August 9, 2011
Buying in and moving out — Jewish tales of downtown
A new downtown Jew, Eric Clark, was driving east on Olympic, heading home with a new futon mattress stuffed in the trunk of his car. The streetscape signage turned from English to Korean to Spanish and then, as he drove under the 110 Freeway and past L.A. Live, back to English again.
Driving home, he zipped by landmark buildings once put up by Jews, near national clothing manufacturing firms owned by Jews, and by homeless helped by Jews.
Downtown Los Angeles is a Jewish community in formation, peopled by Jewish artists, young professionals, entrepreneurs, a rabbi and short-commute seekers like Clark.
Still, some Jews like it. Some don’t.
Approaching the garage of his 1923 loft building by way of an alley, Clark remarked about the row of Brink’s armored trucks near the garage entrance, “With these, no one is going to bother robbing me,” he said.
Clark, who 10 weeks before had moved into his high-ceilinged loft, and now familiar with the parking lot drill, let his car roll slowly down the incline, and pulled to a stop.
“When do you need the car again?” the attendant asked.
“Won’t need it for about a week,” answered Clark, who now regularly uses the Metro, which he picks up at Pershing Square.
He popped the trunk, and pulled out the heavy mattress. I assisted him in dragging it to the nearby elevator.
Clark was not of the first wave of Jews to try their luck downtown. In 1981, a Jewish artist living in the nearby loft area, or a student studying at USC-adjacent Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion could buy a bowl of borscht, a piroshki and a “brewski” from Gorky’s Cafe, the all-night Russia-inspired workers’ restaurant that was opened by Judith Markoff.
But by 1993, with much of its audience gone, Gorky’s closed. According to a piece in the Los Angeles Times, “most artists had been priced out of the downtown lofts; most yuppies had moved to the ’burbs.”
Clark’s 11th-floor loft is one spacious room, with 14-foot ceilings and a window and small balcony that look out onto a courtyard. The loft has new wood floors and a modern kitchen. There’s even a small washer and dryer worked into the bathroom.
And in the city’s midst, it’s quiet.
“Sometimes I hear parties, sounds like from a village,” Clark remarked, lifting the mattress onto a waiting wooden frame.
On a nearby kitchen table rests a mezuzah.
“I just need to put it up,” he said, though he wondered about how condo rules prohibiting affixing anything to the outer door or doorpost might come into play.
Clark has moved downtown because it’s close to transportation and his work as an L.A. County public health administrator. Earlier in his life, Clark enjoyed living in downtown Portland, and this urban setting reminds him of it.
“Everyone in the building has been friendly and supportive,” he said.
Clark’s interactions with people outside of the building have been mostly OK as well.
“There’s a prominent homeless population nearby,” he observed. “But they are no threat at all,” he added.
In recent years, some Jews who have moved downtown have not felt as threat-free.
“It wasn’t safe,” said Jeremiah LaBrash, who lived downtown near Seventh and Los Angeles streets from 2009 until recently.
LaBrash, a private tutor for the GMAT and GRE, who moved to downtown Los Angeles from New York City, also described downtown Jewish life, at least for him, as “impossible.”
While living downtown, LaBrash connected with a nearby Chabad. As he became more observant, finding nearby kosher food became more of a problem.
“A group of us petitioned the downtown Ralphs. They carried kosher chicken for a couple of weeks but it went rancid,” he recalled, surmising that the packages weren’t moving fast enough.
“The downtown kosher restaurants are just open on weekdays,” he added. “There was a kosher pizza place [Hill Street Pizza], but that closed,” he said.
In contrast to LaBrash’s struggles, though, downtown living did have an upside.
“It’s where we met,” said Danielle Davidson, a retail worker and jewelry maker, who was also living downtown at the time and has since moved out.
“I was working at an event in a store downtown,” she recalled. “It was just for one night to help out a friend,” she said.
“I first saw her through the storefront window,” said LaBrash, who went in.
The couple moved in together and soon began inviting other young Jews to their downtown apartment for Shabbat parties and dinners.
“Twenty to 25 people would show up, Jews and the Jew-curious,” remembered LaBrash, “But most didn’t come back.”
At the Chabad services that LaBrash attended, making a minyan — especially on Shabbat — was tough.
“You tried to make a minyan with the people who were working downtown in the Jewelry District,” he said, “and almost every week we were able to pull a minyan together.”
The Shabbat minyan at the Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, which meets at 219 W. Seventh St., “averages between 35 and 50 people, and is growing,” said Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, who lives downtown with his wife, Rivky, and three children.
Among his congregation, which Greenwald describes as an “eclectic” mix of young professionals, some empty-nesters, visitors and Iranians working nearby, he counts downtown L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry.
“She considers this to be her shul,” he said.
Greenwald, who also serves as an LAPD chaplin, admits that though he loves downtown living, it “can be challenging.”
One Sukkot morning, he recalled finding two homeless men sleeping in the shul’s sukkah.
Davidson, too, had her problems with downtown’s homeless.
“I was in our courtyard,” she remembered, “and this guy started following me. I called out to Jeremiah.”
LaBrash ran down the stairs, but the man was already gone.
“Just her calling out must have scared him off,” he said.
As the sun was going down over the rooftop pool of Clark’s building, he suggested we ride down to the street for some food and drink.
It was Thursday, the evening of the once-a-month Artwalk, and the streets were starting to fill with 20- and 30-somethings as we walked to a corner bar.
Before entering, we were both asked for ID (we’re both in our 50s), and frisked for weapons.
“OK,” said the bouncer.
We went in, had a beer. All was dim, quiet and copacetic. After the drink and a bite to eat a few blocks down, the sidewalks were packed.
As we walked back to his place, we saw the lights and crowded motion of a second-floor art gallery, which we walked up a flight of stairs to enter.
Once inside the Spring Arts Tower Gallery and moving with the flow of the crowd, Clark spotted a picture of goldfish swimming in a circle, by Eve Kessler. There were several of these watercolors, which in the packed, swirling room almost seemed like a kind of visual commentary.
“Do you think she’s Jewish?” Clark asked.