A Punk-Rock Guide to Downtown Los Angeles
Gentrification be damned, downtown L.A. remains (for now) a punk-rocker's playground, home to institutions like the Smell.
[Editor's note: This guide was originally published in conjunction with the annual Berserktown festival, which took place at the Teragram Ballroom (except the parts that got moved to Union) on the western edge of downtown. But punk-rock fans can and should explore downtown L.A. anytime, so it's been updated to reflect that.]
Downtown Los Angeles is punk ground zero. Long before today’s heyday of loft living, the city center's cheap real estate, grimy nightlife and prevailing devil-may-care attitude made it the perfect incubator for L.A.’s early punk movement. Times have changed, but downtown's punk spirit lives on, so we humbly submit this punk guide to downtown to help you miscreants, malcontents and misfits haunt the seedy city underbelly on the cheap. Here’s where to find bare-bones grub, affordable gear, pogo- and pit-friendly gigs, and holy relics from L.A.’s grimy yesteryear.
Empty Out Your Pockets, You Don’t Need Their Change: Retail
Punk paupers get treated like princes at this extremely affordable catch-all emporium. Beyond cassette tapes, books, VHS movies, leather goods and a case full of bric-a-brac curiosities, you’ll find a T-shirt rack packed to the gills with the least expensive band merch around these parts. A crew of congenial purists keeps the hole-in-the-wall store open every day from 12 to 7 p.m. Located across from the Greyhound Station, Descontrol is your perfect last-minute stop before fleeing town in the aftermath of a depraved weekend. 1725 E. 7th St., Arts District, IG: descontrol_shop.
These Days: punk esoterica on the edge of Skid Row
This second story art gallery and book store at the boundary between the Historic Core and Skid Row specializes in a broad swath of underground photography, punk scene retrospectives, zines and classic esoterica from the likes of neighborhood folk progenitor Woody Guthrie. Ask the storeowners nicely and they may just regale you with a story of the adjacent Indian Alley art installation and all the lurid history that comes along with it. These Days is open from 12 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. 118 Winston St., Historic Core, thesedaysla.com.
Though primarily an art and photography gallery and event space, Lethal Amounts’ maintains a retail nook that’s thoroughly stocked with a selection of iconic band shirts, posters, art prints and jewelry. Come here for one of their gallery parties and you're likely to spend money you may or may not have in a drunken episode you may or may not remember come Monday morning. 1226 W. 7th St., Westlake, (213) 265-7452, lethalamounts.com.
Michael Levine, Inc.
If you’re still enamored with the DIY ethos of punk rock and stoutly refuse to settle for a store-bought wardrobe, the fabric pushers down in the Fashion District are your best bet for stocking up on inexpensive supplies. At the grandaddy of them all, Michael Levine, you’ll find the constituent parts for a new mod-chic jacket, Scottish tartan skirt, fluorescent print kaftan or whatever homemade garment you think will best express your individuality. You can also stock up on the little things — safety pins, zippers, a fancy leather needle to help suture the failing sole on your worn Docs. Glam-influenced shoppers should head up the street to the Nova Rhinestone Depot at 8th and Maple. 920 Maple Ave., Fashion District, (213) 622-6259, www.lowpricefabric.com.
Pop Obscure, downtown's only dedicated record store
A recent addition to the Fashion District, Pop Obscure Records is downtown’s only dedicated vinyl shop. The racks are strewn with new and used wax and a special little section for those 45 RPM jewels that make anyone’s record collection just that more enviable. Sure, the selection at the Last Bookstore isn’t anything to scoff at, and you could always spend your hard earned dimes at Urban Outfitters, if you have the constitution for that. However, we privilege high walls tacked with overlapping posters from a happier, uglier day in rock music. You can skank into Pop Obscure from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the Lord’s Day. 735 S. Los Angeles St., Fashion District, (213) 628-3898, www.popobscurerecords.com.
The true dark horse for downtown punk fashion seekers is Santee Alley. That prolonged stretch of street vendors is the main vein for an impossibly large variety of band shirts. The meager price point practically demands you use a pair of worn scissors to hack the sleeves and adjust the neckline on your new “Meat Is Murder” shirt. Better still, a bumper crop of five-dollar sunglasses means you’ll have your pick of eyewear with which to mask your utter disdain for the status quo, or the lingering ramifications of last night’s over-indulgence. Between Santee St. and Maple Ave., running from Olympic Blvd. to Pico Blvd., Fashion District, www.thesanteealley.com.
Now It’s 1984: Punk History
Within spitting distance of Descontrol, you’ll find an anonymous industrial building at 1745 E. Seventh St. where the fledging but seminal Fatima Records once occupied the seventh floor. Founded in 1979, the label’s catalog is a limited affair built mostly on releases from L.A. stalwarts The Brat and The Plugz. Of special note, Fatima’s tripartite brain trust included Plugz founder Tito Larriva, Yolanda Ferrer and the late, great printmaker Richard Duardo. Fatima’s legacy exists as testament to the strong Latino art presence in punk throughout the genre's long tenure in Los Angeles. 1745 E. Seventh St., Arts District.
The former home of Madame Wong's (left, behind the Bruce Lee statue)
Dearly departed Esther Wong had an unlikely pedigree to serve as Los Angeles’ early champion of punk rock. She immigrated from Shanghai to Los Angeles in 1949 when she was 32. As a hospitality manager, Wong faced dismal returns on a traditional Polynesian floorshow. The opportunity to host a punk showcase or two provided a lucrative alternative. From X to The Ramones, Guns N' Roses to Black Flag, a who’s who of noteworthy bands played the music. The joint ran from 1978 to 1985, when a fire tore through the building. Today, the building at 949 Sun Mun Way is a chic single family home. 949 Sun Mun Way, Chinatown.
Hong Kong Café
After you've lit a memorial candle at the former Madame Wong’s, proceed north past Burgerlords (where the animal-conscious among you can find a superb and not expensive vegan burger) and park outside 425 Gin Ling Way. Today the space holds Realm, a home design store. Once upon a seedy time it housed the Hong Kong Café where the booking tastes were even more liberal than over at Madame Wong’s. An odd slew of acts from The Go-Go’s to The Germs played the packed hall. Leather jacket-clad youth of today will note the venue’s scenic contribution to classic L.A. punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. 425 Gin Ling Way, Chinatown.
Atomic Café proprietress Nancy Sekizawa
Courtesy Nancy Sekizawa
What was once a milquetoast diner became the food-serving core of the downtown scene when the family Matoba handed the reigns to their restaurant over to their daughter Nancy. The interior was soon spackled with cut-rate punk imagery. The jukebox was stuffed with crowd-pleasing 45s, curated by Nancy herself. The crowd grew motley and spirited. Billed as a refuge for the out-of-sorts set, the Atomic Café’s client list includes Bowie, Devo, Blondie, Sid Vicious and a strong if close-lipped roster of Japanese gangsters. Alas, the building, which later housed a Señor Fish, was consumed by the current Metro Regional Connector Project. 422 E. 1st St. (southwest corner of 1st and Alameda), Little Tokyo.
When it closed in 2001, Al’s was the longest tenured punk pit in the city. Its doors opened to the piss and vinegar set in 1979, when the idea of a high-rent Arts District was but a pipe dream and the broad expanse of downtown between Broadway and the river was an apocalyptic wasteland befitting an overdriven punk soundtrack. Delightful dystopia thrived in the freak-friendly bar in the ground floor of the American Hotel, a hovel legendary in its own right. 303 S. Hewitt St., Arts District.
The former site of Gorky's
Once upon a time, the corner building at Eighth and San Julian was all-hours hangout for ponderous bohemians, hip hangers-on, intellectual interlopers and generally anyone who had pharmacologically modified their circadian rhythm. Over more than a decade of broken bread, the cherished Russian-themed café grew to include an in-house brewery and various live events. Alas, a changing early-'90s downtown relegated Gorky’s to the dustbin of forgotten hotspots. Today, all that remains of the late-night calorie caterer is its old sign. Appropriately, the building sits near the stretch of today’s Flower District that specializes in funerary arrangements. 532 E. 8th St., Flower District.
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