Downtown's Block Party

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

A lot of people who I know still react with disbelief when I tell them we go to Downtown LA now more than ever.

That does come with one caveat. I don't count going to work. I spent years inside the LA Times building at 1st and Spring. And I have researched books for weeks at a time in the history department on the bottom level of the Central Library on 5th.

But for culture and fun and seeing friends, I find myself in Downtown LA more than I ever did when I worked in the neighborhood.

This week, I accepted an invitation to the opening night of Monty Python's Spamalot at the Ahmanson Theatre. I sat just a few seats over from KCRW's own James Taylor, and I'll be curious to hear if he enjoyed the hijinks and Broadway send-ups as much as I and the somewhat insider audience did.

Then last night, my wife and I walked through the streets of the historic core district at the monthly Art Walk. Every few blocks we saw someone we knew – and we both realized later that we can't say that about the part of the Westside where we live or anywhere else that we two native Angelenos have lived.

The Art Walk began in 2004 with maybe 75 visitors hitting fewer than a dozen galleries. Now it erupts on the second Thursday of every month, drawing upwards of 5,000 people into full gallery spaces, restaurants and bars spread along Spring and Main streets.

We began by walking over to Gary Leonard's Take My Picture gallery on Broadway, across the street from the gorgeous blue Eastern Columbia tower. We had to pick our way through the fans and paparazzi outside the Orpheum Theater, just as Chaz Bono was arriving for an Outfest event.

Our destination was a show of unexpectedly stunning billboards from the 1950's and 60's. Yes, billboards – or photos of them.

They were shot in vivid Kodachrome for Pacific Outdoor and its clients, and the hand painted graphics leap out with an attention to detail and craft that's missing in today's mass produced signs.

They also offer time-capsule glimpses of Los Angeles street scenes that made me happy they were saved from the trash and put on display alongside L.A. photos shot through the decades by Leonard.

He was out roaming when we stopped in, and we never did see him as we made our way through other galleries.

We did encounter public television's folksy Huell Howser on a sidewalk tour of the historic core with Tom Gilmore, the adaptive reuse pioneer whose loft conversions basically invented what downtown residents call the Old Bank District.

Inside the Old Bank – which is the beautiful former Farmers and Merchants edifice at 4th and Main – bands played and a bartender poured wine for $2 donations.

Some art was even viewed. A veteran of the Art Walk groused to us that the scene has drifted away from its gallery roots and become more of a party for young outsiders.

But even he seemed cheered at the large turnout.

We slipped through a back passageway that leads from the bank to the Museum of Neon Art, then went looking for dinner.

It's a sign of the times downtown that the first few places we tried were overflowing. We even got turned away from Church & State, the hip French bistro that's more than a mile from the Art Walk, through the worst sections of Skid Row and on a dark street beside the LA River.

Fully booked for the night, the apologetic maitre'd told us.

That's OK, we'll be back.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

Banner image: Take My Picture gallery

Banner image: view from a loft