Downtown Adventures with Aunt Gigi

My Aunt Gisela, aka “Gigi,” always took me to the coolest places when I was a kid.

During my obsession with old movies around age 11, we hopped on her Vespa scooter and headed to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to check out the graves of Rudolph Valentino, Errol Flynn and Judy Garland.

Then there was the Hare Krishna Festival in Venice when I was 12. Between the bright colors, the chanting and several bejeweled elephants parading in the sand, my mind was blown. Watching the little kids dance around with shaved heads, I was convinced they would try to kidnap me. This revelation made Gigi laugh hysterically, before she realized how freaked out I was and went into reassurance mode.

So when I finally decided to check out the Central Market in Downtown L.A. this summer, I knew who to call.

It took us about 15 minutes from Gigi’s home in Highland Park and she knew exactly where she was headed.  After all, Gigi’s been going there since the early 1960s after immigrating to America from Canada in 1959. (She and my mother, her oldest sister, originally hail from Germany if the name Gisela didn’t give that away).

“Your Aunt Helga and I went to see an Elvis movie near here,” Gigi recalled. “We didn’t have enough money to take bus home, so we took Broadway and walked back to Lincoln Heights. We were 12 and 14.”

Now 71, Gigi still walks the streets of Downtown L.A. with confidence, leading us quickly to the Bradbury Building.

The architectural landmark, built in 1893, is famous for its ornate ironwork and five stories of walkways, stairs and elevators, all bathed in natural light from an atrium. It’s the city of Los Angeles’ oldest landmarked building and still a wonder to behold. Though new to me, the Bradbury Building still felt strangely familiar, most likely because it has been featured in TV shows and movies since the 1940s, maybe most notably in 1982’s “Blade Runner.” Like just about everyone in the place, we stopped and took a selfie.

Across the street, the Victor Clothing Co. mural known as “The Pope of Broadway” stopped me in my tracks. It’s a 70-foot-high painting of actor Anthony Quinn, looking dashing as he dances on a stage. Artist Elloy Torez, who felt Quinn represented the diversity of Los Angeles, created the original mural in 1985 and restored it in 2017. It’s a beautiful, compelling work of art.

Just a block away was Grand Central Market. Outside are tables and chairs for people to enjoy the many culinary options contained within the bustling market, which is more like a food court teeming with restaurants. It was lunchtime and massive lines were in place for popular stops like the breakfast-themed Eggslut and cleverly named Ramen Hood.

In between the restaurants, there are specialty shops such as DTLA Cheese & Kitchen or Valerie Confections Bakery & Café. My foodie head was spinning. So. Many. Choices.

Gigi suggested The Horse Thief BBQ, a super cool outdoor restaurant with communal seating. The menu featured old-school smoked meats with classic sides. Throwing any concern for calories away, we opted for the smoky, fork tender brisket shot through with decadent ribbons of fat, along with macaroni and cheese and potato salad.

As we ate, she looked around at the young men in their skinny jeans and girls in their sundresses with boots and smiled.

“This place has really changed over the years,” Gigi said. “It wasn’t a hipster spot when your grandma and I came here, back in the 60s.”

In those days, she continued, the market leaned more European. Every Saturday, Gigi and Grandma would come to an Italian deli where they sold German bread and sausages, and they stocked up for the week.

“The fruit vendors would have all the nice stuff up front, but you couldn’t pick your own,” she said. “They would give you all the crap.”

I laughed. Gigi’s bluntness was part of her charm.

Stuffed full of barbecue, we moved slowly in the heat towards the Angel’s Flight Railway. The poppy-orange tram, featured in the popular 2016 musical “La La Land” transports passengers a few vertical blocks from Grand Avenue to the California Plaza Building, where Gigi used to work a decade before.

Our last stop was the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, which opened in 1923 and was one of the first venues to host the Academy Awards. Opulent touches abound inside the historic hotel: huge carved marble fountains and columns, gleaming wood-beamed ceilings, bronze stairwells, massive sparkling chandeliers and jewel-toned, heavy velvet draperies.

We stopped and looked at all the old Hollywood photos that lined the hallways. As I lingered, Gigi wandered of down a long hallway, stopping to look up at the ornate travertine ceilings before turning her gaze ahead, ever ready for her next adventure.

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