Arts & Entertainment

Looking back: Clifton's Cafeteria evokes Downtown LA's past and future

File photo: Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles
File photo: Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles
Eric Zassenhaus/KPCC
File photo: Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles
The "oldest neon in the world" coming out of the wall at Clifton's.
Andrew Meieran

This is one in a series of year-end stories that look back at the most memorable pieces KPCC reporters worked on in 2012 and look ahead at a key issue that will be the focus of coverage in the coming year.

The renovation of Clifton’s Cafeteria means something different to everybody; the people who’ve visited it for decades, reveling in the reliable three-bean salad and colorful Jell-o have every right to be concerned with what the restaurant’s future holds. The new owner is transforming the building from a forest-themed cafeteria with a long-standing “pay-what-you-can” business model to a 24/7, multi-story, multi-themed collection of bars and restaurants.

To me, Clifton’s is a microcosm of what’s happening all over Downtown L.A. Its “revitalization” is reconnecting people to the area’s history while also laying a path for a much different future. There are many magical things about Clifton’s past, but perhaps the most exciting discovery was that of a still-glowing neon lamp, shining bright behind layers of wall for more than 70 years.  Work crews discovered this light while they renovated the building and the new owner quickly dubbed it "Eternal Neon." Neon experts confirmed that it must be the "oldest existing, continually operating neon in the world."

As a young reporter, I thought this was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever come across. But I soon found out I that every news organization from the L.A. Times to ABC reported on it, and Blogdowntown readers shared the story more than 4,000 times. To me, this means that hope and wonder are still alive and well in Los Angeles; as much as we’re concerned with progress and newness, we haven’t lost sight of the city’s (sometimes hidden) history.

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