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Stalled gentrification makes for a more authentic downtown L.A., critic says

August 8, 2010 |  6:14 pm

Bottega Louie

Usually the trajectory that neighborhoods go through as they gentrify is entirely predictable -- and more than a little depressing. First a scruffy, down-at-the-heels area welcomes a few urban pioneers drawn by an attractive and affordable housing stock. Then come the first businesses catering to those early arrivals: sneaker shops, a hole-in-the-wall coffee place or spiffed-up dive bar. Then come the piggy-back establishments and a second wave of residents, perhaps somewhat less hardy than the first. Then comes the frozen yogurt place. Then comes Starbucks and Banana Republic and the fat lady, singing.

You know that story well, I'm sure, though there can be slight, colorful regional variations in the process. (Around the High Line elevated park in New York's Meatpacking District, the butchers and the transvestites were followed, as gentrification intensified, by the high-end pet stores, which were followed by the starchitect-designed condo towers.) What doesn't typically change, though, is how inevitable the process can seem. Once the train of gentrification gets moving, a kind of economic gravity takes over and the train rolls unstoppably downhill.

Downtown Los Angeles seemed in the last three or four years to be headed down that track, and fast. The residential population nearly tripled from 2000 to 2008. Restaurants, bars and even a grocery store opened. USA Today -- a leading journal, you might say, of the gentrified -- was moved earlier this year to describe the neighborhood as "a once-abandoned, ignored and decaying downtown that's now a hip and trendy hangout."

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Cheesecake Factory.

When the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008, taking the housing market along with it, the results, at least for many fledgling businesses downtown, were brutal. And yet the economic collapse has also managed to freeze downtown's transformation from sleepy to energized -- and freeze it at a particularly appealing spot.

Read Times Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne's full essay here.

Photo: Bottega Louie, a restaurant and gourmet market in downtown Los Angeles. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles Times / April 21, 2009)