Los Angeles has the highest concentration of Mexicans outside Mexico, Koreans outside Korea, and even Samoans outside Samoa. Tiny Russian, Ethiopian, Armenian, and even British enclaves also coexist throughout L.A. But to call the city a "melting pot" wouldn't be quite accurate; to paraphrase Alex Haley, it's really more of a tossed salad, composed of distinct, albeit overlapping, cultures.
The following neighborhoods all fall under the "Downtown" label, as we've defined it in "Neighborhoods in Brief".
East of Downtown; bounded by U.S. 101, I-10, Calif. 60, and Indiana St.
In the first decades of the 20th century, Boyle Heights was inhabited by Jewish immigrants, who have since migrated west to the Fairfax district and beyond. They left behind the oldest orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles, and Brooklyn Avenue, which has since been renamed Cesar E. Chavez Avenue. Boyle Heights is now the heart of the Latino barrio.
Westsiders come here for cheap Mexican food, but many miss my favorite Boyle Heights sight: Near the corner of Boyle Avenue and 1st Street is Mariachi Plaza, a colorful street corner where three-, four-, and five-man mariachi bands stand ready to entertain every afternoon and evening. Resplendent in matching ruffled shirts and tailored bolero jackets with a rainbow of embroidery, the mariachis loiter beneath three-story murals of their forebears with guitars at the ready. It's not unusual to see someone drive up in a minivan, offer a price for a night's entertainment, and carry off an ensemble to play a private party or other gathering. Tip: For a truly authentic meal in the neighborhood, try either Birrieria Jalisco, 1845 E. 1st St. (tel. 323/262-4552; www.birrieriajalisco.com) for Jalisco-style goat (it's the only thing on the menu), or La Serenata de Garibaldi, 1842 E. 1st St. (tel. 323/265-2887; www.laserenataonline.com) for seafood-centric dishes with many traditional salsas.
Downtown; bounded by N. Broadway, N. Hill St., Bernard St., and Sunset Blvd.
Many Chinese settled in this once-rural area during the second half of the 19th century. Today most Angelenos of Chinese descent are well integrated into the city's suburbs; few can be found living in this rough pocket of Downtown. But though the neighborhood hardly compares in quality or size to the Chinese quarters of London, San Francisco, or New York, Chinatown's bustling little mom-and-pop shops and profusion of ethnic restaurants provide an interesting Downtown diversion.
Chinatown centers on a mall, Mandarin Plaza, 970 N. Broadway, reconstructed in 1938 a few blocks from its original site just south of Dodger Stadium. Go on a Sunday morning for dim sum at Empress Pavilion, 988 N. Hill St. (tel. 213/617-9898; www.empresspavilion.com), and then browse through the collection of shops jammed with Chinese slippers, cheap jewelry, and china. You'll also find some upscale stores specializing in inlaid furniture, Asian art, fine silks, and other imports.
Chinatown is especially worth going out of your way for during Chinese New Year, a month-long celebration that usually begins in late January. The neighborhood explodes into a colorful fantasy of sights and sounds with the Golden Dragon Parade, a beauty pageant, and a 5K/10K run. There are plenty of firecrackers and all the Lin Go New Year's cakes you can eat. For more information about Chinatown, log on to www.chinatownla.com.
El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument
Enter El Pueblo Historic Monument via Alameda St. across from Union Station.
This historic district was built in the 1930s on the site where the city was founded as an alternative to the razing of a particularly unsightly slum. The result is a contrived nostalgic fantasy of the city's beginnings, a kitschy theme park portraying Latino culture in a Disney-esque fashion. Nevertheless, El Pueblo has proven wildly successful, as L.A.'s Latinos have adopted it as an important cultural monument.
El Pueblo is not without authenticity. Some of L.A.'s oldest buildings are here, and the area really does exude the ambience of Old Mexico. At its core is a Mexican-style marketplace on old brick-paved Olvera Street, the district's primary pedestrian street. On weekends the carnival of sights and sounds is heightened by mariachis, piñatas, and more-than-occasional folkloric dancing. Olvera Street and adjacent Main Street are home to about two dozen 19th-century buildings. Free 50-minute walking tours are given Tuesday through Saturday mornings; for tour times, contact El Pueblo Visitor Center (622 N. Main St.; tel. 213/628-1274; www.lasangelitas.org). Also, don't miss the Avila Adobe, at E-10 Olvera St. (Tues-Fri 10am-3pm; Sat-Sun 10am-4:30pm. free admission); built in 1818, it's the oldest building in the city.
West of Downtown; bounded by Wilshire Ave., Crenshaw Blvd., Olympic Blvd., and Vermont Ave.
Here's something you probably didn't know: There are more Koreans in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the world outside of Korea -- some 100,000. If you drive down Western Avenue between Olympic and Wilshire boulevards, it won't take much imagination to believe that you're suddenly in a section of Seoul. Hundreds of signs in Korean script are bolted onto dozens of minimalls and office buildings within this vibrant commercial district. Park the car and spend a few hours browsing the elixir shops, bargain stores, malls, and authentic Korean barbecue joints. You might also want to visit the museum within the Korean Cultural Center, 5505 Wilshire Blvd. (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 10am-1pm; tel. 323/936-7141; www.kccla.org), which houses historical photographs, Korean antiques, and rotating exhibits.
Leimert Park Village
Southwest of Downtown; bounded by Crenshaw Blvd., Vernon Ave., Leimert Blvd., and 43rd Place.
The neighborhood around tiny Leimert Park is becoming a center of African-American artistic life and culture. It features galleries, restaurants, and shops filled with local crafts and African imports. Folks flock here to jazz clubs that evoke the heyday of L.A.'s Central Avenue jazz scene, when greats like Ella Fitzgerald mesmerized audiences. In December, Kwanzaa celebrations further enliven Leimert Park.
Downtown, southeast of the Civic Center; bounded by 1st, 2nd, San Pedro, and Los Angeles sts.
Like nearby Chinatown, this redeveloped ethnic neighborhood isn't home to the majority of Angelenos of Japanese ancestry; suburban Gardena has that distinction. But Little Tokyo functions as the community's cultural focal point and is home to several malls filled with bakeries, bookshops, restaurants, and boutiques, as well as the occasional Buddhist temple. The Japanese American National Museum is here, as is the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, 244 S. San Pedro St. (tel. 213/628-2725; www.jaccc.org), which regularly offers traditional Kabuki dramas and modern music concerts.
Unfortunately, Little Tokyo is shabbier than almost any district in the Japanese capital, and it has difficulty holding a visitor's attention for much longer than the time it takes to eat lunch. Exceptions to this rule come twice yearly, during the Cherry Blossom Festival in spring and Nisei Week in late summer. Both heritage festivals celebrate Japanese culture with parades, traditional Ondo street dancing, a carnival, and an arts fair. The Japanese American Network provides a community calendar, a map of Little Tokyo points of interest, and useful Web links online at www.janet.org/janet_little_tokyo/ja_little_tokyo.html.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.