DTLA was a pandemic ghost town. Have people returned?

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An estimated 75,000 people call downtown LA home, nearly triple the number compared to 20 years ago, but rising rents and the pandemic pushed many of them out. Photo by TierneyMJ/Shutterstock.

Urban centers across the world saw a mass exodus this past pandemic year. And downtown LA looked like a ghost town in 2020 and early 2021. 

But COVID-19 restrictions have been easing, so are people returning to DTLA?

“I thought it was gonna be a long road to recovery, but it's been New Year's Eve in every bar and restaurant in downtown LA since mid-June,” says Brian Houck, the owner of The Escondite near Skid Row and Little Tokyo. He markets his business as a dive bar hideout for downtown locals and folks in the hospitality industry.

“They come here when they're off [work] and we all talk. Everyone's over the moon about their sales, their projections. It's crazy,” he says.


The Escondite was lucky enough to have a 9,000 square foot parking lot. They are still not allowing customers inside. Photo courtesy of Brian Houck.

While tourists and weekend drinkers are returning, some residents have yet to come back. Sara Hernandez and her husband, who were among the first “downtown pioneers” when they moved to DTLA in 2009, moved to Boyle Heights during the pandemic.

“It was a really difficult choice. I loved living downtown,” she says. 

Hernandez and her husband found themselves working from their one-room loft with a newborn baby.

“People who love urban spaces make this trade-off of living in a really small space where there's lots of noise, but you have all this culture, music, parks, amazing dining and amenities,” she says. “But with the pandemic and a new baby, all of that stuff kind of shrunk away. We couldn't go outside very much, we're both taking calls. It just made it really, really difficult.”


Sara Hernandez and her husband Keith Mariano moved to DTLA in 2009, but they left for Boyle Heights in 2020 during the pandemic. Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez.

Plus, she says, she watched as the streets quickly deteriorated with trash and unsafe conditions.

“DTLA has always been gritty, and that's what I love about it, and we've always struggled for adequate city services. But there was definitely a sense of abandonment that you felt in downtown LA during the darkest days of the pandemic.”

Hernandez still calls her move away from DTLA a “break,” and hopes to return soon. She remains active in DTLA Strong, a coalition of downtown residents building political power through community organizing.


Angelenos shop at FIGat7th in downtown LA. “People who love urban spaces make this trade-off of living in a really small space where there's lots of noise, but you have all this culture, music, parks, amazing dining and amenities,” says Sara Hernandez, former DTLA resident. Photo courtesy of Downtown Center BID.

“If there's anything that has always drawn me to downtown, it’s the sense of ownership that people have over this community,” she says. “Whether you're talking about homelessness, whether you're talking about adequate trash pickup, there are so many people holding our elected officials' feet to the fire to demand that we bounce back better than before.”

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