On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the dance floor at Paraiso Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles is packed to the gills, a sea of bobbing beige Stetson hats and swishing hair, as the band Navajo Norteño bops from slinky cumbias to giddy norteñas.
But late on a Friday night, the scene is calmer. Men are a little dressed down, having come straight from work, in T-shirts or flannel; the dance floor is quieter, with a handful of couples swaying by under red Christmas lights and a disco ball.
Freddy and Guadalupe sit at a small table nearby, taking a break. They met at Paraiso, they say, and now they come out together from Cypress Park on the weekends to dance. (Freddy is from Guatemala; Guadalupe grew up in Chiapas, Mexico.) “It’s a very relaxed place,” he says in Spanish, smiling and sitting close next to her. In another moment, they’re on their feet again.
José Campos, the manager at Paraiso with the jolly disposition, has been watching older couples like Freddy and Guadalupe come and go here for 15 years. "[Some] ladies, when they leave the door, it’s like they suddenly age again,” Campos says. “But in here, they’re dancing, spinning. We are downtown’s fountain of youth, that's what we are. People come here and they become young again."
The company that owns Paraiso’s building, L&R Group of Companies, says it’s deciding whether to level the place for a parking lot. It’s a story that has garnered a lot of media attention — not because of Paraiso but because L&R’s plans also initially seemed to threaten its neighbor the Smell, the hallowed downtown DIY music space. When the Smell published a copy of the demolition notice that all the businesses on this block of South Main Street received on May 27, music publications around the country reported it.
But, according to L&R, the notices were supposed to be served to only one building on the street — the one on the corner of Third and Main that hosts Paraiso, along with a few other establishments: Five Star Bar, a long-running rock dive; La Costeña, a no-frills tavern; the Shish Kabob & Much More restaurant; and CrossFit Mean Streets, a bare-bones gym.
Kevin Litwin, chief operating officer for L&R subsidiary Joe's Auto Parks, says the company is looking at its options. “We have tenants who have been there and they pay rent,” Litwin says. "Does it make sense for us to pave it and lose all our tenants? Can I fill enough parking to recoup that?” According to public records, L&R bought the building in March 2015 for $7.3 million.
Meanwhile, the businesses are still running. They’re decidedly not hip — venues where drunks go to play pool, where older Latino couples come to dance, where local bands play 30-minute sets to small crowds made up mostly of friends. The building they occupy is squat, grim, painted dark brown, situated on a sooty corner with little foot traffic. Their signs are old, hand-painted, worn off. They look more like downtown L.A.’s past than its future.
If the building ever had a proper name, it’s been long since forgotten. It went up in 1905 as a three-story restaurant with an opulent banquet hall. In 1959 or 1960 — records aren’t clear — then-owner Joe Rosen lopped off the top two stories.
Paraiso opened in 1942 — or so states the peeling mural on the outside wall, though it isn’t a stretch, given how Latin dance halls proliferated here in the mid–20th century. Hector Rosales took over about 16 years ago.
Cecilio started coming here about a year ago. Originally from Morelos, Mexico, Cecilio sits on a Friday night with his eyes locked on the dance floor, faded tattoos on his arms and a tightly trimmed mustache on his weathered face. He wears a shirt that says “Tree Hugger.”
Paraiso is essentially a big room divided into two parts: the dance floor, with bands set up in the back, and a dining room, lined with red tables where dancers rest and grab a bite to eat. A banner fixed high on the dining room wall — too high to change out regularly — reads “Happy Birthday.”
Cecilio is waiting for Grupo Libre to play a cumbia. “It’s not Mexican, but I love it, because you can dance really close with a girl,” he says in Spanish. Right now they’re playing merengue, so he downs another beer.
James Rojas, founder of the Latino Urban Forum and an expert in how urban planning affects Latino communities, has a theory on why a place so popular can exist so utterly under the radar. “A lot of Latino culture is in the shadow of the city,” Rojas says. "They’re humble, they don’t blog, they don’t tweet, they don’t take selfies. [These communities] are informal, they’re hidden, and mainstream culture doesn’t understand how they’re created and made."
That, of course, makes it all the easier for them to be stamped out without a trace. "The whole city loses a piece of its history when these places are razed and forgotten,” Rojas adds. “If you’re wealthy and you live in Los Angeles, you can choose a different neighborhood — Silver Lake, Santa Monica. If you’re an immigrant ... you have to go to certain neighborhoods to survive. How do we protect these communities?"
Paraiso is open only on the weekends, and owner Ricardo Rosales, who runs the place with his father, Hector, spends some of that time in his office at the restaurant. He used to also run a taco shop next door, Ricky’s Tacos, but though the sign still hangs above the storefront, the stand has been closed for a couple of years.
Rosales says gang members kept him busy in the early years, when the neighborhood was rougher, but now he’s more preoccupied with keeping the place comfortable for his older clientele. He worries about what they’ll do if he has to close down. "It means their life,” he says of the little dance hall downstairs. "They would have no other place to go. A lot of places like this don’t really exist in L.A. They’re family, they’re friends. They need this.” He says he’s looked at other spaces downtown but was discouraged by the cost.
There’s a pattern on the floor of the back room at Paraiso, made of little hexagonal tiles, an intricate design of red, white and green. In the same building and a universe away at Five Star, the same tile pattern covers the floor of the bar.
Five Star is a dive. Not in that manicured, vintage way, either — it’s a classically tacky dive. Bad surrealist paintings hang on the awkwardly high walls. A TV tuned to a true-crime show casts a faint blue light across the room. The high ceilings, with refined moldings that hint at the building’s distant past, look as if they’ve been painted over 100 times.
On a Friday night, Myron and Ruth, grimy rocker kids, lean over the bar. Myron's favorite part of Five Star, he says, is that you can basically do whatever you want in the dark upstairs balcony behind the stage. (There’s nothing up there besides two moth-eaten couches and an empty bottle of Magner’s.) They’re celebrating Ruth’s birthday, and here to see whoever's playing, which tonight happens to be Secret Agent Band, a Devo cover group.
Five Star is notable for the sheer quantity of live bands it books, putting on shows between five and seven nights a week. For some, the bar’s appeal is utilitarian. On a recent night, Mike Luengas, who sometimes books punk shows here, says he booked the Mexico City punk band playing tonight because he wouldn't have been able to get them paid at an all-ages venue. “The reason I like booking here when I don’t have any other spot is because they give me the full door money,” Luengas says. "I want to make sure I get the touring band paid."
Other bands, including locals Nobunny and L.A. Witch, have used the bar as one of their first stepping stones before headlining bigger venues such as the Echo and the El Rey. There may be no better place in this part of town for aspiring bands (or promoters) with small followings to test the waters.
Local psych rockers L.A. Witch remember the fundraiser they threw at Five Star in 2012 to help pay for their first tour. “We went all out,” says Sade Sanchez, the band’s guitarist and vocalist. "We bought balloons, we bought glitter, we bought candy, and we decorated. And they let us do everything! We spilled glitter all over the floor and they were stoked. It was crazy.
"We ended up being able to go on the first tour, and we’ve never been able to do anything like that before or after,” she says. "I definitely think that Five Star was a huge part of enabling us to grow as a band."
That’s exactly how Five Star’s owner, Marc Cordova, wants it. The bar belonged to Cordova’s father long before it was a rock club. Robert Cordova opened Five Stars Bar in 1971, Cordova says, and for years it operated as a no-frills destination for drunks in one of L.A.’s worst neighborhoods. Cordova inherited the bar in the early ’90s, and a few years later, inspired by legendary downtown dive Al’s Bar, decided to build a small stage. (Al’s closed in 2001 when its building changed owners.)
The younger Cordova is well aware that he operates a scruffy bar with a checkered past that hasn’t quite endeared itself to downtown’s newer inhabitants. "You know what? I’m not surprised at this,” Cordova says of the venue’s potential displacement. "I’ve seen my neighbors. Do you want riff-raff walking around where you’re paying close to a million dollars for an apartment? Do you want that around where you’re parking your Bentley? It’s totally understandable."
Right now, Cordova is upset because he just doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and he says his new landlords haven’t talked to him. "They should be more honest,” he says. "It’s just wrong in every aspect of life as a human. People have lives. I have my daughter going to her second year of college. There are livelihoods at stake."
And the loss of Five Star is a loss that would reverberate. “If we didn’t play Five Star, where else would we play?” asks L.A. Witch’s Sanchez. "Five Star and Lot 1 Cafe and Little Joy — those were the first places we played. That or someone’s backyard. We got to be onstage for the first time."
Outside Five Star, the Friday night air still crackles with energy. In the parking lot, a circle of crust punks pass a 40. Further down the block, there’s the trio of businesses that have been ostensibly saved, at least for now: the Smell, the Downtown Independent cinema and the New Jalisco, the only Latino gay bar downtown.
Sergio Hernandez, who manages and co-owns New Jalisco with his wife, Maria Garcia, works the door. Since the Pulse shooting, he’s worn a bulletproof vest, and he says the patrons have told him it makes them feel safe. Though L&R have told him his building won’t be demolished, he's still contemplating his bar's future.
Inside, Yaya and Joel lean against the bar chatting. A drag queen named Ricky Lips spouts raunchy jokes and lip-synchs to Mexican pop star Maria José.
Yaya says he knows that even though New Jalisco isn’t specifically threatened, the tide is turning downtown. “Why do [new downtown developments] have to be so cold?” he asks. “We have New York already."
Back at the building that houses Paraiso and Five Star, it’s well past 1 a.m., and things are cooling down for the night. But at La Costeña, the bar right next door to Five Star in the same building, a row of customers is seated at the bar.
La Costeña has Olympic soccer on TV and tropical hand-sketched illustrations on the walls. Little laminated cards with dirty jokes on them hang behind the bar. It’s as good a place as any to sit and think about parking lots, and about how history and culture can be leveled into a flat black surface.
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Miguel, a slim man just past middle age, nurses a High Life and plays with a little toy truck. He picked it up on the sidewalk because it reminded him of his niece, he says, though he doesn’t feel much like talking.
Later, the lights flash on. Last call.