When I first read about it, I did not think the idea of another makeover for the Grand Central Market was really terrific. But as a daily user of the hallowed 96-year-old institution, I couldn't see any other way to make the fast-declining food mart survive. In her fine piece in Tuesday's LA Times, Gale Holland correctly notes the sad truth: though Downtown is filling up with yuppistas, such folk make little use of the place. Far less, it appears, then their SRO resident downtown predecessors did. SO in a sense they've displaced its key customer base.
"They sell these tomatoes you have to eat on the way home," is how one 30ish loftdweller friend put it. Well, sometimes. But more to the point, the yuppistas are trendies. For the first time in over a century, downtown residents are shopping for status, which may mean the downtown Ralphs, Little Tokyo or even Chinatown. But not GCM or anything associated with GCM. Which is probably why an upscale little GCM food boutique, offering Petaluma artisanal cheeses and fine gourmet breads perished there a couple of months ago. It may have been offering Bristol Farms quality, but you had to walk past the eyebrow-braider and the derelict empanada stand to get there. Young hipsters don't like to do that sort of thing these days.
30 years ago, things were quite different. GCM had a national reputation as a food phenomenon. One prominent New York Times foodie marveled that it was the only venue in the nation where you get all the ingredients you needed for tripes a la mode de Caen. It also sold legs of mutton for 69 cents a pound. Plus exotic cheeses, fresh-baked sour dough boules, rare fruit varieties at 5 pounds for a dollar. Westside gastronomes and Pico-Union mothers of five stood in the same lines. They all knew that this was the place where the best cost less. This was because it had not evolved as either a high-end or low-end vendor. Instead, it had evolved to serve LA County's vast diversity of populations with an equally diverse collection of retailers. It originally stood at the center of the city's trolley, bus and Red Car network, so it was a plausible weekly destination for most of the people in the LA basin, even when rail gave way to freeways.
It was a great place for primal foodies to buy exotics, but what a blessing it was if you were poor! I used to work across the street in the Bradbury Building for a local wire service for $5 an hour. One of my colleagues there described the GCM, with its prices and plenty, as "our fringe benefit." It was always thronged. There were hot food stands I never got to eat at, because the crowds were so intense. On the job, we snack-shared big bags of rare Pippin apples at 20 cents a pound. At the morning end of night shift, you could amble across Broadway for a 9 am supper of chow mein and beer (two kinds were offered: "local" and "premium") before you took the bus home.
In the 30 years since, despite a 90's revival, it seems to me that GCM has gone slowly downhill. Last month I noticed that the big bakery that helped anchor its south side had just gone. At least 30% of the rest of the booths were empty, including the place that tried to sell Humboldt Fog cheese. For all the moving out, I don't recall anyone moving in over the past two years. Where hundreds had once milled in the aisles, there were now dozens, mostly the very poor, buying fruits and vegetables with their WIC coupons and food stamps. The rest of us can still buy our reasonably priced fish and beef there, too. But all these businesses are clearly hanging on. One problem is that more poor LA neighborhoods have their own affordable retailers now, which are often doing quite well (Just check out the Inglewood Buylow). And there is also the factor that, just south of 1st Street, the vaunted Los Angeles downtown revival has been stalling for the past two years. Over that time, I saw at least four sit-down restaurants and an art gallery close. The stores along Broadway are also having a tough time of it. Downtown north of Fourth Street, the bad economy shows, badly. As if symbolically, even the sign on the Million Dollar Theater disappeared.
So the GCM's revival could be contingent on a recovery strategy for the entire region south of Civic Center. Meanwhile, I have one piece of advice for the developer trying to fill spruce the place up and fill the empty stalls with merchants.
Make the old Grand Central Market hip again. To everyone.
(KPCC's Lauren Osen reported on the planned facelift for the Grand Central Market on December 31, 2012.)