Although Downtown is the historical, administrative, and financial hub of Los Angeles, it’s not the sort of city center that the word “Downtown” might connote in other cities. Like the Universe itself, Los Angeles is a continually expanding amorphous agglomeration that has no center. Of course, there are people who insist that Los Angeles is the center of the Universe.
Downtown has had a reputation as a dodgy place to visit, in large part because it has long been a community with few bedrooms. Once the people who work in the skyscrapers start clogging the freeways in the evening for their crawl back home, the restaurants and shops that serve them lock their doors. Any visiting business travelers retreat to their hotels, and the abandoned streets then become the preserve of the homeless and residents of “single-room occupancy hotels.”
But in recent years, redevelopment and gentrification have overcome much of the dodginess. High-powered bankers and executives who work in the Financial District’s skyscrapers have snapped up costly condominium and “loft” units in former office buildings under an “adaptive reuse” program, thereby turning their previously wasted commuting time into additional productive hours.
Developments such as Disney Concert Hall and the Staples Center sports arena have attracted enough visitors from all around Southern California to create a viable and increasingly vibrant nightlife. Although the problem of Downtown’s homeless population remains intractable, and upscale condominiums have yet to replace Skid Row, much of Downtown is now a safe, pleasant, and walkable place that offers nearly limitless opportunities for daytime exploration.
Unlike most of Southern California, Downtown is well served with public transportation, including the Metro Rail light rail and subway (underground) system. That makes it one of the very few places in Southern California that are easily visited without a car. It’s actually better not to have a car, since Downtown traffic is heavy and parking is very expensive. A visitor staying on the West Side or Santa Monica would do best to drive to the nearest Metro Rail station with a park-and-ride lot, or ride a bus to the Union Station transit hub.
Travel Note: The increase in Downtown’s pedestrian traffic has attracted the attention of the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD employs a strict interpretation of California Vehicle Code provisions to produce a maximum number of jaywalking citations. When questioned by journalists, police officials smugly insist that their only agenda is to ensure the safety of pedestrians and motorists alike. They conveniently ignore the fact that, like so many cities, Los Angeles relies on revenue from traffic and parking citations to pay for popular services and programs.
You can stay safe— and avoid a police officer gleefully handing you a bill for $200— by crossing streets only at crosswalks, and stepping into the crosswalk only when the white WALK signal is lit. If the signal is red, blinking, or counting down seconds when you start to walk, you risk not only an unpleasant encounter with a police officer who cares only about your safety, but an even more unpleasant encounter with a driver who cares only about the vitally-important conversation on a (hands-free?) cellphone they’re engaged in while making a turn. When you’re a pedestrian in a city built around motor vehicles, patience is key to survival.
And yes, you read that right. A jaywalking ticket costs around two hundred dollars. About $150 of that is a cornucopia of various “fees” and “assessments” county and state lawmakers have tacked onto tickets over the years, as a “creative” way to fund numerous things without raising visible taxes.