July 17, 2017

LA's Grand Central: Where Old and New Neon Collide (Updated for 2018)

Last Updated 7/16/18 3:04 PM PT

When you talk about "Grand Central" in LA, it's not in reference to a train station. Our Grand Central doesn't have a "Whispering Gallery" or a transit museum or a tunnel that leads to the Waldorf-Astoria.

What Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles does share with Grand Central Terminal in New York City (besides a tunnel, though I'm not sure where the LA one leads) is an eclectic food hall.

So what does Grand Central Market have that the "Dining Concourse" in Manhattan doesn't? Lots of neon signs.

Visit Grand Central Market, and you'd think that the art of neon is alive and well in LA, with so many new vendors using the "liquid fire" to advertise their businesses.

And it's true, neon is alive in the City of Angels...

...but for decades, headlines and preservationists have been calling it a "dying art."

Others say it's having a resurgence in LA—and that may be thanks to some of those new eateries and retailers that have embraced the electrified propaganda and the nostalgia that surrounds those colored tubes filled with noble gases.

Here, they kind of have to—since signing a Grand Central vendor lease means you to agree to install a neon sign.

And that's how it should be for these upstart, non-legacy tenants, especially if they're going to be moving into buildings that are over a century old (the Homer Laughlin Building was built in 1896, and Grand Central opened on its ground floor in 1917)...

...and intermingling with veteran businesses that have been vending there for 15 or even 50 years.

Sarita's Pupuseria has been operating out of Grand Central since 1983.

Torres Produce opened in 1985—and its owner has already had to relinquish one of his stalls to make way for a member of the "new wave" to arrive.

La Huerta, a so-called "orchard" of candy and snacks, opened in 1999, nearly 20 years ago now.

Although its ownership has changed a few times, China Cafe has been slinging California-Chinese food on Broadway since 1959.

And one of the market's oldest and original tenants from its grand opening day, Valeria's, stands in stark contrast to its similarly-named neighbor, Valerie—which was one of the first of the "new guard" to come into Grand Central in 2013.

What was once a one-stop shopping destination for spices, meats, breads, cheese, and other grocery staples—in addition to a grab-and-go meal—is still a destination of sorts, but now it's drawing a different kind of crowd.

circa 2018

Among its long lines and crowded tables, you'll find diners and drinkers clamoring for craft beer, gourmet coffee, artisanal cheese, and house-made pastrami.

circa 2018

It's not all that different, actually. But the prices have gone up—and the people who frequent the market now are those who can afford them.

circa 2018

I'll admit that when I first visited Grand Central Market back in 2012—when it was untouched by gentrification—I didn't like it very much. Now, I quite enjoy getting a bite to eat there before a show at the Million Dollar Theatre next door. And I can't wait to see how it continues to evolve (especially if the lower level can be spiffed up a bit).

circa 2018

I just hope that neon clause in the lease continues to be enforced.

circa 2018

Update for 2018: 

A massive neon sign was erected by the Hill Street entrance of Grand Central in August 2017 as part of a marketing campaign for Bulleit Whiskey—based on a design illustrated by Brendan Donnelly and newly fabricated by Lisa Schulte of the Nights of Neon studio.

It was only supposed to stay up until mid-November 2017, but as of July 2018, it was still glowing strong.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Treasures of an LA Tourist Trap, Universal Studios
Photo Essay: The Neon of LA, and Its One Darkened Dragon
Photo Essay: Fremont Street Experience, Vegas
Photo Essay: Night of the Living Neon

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