The Prisoner in 926

This story was originally written in 2007, prompted by an experience with a stalker when I lived in downtown Los Angeles. It was updated a few years later, and then posted on my blog. The photo used is apparently of an old postcard that shows the interior of the once glamorous Alexandria Hotel.

“The Prisoner in 926” – By Maria Hsin

A few years ago, I cut out a Los Angeles Magazine article about the changes downtown and saved the handy map of the new bars that accompanied it. Even the Los Angeles Times noted the changes in its neighborhood, and one article discussed the increase in people walking their dogs. Dog walkers meant new residents and that downtown was no longer a nine-to-five only place; decent people were actually living there.

Downtown’s revival has students, professionals and creative types co-existing with recently arrived Latin Americans, the homeless, dope dealers and people transitioning from Skid Row. I wanted to take part in this transformation.

I have fond memories of driving past what I later learned were historic buildings and the facades of the old movie theaters on Broadway on our way to Chinatown. I remember my family and I frequented the Grand Central Market and I am certain that played a role in my interest in being a part of downtown’s renaissance.

Prior to moving, I bravely scouted the area. Almost all of the lofts in the area included polished concrete floors, stainless steel appliances, huge windows and amazing views. And whereas busloads of people crammed the lobbies and inquired about the rooftop pools, people walking through the lofts a little further east, in the Historic Core, were hardly to be seen.

But despite the unsettling quiet of the area – and the LAPD’s noted correlation between an increase in petty crimes and the increase in residents, in 2009 – the area’s history as the “Wall Street of the West” and its architecture appealed to me. Plus, generally speaking, crime was down.

And despite the economic downturn, every few months the neighborhood would unveil a new loft, a wine bar or a coffee house. I was excited that there was always somewhere else to eat, buy cheese or grab a drink – and all within walking distance.

But there is a marked difference in the eclectic roughness and the creative energy of the Historic Core and the more upscale, professional feel of the financial district and South Park – the areas between the main library and the Staples Center.

Probably more than any other east-west corridor in the Historic Core, Fifth Street is the bridge that connects two cultures: those scratching and clawing for daily survival and those who live comfortably.

The intersection of Fifth and Spring streets is a great spot to witness the wave of people walking from “the bottoms,” or Skid Row and the east, to “the top.” However, due to the high concentration of drug deals on that corner, the LAPD had a camera installed to monitor the illegal activity. (Sadly, I would later learn the camera didn’t work).

On the southwest corner of the intersection sits a turn-of-the-century architectural treasure: The Alexandria Hotel.

It did not surprise me to learn that this hotel from 1906 had hosted presidents and Hollywood legends from the silent film era.

The Alexandria has been the scene of stabbings, drug deals, domestic violence, raves and prostitution. And some of that continues today. Stories circulate about pedophiles who were lured to the roof only to “fall” 12 stories to their deaths. Regardless, among the seniors, mentally ill and those who look like they stepped out of a scene from The Wire, there are students, artists, actors and writers — whose mere presence is bound to give outsiders the promise of hope.

However, despite the leasing woman’s neat appearance and smile, the place retained an eerie aura.

I noticed the light fixtures in the hallways were new but chosen to fit with the old interior; however, the long, empty hallways were still dark. There were not many people on the ninth floor when I moved in, and this was a little unsettling. Some of the tiles on the floor around the elevator were cracked or missing, but I was assured that was one of the many things targeted for improvement – along with more significant plans, like the additions of restaurants, ground floor bars and a business center with Internet access for residents.

On the up side, I loved the tall, heavy, front door of the apartment; the wide marble shower and the white, octagon-shaped tile on the bathroom floor. But mostly, I loved the view. I could see Pershing Square, and when evening fell, the buildings in the financial district were outlined in shades of blue.

The owners of one popular neighborhood bar encouraged patrons to frequent the bar in their underwear. If I remember correctly, a percentage of the bar’s proceeds would benefit charity, and those daring enough to attend in their skivvies would get half off their drinks.

Several young women stood outside the bar in cute, ruffled panties and heels. The outfits were likely purchased for the occasion. But, a half a block away, two scruffy-looking men leered at the women. Common sense told me there were boundaries to respect downtown; some streets I should not cross alone, especially when the sun was setting, and I felt I should select my wardrobe very carefully.

My stay downtown came to an abrupt end. Part of the reason for my departure involved a neighbor who was a little too eager to know about my comings and goings. Additionally, while I can’t prove he was indeed responsible for a long, white line of spray paint on the driver’s side of my lipstick red Prius, I filed a stalking report with the LAPD’s Central Division and went to court for a restraining order.

The building’s leasing office strongly suggested that I be escorted in and out of my apartment. For what seemed like an eternity, I didn’t leave or enter the building without the company of a security guard or another resident. I felt I had to whisper when I was on the phone, and I wasn’t sure if turning up the TV was a good idea or a bad one, because if the TV was loud, he would know I was home. I also took the stairs – a lot – to and from the ninth floor, so I wouldn’t have to ride the elevator with him.

I had the option of moving to another floor in my building, but I didn’t think that was the solution. Either I would leave or he would. There were a lot of reasons to stay, including: the night view of the illuminated buildings in the Financial District, the community I was beginning to feel I knew and the convenience of urban life. But all of these joys combined did not allow me to sleep without fear of my neighbor; thus, I left.

Is downtown safer than it was 10 years ago? Absolutely. Local merchants, neighborhood detectives and police officers agreed. When you live downtown, and walk its streets, you get to know the people who run the bars, burger joints and coffee shops. It is very much a community, and its density, perhaps surprisingly, makes it feel like a small town.

Is the Historic Core, and downtown in general, an area in flux? Absolutely. The bars and eateries that have popped up since my move, along with the people frequenting them, especially along Spring, serve as testimony to the area’s growth as well as its potential.

Maybe I’m crazy, stubborn, naïve or all of the above, but when people ask if I would I live downtown again, my answer is always the same. Absolutely.


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