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A Los Angeles Primer: Grand Central Market

I've taken my recent trips to and from Bunker Hill exclusively by stair, owing to the current shutdown of Angels Flight, the beloved funicular that, when operational, carries passengers up from Hill Street and back down again. It doesn't go out of order often, but when it does it often stays that way for some time: a fatal 2001 accident put it out of commission for nearly eight years, and before that, in 1969, the redevelopment of Bunker Hill brought about its dismantling and subsequent storage for just under three decades. What kind of a city, this leads one to ask, struggles to keep even the world's shortest railway — and one of its few icons, at that — in continuous operation? In my case, this question encourages the darkly methodical contemplation of Los Angeles' other infuriating qualities, one after the other: its vast, often ridiculous distances; the shabbiness of so much of its built environment, mini-malls and otherwise; the barely explicable gaps in, and slowness of the rest of, its rapid transit system; the percentage of its surfaces covered by advertisements for movies whose distributors couldn't pay me to watch.

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But moments before I decide to pull up stakes, I turn around and behold a counterargument: Grand Central Market, the urban emporium that has, since 1917, provided downtown residents a place to buy their produce. More recently than that, it has provided them a place to buy a variety of moles, dried chiles, and herbal medicines. More recently than that, it has provided them a place to buy a quick office-worker's lunch. More recently still, it has provided them a place to buy ten-dollar hamburgers, thirteen-dollar Cobb salads, and six-dollar soy lattes. At this particular moment, these almost parodic manifestations of gentrification — preparation of that six-dollar soy latte involves not actual soy milk, but "a special almond milk we make here" — coexist fascinatingly with what habitués sometimes call the "old" Grand Central Market, by which they mean Grand Central Market as a delivery system of cheap vegetables and even cheaper meals. China Cafe, the most prominent representative of this era, appears right up front, its neon signs advertising "CHOP SUEY" and "CHOW MEIN" visible as soon as you enter from Hill. Come at the right time, well before the families and tourists turn up, and on its stools, beneath its menu surely unchanged by the decades, you can still find a handful of old alcoholics huddled over morning trays of egg foo young.

But Grand Central Market has a more distinguished history, architecturally speaking, than such a sight would suggest. It occupies the ground floor of the Homer Laughlin Building, the city's first fireproofed, steel-reinforced structure, and one designed by John Parkinson, the English expatriate who would go on to do the same for such other striking, still-standing Los Angeles buildings as City Hall, the Memorial Coliseum, Union Station, and Bullock's Wilshire. Several of Parkinson's grander buildings have seen seedier days than today: having put its years as a glamorous if quasi-suburban department store behind it in 1993, after a long period of decline and damage sustained in the previous year's riots, the Bullock's Wilshire building now houses the Southwestern Law School. Union Station, which went through its quiet years in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, now functions as a nexus of Los Angeles' intracity as well as its intercity train lines. Grand Central Market, by contrast, seems to have maintained its high level of commercial energy for almost a century now, though it has taken a series of different forms throughout.

Most of them remain visible, and accessible, today: a well-known pupusería steps from the aforementioned Cobb that takes the better part of a double sawbuck; the Michoacán take-out next to the new-wave bacon-and-eggs' the exotic varieties of gelato and complexly healthy juice blends in sight of the humble ice-cream corner offering cones of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Down the stairs, beneath all this, you'll find a discount store carrying a variety of cleaning products, packaged snacks, and slightly irregular accessories. This concrete-toned subterranean floor of the Homer Laughlin Building also contains Grand Central Market's restrooms which, though behind doors with coin-operated locks, can feel discomfiting and utilitarian enough to make you wonder where exactly your 25 cents go. Then again, these too might strike some as holdouts from an appealingly rough-edged era now fading too fast, just as might the most downtrodden of China Cafe's regulars.

Some have wrung human-interest stories out of this observation, but even these regrets tend to come tempered by enthusiasm for the arrival of vendors more concerned with culinary aesthetics and innovation than with inexpensiveness and efficiency. The standard debates about authenticity and the retention thereof grow even more muddled in this context: does a Grand Central Market with room to serve a Kung Pao shrimp, by no means authentic with regard to known traditions of Chinese cuisine — to say nothing of its interpretation of Japanese food — count, ultimately, as a more authentic Grand Central Market? Pieces dealing with questions like these usually peter out toward the expression of a vague desire that maybe, just maybe, the upscale and the downscale will find a way to coexist this time. I, too, wish for that outcome, since Grand Central Market in its current state generates an even denser, richer variety of people-watching opportunities than does the Fairfax Farmers Market seven miles to the west. In fact, given its better-connected location downtown, focus of the newly centripetal forces at work in the Los Angeles of recent years, Grand Central Market stands, I would submit, to pull permanently ahead of the Farmers Market, at least in terms of pure social interest.

At this point, though, it still has lessons to learn from its younger cousin across the city, first and foremost to do with the complete and total renovation of its restrooms. Admittedly, such upgrades can easily go too far, and not without reason do you sometimes hear worries over the possibility of a conversion into an even fussier clone of San Francisco's Ferry Building. But you could ask the same questions about whether Grand Central Market will ultimately accommodate both the high and the low of Broadway, the street running behind it. Talk of Broadway's 21st-century revival has drawn objections from those who argue that it never really lost its hustle or bustle, though its thriving commerce in recent decades has had more to do with, say, economy-size packages of tube socks than whatever you'll find at the large branch of Urban Outfitters currently moving into the old Rialto Theater. In either case, that perennial Angeleno hope for what we used to call the mixing of the classes remains, though Los Angeles, perhaps because of the segregation (both voluntary and involuntary) made possible by its sheer size, has long proven resistant to it. Perhaps Grand Central Market can nurture that, and perhaps it can't; either way, intriguing things will happen there, especially in this slightly tense time of transition. I'd hate to miss out on them.


Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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