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Neighborhood Project: Fashion District

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Virtually ignored in most travel guides, this 90-block garment district is arguably the most underrated destination neighborhood in Los Angeles. The Fashion District is dismissed by many as an "off the beaten path" kind of area, when in fact it should be among the top two or three places every visitor to the city should see. That's because LA has become the clothing manufacturing center of America, and the Fashion District is its pulsing heart. More than that, it presents a one-of-a-kind experience only possible in Los Angeles, a funky cross between New York’s Canal Street and a Middle-Eastern bazaar (but with Mexicans). You can buy almost anything here, from shoes to toys to a new pet, and there's no place on the West Coast where you can stretch a 10 dollar bill farther. From the charm of its sidewalk cafés to the persistence of its street hawkers, this is the most frenetic, exciting urban experience in LA. It is also one of downtown's fastest growing neighborhoods, as thousands of new residents will attest.

(Your primer on the fascinating Fashion District begins after the jump!)

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Boundaries: The Fashion District occupies about 90 city blocks in the southeast quadrant of downtown, but it is growing rapidly. The boundaries are roughly 6th Street to the north, the Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) to the south, Main Street to the west and San Pedro Street to the east, though the wholesale and retail operations have expanded the district several blocks farther east.

According to a recently released report by the Fashion District Business Improvement District (BID), the area has almost doubled in size (from 56 blocks) since the BID's creation in 1996 as it continues its expansion east towards Central Avenue.

Political Breakdown: Council District 9, Councilmember Jan Perry

1st County Supervisorial District, Councilwoman Gloria Molina

State Senate District 22, Rep Gilbert A. Cedillo

State Assembly District 46, Rep Fabian Nunez

U.S. Congressional District 34, Rep Lucille Roybal-Allard

Subway stops: Sorta. While it's technically possible to walk into the district from the 7th Street/Metro Center (Red and Blue Line) or San Pedro (Blue Line) stations, it can be quite a hump. The best way to get to the Fashion District is on the downtown DASH "E" line, which conveniently stops at numerous spots throughout the district. The fare is only 25 cents, and the "E" DASH runs seven days a week. It can be caught on 7th Street, across the street from the 7th Street/Metro Center station, right in front of the Macy's. Driving and parking here is a nightmare, so do yourself a favor and use public transit, even if only to get here from another part of downtown.

Usually considered: The Garment District, The Fashion District

People who front say they live in: South Park, though most people who live here don't front about it.

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Little-known facts: The Fashion District is the home of 41 percent of LA County's fashion wholesale business. The BID recently released an eye opening economic impact study that provided some amazing stats on the Fashion District's success. It said the district does $5.76 billion in business a year (35% of which is "formally unrecorded") and supports 66,000 jobs. Retail sales alone broke the $495 million mark in 2005, making the Fashion District a bigger sales machine than Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or the Hollywood Entertainment District.

More than 4,300 businesses operate in the district, most of which are independently or family-owned, with less than five employees. Business must be good, because vacancy rates in the area are down to about 2 percent, and land prices have jumped from $198 per square foot in 2003 to $481 per square foot in 2006.

One of the most unexpected places to stumble upon gallery art in the district is in the top floor of the city's wholesale produce market. Upstairs @ The Market Gallery provides free space to artists for displaying their work and free gated parking for visitors. Summer exhibits happen most Saturday evenings.

Insight: In his seminal book The City Shaped, architectural history expert Spiro Kostof discussed the "created city" versus the ville spontanee, or "spontaneous city". While created cities, with their rigid plans, became the model of modern civilization, urban dwellers remained excited by the haphazard nature of spontaneous, organic development, and cities incorporating aspects of both have always maintained an almost romantic allure to urban planners. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find an example of ville spontanee in Los Angeles, but the Fashion District is an exception, and would most certainly be considered the perfect example of spontaneous development. With its spider's web of back alleys, abrubtly dead-ending streets and irregular-shaped city blocks, it's easy to understand why people are drawn to such great bazaar atmospheres. It might also be why the area can be intimidating to the Angeleno uninitiated, who are accustomed to their pedestrian-oriented districts coming in pre-planned, often linear form. To make it plain, the district is probably the only place in LA where you can actually get lost while on foot.

Photo by Eden Stafford

Fortunately, the BID maintains an excellent website that includes a detailed interactive neighborhood map, a comprehensive listing of neighborhood businesses and any other pertinent info you might need before heading to the area. Happenings in the district are woefully under-reported in local press, which is why The Downtown News is also a great resource for visitors, and the de-facto community newspaper for residents. For example, the News was the only pub to report on the eye-opening BID economic report.

History: The Fashion District has always been a pretty vital component of LA's downtown landscape. However, back when it was still known as the Garment District, it was just as recognizable for its knockoff clothing, rampant homelessness and filth as it was for creating and selling clothing. That all changed when the BID kicked into gear. One of the city's first, the organization renamed the area "Fashion District" and collected dues from business owners that were used to clean the area up. The yellow t-shirt clad Clean & Safe Team, which patrols the area around the clock on bicycles, continues to maintain order, and the area is much more inviting because of them.

Prior to the new millenium, the only residents in the area were of the low-income variety. Then, in 2001, the market-rate residential boom reached the area with Santee Village, which renovated eight historic buildings in the northwest corner of the district into luxury lofts. Other residential renovations followed, including the all-rental Santee Court, and more than 700 units have been added to the Fashion District in the past two years, with another 600 on the way by 2009. In fact, the pace of residential development has been so fast that there have been some discussions about whether it is infringing on the manufacturing core of the area.

Photo by Ilpo's Sojourn via Flickr

Needless to say, in just a few years, there has been a noticable change to this area, and visitors who haven't been to this part of town in a while will be shocked. Yes, the bootleg DVDs and knockoff clothing are still plentiful, but the area has certainly gotten its act together, with hipsters, foreign tourists and design students mingling in with the masses. When LA Live is completed in the adjacent South Park, it's safe to assume even more residents, visitors and shoppers will be drawn here.

The lay of the land: Basically, the district is divided into quadrants, each specializing in different items, though unusual shops selling everything from toys to jewelry can be found scattered throughout. Men's wear can be found along Main, Los Angeles and Santee Streets between 7th and 9th and again between 14th and 16th. Women's wear is concentrated into the 7-8 blocks surrounding Santee Alley. Kid's wear is along 12th and Pico between Maple and San Pedro. Accesories and athletic wear is on Main and Los Angeles between 11th and 16th. Textiles are between 8th and Olympic. Most of the residential development is in the neighborhood's northwest corner (Pacific Electric Lofts, Santee Court, Santee Village, etc.). The Flower Market occupies two city blocks between 7th and 8th (cross streets are Wall and San Julian Streets). The produce market sits near the eastern border of the neighborhood. Cafes, restaurants and other shops can also be found on most blocks. Yes, both Starbucks (Santee and 9th) and Coffee Bean (Olympic and Los Angeles) have set up shop here, but there are also some really great independent options.

The key thing to remember is that the retail alleys are as just as big activity hubs as the main streets, but they aren't visible on most maps. They snake through entire city blocks with no rhyme or reason, and are the best places to get the true vibe of the community.

New alleys are popping up all the time, such as this one (not surprisingly, called "New Alley").

Photo by Ilpo's Sojourn via Flickr

The hours for most businesses in the area are 10am to 5pm, though the influx of new residents has seen a sudden increase in dining spots open until 9pm. Also, the flower market is best in the earliest hours of the morning, before the masses arrive. Visiting the district most days of the week is pleasant, but Saturday sees a crush of people descend on the area. That's because it is the only day when most of the wholesalers will sell their wares to the public. The BID estimates more than 70,000 people walk the streets and alleys on a typical Saturday. Be warned, the crowds get so thick that it's often hard to move more than a few feet per minute. Still, it's hard not to say crazy Saturdays, when the bootleggers, bacon-dog vendors and hawkers are in full force, aren't the best time to visit.

Landmarks: There are three major landmarks of note to casual visitors. They are The Marts, the LA Flower Market and Santee Alley. Outside of these three big draws, there are tons of interesting buildings in the area, including many historic buildings that are among the oldest in downtown.

The Marts, comprised of the California Market Center, the Cooper Design Space and the New Mart (above) are the shiny public face of the Fashion District. In addition to housing the Otis College of Art and Design's fashion school, the Marts are the home of tons of young clothing designers, as well as the sellers and buyers responsible for getting their clothes out to the boutiques of the city (and the world). The Marts contain a ton of showrooms for some of the coolest clothes, and once a month there is even a big sale of display garments to the public.

Here's the Cooper Design Space.

Here's a video with some details about the monthly discount sales at the big three design buildings, as well as a great walkthrough of the interiors, courtesy of TurnHere Travel.

Though not one of the Marts, this building is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the neighborhood. That's because it can be seen by passing cars on the I-10, which skirts the bottom of the Fashion District.

Like many of the warehouse spaces in the neighborhood, inside is a busy clothing manufacturing center...

...while the street level is devoted to retail.

The Los Angeles Flower Market is the largest flower market in the country. It's also the best smelling place in the city. It occupies two entire city blocks.

Hordes of flower hunters, both of the individual and business variety, come to take advantage of the wholesale prices for exotic flowers. There's even a cute little French cafe in the western market building.

Photo by My hovercraft is full of eels via Flickr

But the most recognizable image of the Fashion District is its unofficial central thoroughfare. Santee Alley is literally an alley (as well as a few connecting side alleys) running through the city blocks between Santee and Maple, from Olympic down to Pico. It's packed, it's hot and it's nuts. You'll love it or you'll hate it, but either way, it's pretty unforgettable, especially on weekends.

Photo by Ilpo's Sojourn via Flickr

Tackling the District: The one basic you should never forget when visiting the Fashion District...haggle. Haggling is sort of a lost art in America, where we are accustomed to the listed price being the final price. That is not the case here. In fact, only a sucker doesn't try to get a deal on their items, no matter how cheap or how expensive. A friend recently went to buy a new shirt. It was listed at $38 dollars. He haggled it down to $20 within seconds and bought it. If he so desired, he could have easily gotten it down to $15.

Almost anything can be bought here, from clothes to toys to live animals (I've seen women selling rabbits, turtles, fish and other small creatures). Also, Santee Alley itself usually has higher prices than the many surrounding streets and alleys. Many of the vendors in the district only accept cash, but if carrying large sums of greenbacks makes you uncomfortable, there are ATMs to be found on every block.

Luchadore mask, anyone?

It’s hard to visit the Fashion District and not leave without a few pairs of socks.

The Bootlegger Ballet: The quality of bootlegs DVDs in the Fashion District is notoriously bad. I once bought a bootleg copy of Superman Returns to see for myself to see if it was as bad as friends had said. It was worse. In addition to a constantly shaky camera (it was obviously filmed on VHS inside a movie theater), a person walked in front of the camera no fewer than half a dozen times throughout the disc. I think the woman must have been going to the bathroom. By the last 20 minutes of the film, I was yelling at my television screen “Jesus, lady, what’s wrong with your bladder?!”

But more interesting than the horrible quality of Fashion District bootleg DVDs is the hilarious cat-and-mouse the bootleggers play with patrolling police. I call it the "bootlegger's ballet". Basically, the bootleggers set up their wares on half a dozen corners throughout the district. They must all be in cahoots, because they are constantly radioing one another on two-way phones. When one spots a cop, they radio the others, and they all quickly swipe up their DVDs (usually in a blanket) and disappear into one of the alleys. Within minutes, they set up on different corners. I've never seen a bootlegger get caught, so the ballet must be pretty effective.

The official food of the Fashion District: The Bacon-wrapped Hot Dog.

Photo by via Flickr

The city has tried to crack down on the selling of these bacon-wrapped, grilled onion and pepper-covered concoctions, and you no longer see as many independent vendors selling them on weekdays. But on the weekends, the bacon-dog sellers are all over the place. I know some people who swear by these things.

Other Food: If bacon-wrapped goodness isn't your thing, there are plenty of other options. While the Fashion District has more than 90 eating establishments, most of them are of the fast-food or street-food variety. The rising fortunes of the neighborhood have meant an increase in restaurant quality. While there aren't many places worth traveling to the neighborhood for, while you're visiting, you will be better fed today than you would have been just a couple of years ago. One of the better new arrivals is Wood Spoon, on 9th Street. This Brazilian restaurant has been an instant hit with locals, both for its longer than usual hours (open until 9pm!) and for its great, homey Brazilian food.

Service can be slow, so those in a rush might consider the perfectly fine International Food Court on Santee Street (not Alley) just north of Olympic. You can get teriyaki, Middle Eastern, Pho, or Hawaiian BBQ here.

But the grand dame of Fashion District establishments is the lovely Angelique Cafe, which occupies an awesome flatiron-style space where Spring Street and Main Street intersect.

Even on the busiest Saturdays, this place is an oasis of calm just a couple blocks from the mania of the central Fashion District. You can enjoy pates, escargots and other French foods, or simply have a tasty sandwich and some coffee. It's the perfect spot to wrap-up a whirlwind tour of the Fashion District. Au revoir!

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