Old-timers remember the brawls. "There used to be big fights,” says Manuel, a regular who has been coming to La Cita to dance for 20 years. “But that doesn’t happen anymore."
Those who haven't been coming here quite so long recall a dark bar, unwelcoming to outsiders. "You know what it’s like in those old movies, when someone walks in and the record scratches?” asks Galo, who first set foot inside the downtown bar in 1993. "That’s what it was like walking in there.”
Some also remember their mothers or aunts making the trek to La Cita in the '70s or '80s from Bellflower or El Monte to see their friends and dance for hours on end.
La Cita is still like that, actually — minus the brawls. It’s dark, its walls stained with decades of history written in beer and sweat. Lots of aunties still go there to dance. But in the 10 years since La Cita changed hands, it’s evolved into something else, too: an unlikely urban utopia, a cross-generational, multicultural oasis caught like lightning in a scummy bottle.
It’s the unique venue that has been able to preserve a decades-old Sunday afternoon norteño club even as it has added hip-hop, punk and rockabilly nights, all while serving as the epicenter for a Latin alternative movement that has reverberated well outside L.A. When the Grammy-winning band La Santa Cecilia headlined the Walt Disney Concert Hall earlier this year, just a few blocks away, they shouted out the little dive bar by name.
On a recent Saturday night, the only two things glowing on Hill Street are La Cita and the Taco House No. 1 next door. Inside, the long bar is backlit red and green. Light glints off everything: the disco ball, the gold banisters, the red Christmas lights. The tattooed and the pompadoured idle about. Salvatory, a trim dude who looks to be about 45, leans against the bar, turned on by the energy. “It’s the red lights,” he tells me, getting closer. “They’re satanic.” He tells me he and his wife once had a threesome with a guy they met on the dance floor here.
The band playing tonight is Moonlight Trio, one of many that have found their footing at La Cita while twisting together American rock and cumbia. They play “cumbiabilly,” which has drawn a particularly loyal crowd tonight. A tipsy gal with a bouffant tells me she sees Moonlight Trio here every month.
The stage at La Cita is tiny, and almost ground level, but that hasn’t stopped it from nurturing an entire generation of young Latin alternative bands. They tell of slowly growing audiences and wild, late-night shows aided in their volume by the venue's lack of neighbors. “It’s kind of like our CBGB's,” says Miguel Ramírez, percussionist for La Santa Cecilia, whose sound embraces cumbia, soul and alternative rock. "When we first started playing, the Latin alternative scene had been happening [but] there weren't a lot of places to play. La Cita had the foresight to see it was going to be a movement."
Eduardo Arenas plays bass for Chicano Batman, a Latin band with a fixation on American funk and soul whose hybrid sound came of age at La Cita. Arenas' mom used to party here in the early ‘80s, and when he invited her to a Chicano Batman show at the bar, she was shocked at how it had been "reinvented."
“It's just familiar, it's small, it's lively,” Arenas says. “You're bound to run into people you know from your neighborhood or the scene.”
Carl Lofgren has run La Cita for 10 years this June. He bought it with partners David Neupert, Pete Lenavitt and Jeff Semones from an L.A. family that had owned it since at least 1960. And it is every bit the relic it appears to be. With its old-fashioned, painted yellow sign, adorned with little Mexican flags and sombreros, and its faux-hacienda tile arches, La Cita would look more at home on a block in Tijuana than it does in downtown L.A. Perhaps it fit in better in 1960, when Broadway was the bustling center of Latino shopping in the city. La Cita, just a block away, would have been the perfect place for a bored dad to wander off for a drink.
In 2006, though, the environs were pretty desolate. The bar was flanked on the right by the incongruous Grand Central Market and on the left by a massive parking lot that took up much of the rest of the block. Across the street, the old Angels Flight funicular gathered dust. Around the corner on Broadway, street markets persisted in crumbling buildings and theaters. The night club scene that flourishes now was just a glimmer.
At the time, Lofgren, a one-time ad sales rep for Spin magazine reared in New Jersey and Maryland, co-owned the now-shuttered Scene punk bar in Glendale with Neupert. He wasn’t looking to buy La Cita specifically, and he didn’t have a particular interest in Latin music. But he was in the market for a new bar and La Cita was for sale.
When he walked up for the first time, a doorman stopped him. "This is a Mexican bar," the man told him. “I said, ‘Well, can we come in?’" Lofgren remembers. "The Christmas lights were there, the accordion was blasting. We thought, ‘This place is incredible.’"
Seven months after that, the keys were in his hand. In an interview later that year, Lofgren told the L.A. Downtown News: "Some [regulars] seem scared we're going to take away their club, but we have absolutely no interest in doing that.”
Impressively, and improbably, they didn’t. But they did make changes. They hired a new security company to clean up the place. “First, I had to know what the fuck was going on,” Lofgren admits. They kept on a few of the original staff, some of whom still work there today. They whittled the historic norteño and cumbia clubs down from three nights to one, and Lofgren started booking younger bands on weeknights.
Lofgren is of Swedish ancestry, stocky and gruff-looking, built like a hockey player. His head is shaved and his beard is thick. He owns, and occasionally wears, a full mariachi outfit. Around his neck he wears dog tags, a little metal turtle and a string of colorful beads. When I meet with him, and in nearly every picture of him I've ever seen, he wears a brown La Cita T-shirt.
He books the bands and the DJs, manages the bar, and says he even picks up glasses at the end of the night. “La Cita took me over, and now it is me," Lofgren says. "If you knew me, you'd say I'm the only guy who could run this place."
What he and his partners have made is the fulfillment of an urbanist’s dream: a space where culture is both preserved and created; where generations and subcultures mingle with ease; where you can bathe in the light of the patio and hook up with strangers in the dark.
James Rojas is an urban planner and artist whose work largely focuses on how Latinos have shaped American cities. In La Cita, he too sees a kind of ideal cultural space. "People think you can erase L.A. every day and remake it," he says, referring to recent citywide development. “But how do you maintain the values of a space that are universal? Bars like La Cita have maintained that original intent and kept it alive."
Ximena Martin, senior curator of public programs at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown L.A., puts it even more bluntly. "The owners are smart and they know their audience,” she says. "In time, that audience is going to be the majority of Los Angeles."
Can La Cita last in a rapidly developing downtown? Despite rumors, Lofgren says he hasn’t been approached by anyone asking to buy the bar. And because Lofgren and his partners own the building, they won’t need to vacate until they want to. But that parking lot that was next door when they bought the place? It’s now a hole in the ground — a hole owned by Equity Residential, a multibillion-dollar real estate company.
Sunday afternoons and evenings at La Cita belong to Doble Poder, a veteran live band that bounces through the long list of cumbias and norteñas their Mexican and Central American audience know by heart. They play seven sets in a row every Sunday. I particularly admire the keyboard player, Cesar Noriega. On one song, the drums pound on the downbeat, and Noriega does double duty, emulating horns and organ; on another, a norteña with a hard, polka-like rhythm, his fingers dance over the keys, imitating the trills of an accordion.
There are two distinct crowds here on Sundays. Outside on the patio, the median age can’t be higher than 30, but inside it’s closer to 50. Women in colorful blouses and tight skirts dance with men with big hats and shiny belt buckles. A long wooden handrail separates the bar from the dance floor — a place where the curious and the bashful can stand and observe the dancers on the other side. Mónica and Eunice, who have both worked here for years, calmly tend bar.
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Raul, a serious man with a crew cut, sits alone, tuning out the music and the dancing, sipping beer and watching a soccer match between Chivas and Dorados. He lives in Hollywood. He says he remembers the ownership change 10 years ago, but he personally doesn’t think too much has changed. There are other bars, he says, but this is his bar. “I’ll be here until I die,” he says.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the new owners built La Cita's patio, but it has been a feature of the bar since well before 2006. We regret the error.]