November 13, 2018

Photo Essay: The Rendon Hotel, from Red Light District to Arts District

"Was this area ever nice?" my friend asked me as we were waiting to get into the latest art installation at the Rendon Hotel, Stories.

Photo: William Reagh (LAPL Photo Collection, 1964)

"Uhhh... no."

Google Street View circa 2011

I didn't mean to be dismissive. But as developers try to gentrify the corner of 7th and Santa Fe—about 800 feet from the LA River's left bank and about a half-mile from the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail freight depot and yard (now an architecture school, Sci-Arc)—the area's history persists.

Photo: Diane Cockerill (Courtesy Cartwheel Art)

What's now known as the Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles was once a makeshift red-light district for railroad workers who were housed there temporarily. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it essentially served as an extension of The Nickel and Skid Row—just a little farther east down 5th Street.

The Rendon Hotel served its purpose for the neighborhood at the time—as a flophouse and probably a brothel, too. (The more famous flophouse in the district is the American Hotel on Hewitt and Traction, home to punk rock and Al's Bar.)

Just like the old saloons of the Wild West, it had a number of drinking establishments on the first floor...

...from the Topaz Cafe and Pete's Club Santa Fe in 1964 (see photo above)..., most recently, Licha's Bar and Grill.

For the last few years, the bar and the hotel have been occupied mostly by film crews.

But this year, everything old is new again—and the space has been reinvigorated with a series of art installations and immersive (though not interactive) performances.

Audiences were invited to peek through windows and holes in the wall and stand in doorways, observing the goings-on in many of the single occupancy rooms—one of which, presumably, having been the scene of a murder.

Given the hotel's history of rooms rented by the hour, replete with timers and a control board...

...and the communal bathrooms in the hallways...

...the "fly on the wall" experience wasn't nearly as X-rated as I expected.

Then again, the concept of the Arts District isn't new. The conversion started at least as early as the 1970s, and maybe even the 1960s (depending on who you ask).

And parts of it—like right around the Rendon Hotel—still look pretty post-industrial apocalyptic.

But the LA River is getting a facelift, with new bridges. And the Arts District continues to get new bars and loft-style condos. If developers had their way, there'd be no room left for art in the Arts District.

So, it's exciting to see something happening in one of those old buildings—something that retains its grit and revels in its history.

Special thanks to Eric Brightwell for filling in some gaps of my knowledge of the area. Read Eric's blog on the Arts District here. 

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