Feeding Los Angeles Since 1917–Grand Central Market

I’m on my way to LA’s famed Grand Central Market.  On Broadway, I come across the Guadalupe Wedding Chapel, right next to Goodwill.  Beverly Hills Real Estate is next, followed by a worn down theater with an elaborate façade that screams “Film Here.” I drive around the block to the Hill Street Side, passing an apartment building displaying a certain urban feel and announcing itself Metro Inspired Rental Living.  Angels Flight and then the Third Street tunnel are to my left, darkness swallowing the cars that enter. 

 I’m hungry.  My tummy grumbles with anticipation for the variety of foods I’m expecting.  I pull into the Public Parking Garage at the north end of the building.  Parking is free with a $10 purchase and validation, so I park up a few floors, taking note of the Grand Central Square’s Leasing Office.  Advertisements announce spacious apartments, parking included.  I head toward the elevator and press Level 1, the strawberry level.  Each floor is decorated with a different fruit or vegetable.  Level 3, where I’m parked is the banana floor.

 The Grand Central Market is located in the ground floor and basement of two adjacent buildings, one of which is the Homer Laughlin Building, which once housed an office for American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1897, and designed in the Beaux Arts style similar to its Angels Flight neighbor, the Homer Laughlin Building was the fifth building in the United States to use concrete floors.  LA Conservancy also notes that it is one of downtown’s oldest commercial structures still in use, and was the city’s first fire-proofed and steel-reinforced structures.

 In 1905, the second of the two buildings was built, which extended the original building from Broadway to Hill Street.  Known as the Laughlin Annex/Lyon Building, it was the work of architect Harrison Albright, whose other most notable building is the West Baden Springs Hotel in Orange County, Indiana.  Until 1965, prior to the construction of the Houston Astrodome, this hotel boasted the largest free-spanning dome in the United States.  The Homer Laughlin/Lyon Building was home to the Ville de Paris Department Store until September 1917, when the Grand Central Market opened. Later renovations to the building drastically changed its appearance with the addition of a tile façade.  Added in the 1960’s, it effectively hid the second story windows.

 The Levin and Associates website says that the Homer Laughlin Building, and the attached Million Dollar Theater building built in 1918, both underwent a major renovation in the 1990s under the direction of developer Ira Yellin and architect Brenda Levin. The Million Dollar Theater is one of the first movie palaces built in the United States, and was also the first movie house built by entrepreneur Sid Grauman, owner of the famed Chinese Theater. Ira Yellin is fondly remembered by Levin, “he saw in the fading old glories of downtown Los Angeles the potential for reviving historic architecture and the city.”  In the Grand Central Market, vintage neon signs marking each stall were restored, and the 1960’s tile façade was removed to reveal much of the original Beaux Arts details.

The elevator opens and I step into the Grand Central Market space.  A large mural on the back wall welcomes me in English and Spanish, along with a pair of giant bright oranges against a verdant background. To my right is another large mural, which boasts “feeding Los Angeles since 1917.” Various pictures of orange groves and fields and happy families surround the motto.  I step down the stairs, sawdust coating my feet, and begin my stroll through the aisles.

 Sun’s Produce is true to its name, bins upon bins overflowing with fruits and veggies of all kinds.  Beans are 79 cents a pound, bananas five for $2.  I had heard rumors that these prices couldn’t be beaten, but I’m unimpressed.  Superior has beans for 69 cents a pound, and bananas for the same price.  Albertson’s and Ralph’s both have specials on the same items, a few cents higher than the market.

 I peruse the stands.  Casa De Dulces.  La Casa Verde.  Jones Grain Mill with a whole variety of potions and spices advertised as “health foods and vitamins.” Kabob and More.  Chinese Massage.  A restaurant simply named “Mexican Food.” A random vendor displaying random jewelry, or what you might call junk.  Yogurt Factory.  Del Rey Productos Latinos.  AFS Check Cashing.  The Tortilleria/Panaderia/Masa Fresca.   All have A’s from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

The haphazardness of the businesses lends an authentic open-air feel to the market.  I wander downstairs, but find only a general store and a large empty concrete space dotted with a few folding chairs.  So many of the stands have long since closed.  Souper Bowl Vietnamese.  Schawarama.  Central Self-Serve Produce.  Many more minus their names, but representing nearly a quarter of the entire Market. 

According to the Grand Central Market website, the market offers “fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry and fresh fish from California and around the world.”  Over 38 merchants offer selections of produce, delicacies, and unique specialty items from around the globe. There’s a great variety of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, and poultry, exotic herbs and spices, candies and nuts, fresh cut flowers, plants and exotic dishes from a world of thriving cultures.  Los Angeles Citysearch makes mention of a Rube Goldberg-style machine that makes corn tortillas near the Broadway entrance.

By far, the most popular stand is Santo’s Liquor, floor to ceiling booze, complete with your selections of condoms and batteries.  While I pause to take in the effect, a short Mexican man purchases two twelve packs of Tecate and a fifth of Sauza Tequila. He hands the bags to his son while he fishes out a crisp $100 bill, and then readjusts his jeans and large silver belt buckle.  I can only think that it’s about three o’clock in the afternoon, and this man is already preparing his evening.  Or I could be wrong.  Maybe it’s for some future party, although from the lines in his face, the drained glint in his eye, I doubt this is the case. 

I stand on Broadway, the Market behind me, assortment of stores in front of me.  Mercedes Vocational School.  Unisex Beauty Salon.  Ritmo Latino.  A McDonald’s.  I turn around to take it all in again, the majesty of the building still apparent, despite the many internal changes.  I can see through the market to Hill Street, Angels Flight visible in the distance, unmoving.  There is still a heartbeat to the place, a quiet humming of people going about their daily business, buying, eating, and haggling.  The history of this part of Downtown is still impressive, still tangible through the years. 

The Market is open seven days a week, 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.


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