One of the good things about being a Boomer is the memories. Ever have the feeling that you know the place you’re visiting, but it isn’t quite right? I’m not talking about déjà vu. I mean the experience of going to an old, familiar place same name and location, recognizable but totally different function and character. Recently I visited an old haunt, Grand Central Market at DTLA (new acronym for the resurging downtown LA) and Angel’s Flight. Ghosts of the old days linger, but it was spooky.
My experiences in DTLA go back to my childhood growing up in LA in the Fifties. As a toddler, I would visit my grandparents, who owned an apartment building on Third St, just west of the then newly completed Harbor Freeway. My grandmother and I would walk through the cavernous (1500 feet long) and much filmed Third St tunnel. Car horns and dim light made for great adventure. Eventually, we would break through into the bustle of downtown and visit my grandfather, who was a butcher at Grand Central. In those days it housed a labyrinth of stalls and shops on two floors where shoppers would go for fresh produce, meat, and spices. Supermarkets were rare in those days and usually located in the suburbs like the new subdivision in the San Fernando Valley where I lived with my parents. To a three year old kid walking the aisles of Grand Central was as exotic as the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. The cacophony of languages belted out by competing merchants ranked up there with Clifton’s Cafeteria as fun for me.
Across the street on Bunker Hill decaying rows of Victorian houses stood watch over the booming metropolis. Originally mansions for the elite of Los Angeles, by this time they had been subdivided into rooming houses, soon to be demolished to make way for redevelopment. Access to the towering homes was via Angel’s Flight, dubbed the world’s shortest railway. After visiting grandpa, who cut an imposing figure with a white smock splattered with blood and hat and tie, we would take the 5 cent ride to the top of the hill.
Recently, my brother suggested meeting at Grand Central for lunch with our 22 year niece. Recovering well from tough times serving the burgeoning immigrant population, now Grand Central Market houses a couple dozen boutique cafes, one produce stand, one meat market, and a few holdovers from the ethnic days of the 80s—Chinese herbs and Central American veggies. And a gourmet coffee place, where a cup of Joe costs minimum $4.
But more bizarre than the former bazaar is Angel’s Flight, a funicular that climbs 300’ at 33 degrees. Dissembled and stored 1969, while Bunker Hill was flattened and then developed with high rise office buildings and condos. Moved south 200 feet, Angel’s Flight reopened in 1996. Accidents and repairs forced closure again in 2001, 2011, and 2013. Currently, the two funicular cars sit mid hill as if in suspended animation waiting for the conductor to flip the switch, while tourists stare in wonderment and peer down memory lane. Along with the railway, the adjacent park with its information plaques and benches is fenced off from the public pending its next redevelopment.
Bittersweet, this journey to landmarks of my childhood reminded me that everything is impermanent, except our memories. Visiting Grand Central and Angel’s Flight felt like going to a high school reunion and not recognizing your old friends. The old friend doesn’t look the same, but you have a connection. This spirit of remembrance infused the day, not with nostalgia but fondness for my childhood, my grandparents, and my city.