“There were so many famous murders happening!” says an enthusiastic Zahra Bejaune. “There was the murder of Ned Doheny, who was Ed Doheny’s son.” She is walking backward through downtown L.A.’s Grand Park, addressing an attentive tour group that seems enraptured by her Prohibition-era murder stories.
Bejaune, a local muralist and third-generation L.A. native, is a tour guide for several of Cartwheel Art’s immersive downtown tours. Cartwheel Art has been offering art-centric neighborhood tours of downtown’s galleries, murals and graffiti for a few years. But its newest and most exclusive tour — which officially begins in the coming weeks — is taking things in a different direction: below ground.
“We’ve crafted [the tour] based on the theme of the time period of Hotel Indigo with regards to the design concept of it,” says Cartwheel Art founder Cindy Schwarzstein of their partnership with the new hotel. The sparkly hotel, which opened a few weeks ago on Francisco Street, not far from Staples Center, took its design inspiration from the storied past of the city it towers over.
A mural of Fiesta de las Flores covers a large wall of the lobby. Signs of the hotel’s muse, Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong, appear throughout. The presidential suite is designed to be a sort of modern replica of her apartment. The hotel’s hallways aim to emulate the underground tunnels of the Prohibition era. Though the hotel hints at these things, it is all very modern, bright and luxurious, nothing like what L.A. actually looked like in its early days.
The tour is a rare chance to see the city’s famed underground tunnels and speakeasies. Though the tours can only be booked through the hotel, participants don’t have to be staying at the hotel to sign up.
“The tunnels run through the entire downtown area. So some of them are privately owned because some of them are part of basements of buildings,” Bejaune explains as we prepare to descend below ground. She explains that the original system, built in 1910, has about 11 miles of underground tunnels and was built as an alternative to the dirt roads above ground; it served as an easy passageway for corrupt city officials to smuggle alcohol.
Bejaune leads the group into the Los Angeles County Archives elevator, which leads to a series of well-maintained tunnels that connect downtown’s court buildings. She stands at the intersection of two tunnels in front of a big red “No Trespassing” sign and begins listing the famous criminals who have been led, while in custody, through this tunnel. “Mickey Cohen, Bugsy Siegel, Charlie Manson, O.J. Simpson, Charlie Chaplin, when he was arrested.”
Then it is on to a seedier part of town. As she walks past the Hotel Alexandria, Bejaune points to a dark portion of the building with broken windows known as the Phantom Wing. She mentions that several people have been pushed out the windows there.
“Is it haunted in here?” asks a tour member as the group enters the gilded lobby of the famed Rosslyn Hotel.
“Yes, it’s haunted,” says Bejaune, matter-of-factly. The group is led downstairs to a forgotten speakeasy/restaurant where gangsters like Jack Dragna once played, and the original piano and bar remain. Across the hall is one of the secret tunnels. One guest proclaims that she caught a ghost in her cellphone photo and scurries to exit the tunnel.
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Next it’s on to Charles Bukowski's old haunt, the King Eddy. What is now a seedy dive bar was once a piano shop, under which L.A’s first speakeasy bar was hidden. The only way to get a peek at the underground treasure is through Bejaune and Cartwheel Art, who have befriended the owners of the King Eddy. When the door opens to the dusty underground room, it smells as though no one has set foot inside it in a hundred years. The walls are emblazoned with original murals with a strange, cartoonish design. Behind a wall is the original bar window where drinks would have been served. It's at once creepy and fascinating, and a far cry from the luxury accommodations of the Hotel Indigo. To gradually bring the group back to the present day, the tour ends at French dip restaurant Cole's on Sixth Street, which still feels wonderfully old but the drinking is legal and there's no password necessary to enter.
Hotel Indigo, 899 Francisco St., downtown. (213) 683-4855, hotelindigo.com. Tours are $85 per person and booking will begin in the next few weeks.