum is slated to open in early 2015. Opposite is The Museum of Contemporary Art (001 213 626 6222; moca.org; $12/£8), now showing a retrospective of seminal American artist, Mike Kelly.

Travel essentials

Ge tting there

Edmund Vallance travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of American Airlines (0844 499 7300; aa.com). Flights from Heathrow start at £672.

Staying there

The writer was a guest of The Standard Hotel, Downtown Los Angeles, 550 S Flower Street (001 213 892 8080; standardhotels.com/downtown-la). Doubles start at $175 (£105), room only.

More information

discoverlosangeles.com

visitcalifornia.co.uk

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