Very few of the small businesses that have been a part of the historic streets of DTLA for decades are managing to keep up with the swift progress and change, and even those are modifying their businesses to accommodate the needs of a different type of foot traffic.
Seven years ago, a movement to bring business and give a facelift to the historic section of Downtown Los Angeles, or DTLA, began to take hold. The area had long been derelict — the streets smelled of urine, drug transactions were rampant and numerous homeless roamed the corners and alleys of long forgotten buildings.
South Broadway in DTLA is also known as the theater district, and for a good reason. Between the years of 1910 and 1931, 12 movie palaces were built within a six-block area. They hosted movie premieres and countless live acts, becoming a Hollywood before the city of Hollywood had its iconic title.
Post World War II, many DTLA residents began to make their way to the suburbs to take advantage of the GI bill that subsidized housing, leaving behind a burgeoning Latino community. The theaters began running Spanish-language movies and Latin music acts such as Dolores Del Rio and Celia Cruz performed in the theaters and kept the area very much alive.
As movie theaters became more centralized to suburban and outlying neighborhoods, the foot traffic diminished, all but killing the local commerce. What remained was a haven for the homeless and deeply embedded Latino-based stores – quinceañera shops, The Grand Market full of Hispanic delicacies and produce, jewelry stores and low-cost clothing and accessory stalls.
But the recent gentrification of Downtown Los Angeles has been swift and deadly to many Latino businesses. Rent increases have bounded skyward and many mom-and-pop shops have closed. A local favorite, Mai Mexican Kitchen, was forced out within 20 days of rent increase notice. In 2009, the small Mexican restaurant extended their hours to midnight to accommodate the growing bar scene, but despite all efforts the business failed. More recently, change has accelerated and they may well have increased business if they were presently open to take advantage of the ever-growing group of hipster partiers attracted to the gentrified pubs and new clubs.
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“All over, rent is too high now,” laments shop owner Francisco Cervantes. His rent is currently $3,100 and has increased by $400-500 every year for several years. He was informed it will continue to increase until his small retail space is $5,000 a month.
When asked what he intends on doing, he replied, “We can go to East L.A. or Huntington Park.” His response is nonchalant for someone who has to uproot his business, but the reasoning for his complacency becomes clear when he shrugs and says, “Grand Central Market was mostly Latino – you would go there and the fruit was cheap, and you would go home with four or five bags. Now only one or two. Now I get breakfast there and it’s $10, for lunch $15-20 per plate. Not like before.”
The Grand Market was a thriving produce and Latino foods haven, packed with shoppers throughout the day. Many of the stalls have been priced out and are quickly being replaced with creative, trendier food choices. You can still find the mole stand with six or seven moles on offer at a time, a massive counter of Mexican sweets, papusas, street tacos and some produce – but for how much longer is not clear.
Gemma Sonego manages Robert Reynolds Art Studio and Gallery on the ground floor of the Continental Building based in the DTLA historic core. “I have mixed feelings about the gentrification - I welcome it, but it comes with a huge amount of stupidity - they are forgetting about the history,” Sonego told Fox News Latino.
“There is a tsunami of restaurants and I have seen some of the market stalls shined up to keep up with changes and trying to find their new niche. But before places like the LA Café there was a taco stand run by a family. The lady who owned it had to shut down - her cooking was beloved and cheap,” she added.
But not all the businesses are at a loss – those that have morphed to fit the new street traffic have seen a rise in business.
“My rent goes up and so will my prices,” Gourmet L.A. Bakery owner, Guadalupe Martinez, told Fox News Latino. “People are coming in. In the evening they are young and like to drink. People come from San Bernardino, Alhambra, Whittier, all over. In the morning more than 1,000 people come in, because of word of mouth.”
Martinez began to open earlier to accommodate the new pre-work crowd and extended the bakery hours into the evening. Her Mexican-style cinnamon laced coffee is still only $1, but due to her rent increases, the cost will go up to $3 and the pastry costs will also increase - which she feels will be hard on the Latino clientele she’s had for years.
The LA Arts District saddles up against the S. Broadway area and the gentrification has created an overlap into DTLA. High-end art galleries have begun to set up in newly renovated floor space, in turn, helping in the attractiveness of the area and generating a surge in residential prices. Mainstream retailers are opening in once dilapidated areas - Urban Outfitters successfully took over a decaying historic space in the Rialto Theater, had it restored and upgraded blending a modern storefront with the repurposed antique details of the theater.
Growth is ongoing with new stores planning to build, such as premium grocery store Whole Foods opening in November of this year. Most early adopters of the DTLA rejuvenation are hopeful that the Latino imprint will remain, such as Escott O. Norton, Executive Director at Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, “There needs to be balance of the old with the new retail, eateries and living space.”
The reality, however, is very few of the small businesses that have been a part of the historic streets of DTLA for decades are managing to keep up with the swift progress and change, and even those are modifying their businesses to accommodate the needs of a different type of foot traffic.
Cynthia Cunniff is a freelance writer.