Of Lofts and Dark Towers

If I ever make more money and get over the need to see plants growing directly out of the planet, I’ll probably live downtown, at least for a while. Susceptible to romantic notions of downtown living, I am. Cheap romantic pop-culture fluff: painting my loft with friends (Miller Time), walking home from the pub (film noir), adding a wall here or there to define an office and a bedroom (Home Depot), keeping loud music safe between thick cement walls.

After hearing so much and seeing so many ads about recent redevelopments and refurbishments going on down there — for example, after the lease on my friend Brad’s loft expired, the patriotic new landlords tripled his rent — I decided it was time to reacquaint myself with the area, spend a few days on a fact-finding tour, see what’s what, what used to be what, and why it all costs so damn much.

To keep my tour organized, I divided properties into the three most prominently advertised styles of recently renovated indoor downtown living: artist lofts, live/work loft-style apartments and upscale apartments. I analyzed several examples of each kind of property in terms of atmosphere and management, and then, to avoid inadvertently promoting or demoting actual properties, I combined similar buildings and their managerial staffs into three composite structures with composite staffs and childish monikers.

STUDY #1: ARTIST LOFT: Little Tokyo adjacent: 882 Clitwood

882 Clitwood occupies a small, four-story chunk of the charming flatlands east of Little Tokyo; some call it the Loft District or Artist District. Locals — many of whom appear to be actual working artists (paint-spattered clothing, callused hands, expensive eyeglasses) — talk and read the morning papers at the nearby outdoor café. There’s good strong coffee and breakfast to be had here, and the skyscrapery and bustle of the Financial District still registers as elsewhere, its dense traffic muffled through a mostly desolate grid of long, wide streets to the west. Three blocks deep in a treeless suburbia, there’s a vaguely bombed-out feeling here, as if some horrible thing had happened, and then happened again four years later, and now here we are.

882 Clitwood’s manager is very busy. She has no aristocratic title, or even a name. Just The Manager. She buzzes me in, tells me to meet her in front of a room on the second floor. I wait there five minutes standing and five more sitting on the floor. Manager busy. Finally she shows up with a clipboard and whisks me through three spaces in what seems like less than a minute. Living spaces come mostly raw, lightly kitchened and bathroomed, sometimes with built-in bookshelves and dorky lighting. Smells like construction materials. Reinforced poured cement, high ceilings, exposed pipes, rugged windows, sealed cement floors. Just like late-’70s-style Alameda-adjacent lofts of lore, only for three times the rent, a.k.a. twice my monthly income.

STUDY #2: LOFT-STYLE APARTMENTS: Bank District: Bricklawn Heights

For artists who feed off the pulse of heavy traffic, who prefer higher levels of ambient sound and carbon monoxide, and for entertainment attorneys who like to feel residentially artsy, pleasant restorations of downtown’s Historic Core have yielded such quaintly rugged residences as Bricklawn Heights, a 12-story, 100-unit, 100-year-old Renaissance Revival–ish structure with 16-foot ceilings and resident-friendly cafés and shops on the ground floor.

The kindly Duchess of Bricklawn Heights, manager, guides me slowly and gently through the few unoccupied units that remain. The kitchens and bathrooms have been given a slick, corporate look, with the rest of the space left nice and raw, with sealed cement floors, fine natural light and soundproofing. One of the more expensive units is in two levels, with a steel-and-cement staircase leading to an unfinished loft space above the kitchen and bathroom. Exposed red bricks upstairs bear the worn, century-old painted signage of the original structure. Great views of great distances, of ornate nearby buildings and, yes, of lots and lots of homeless people.

STUDY #3: VERY EXPENSIVE APARTMENTS: Financial District: Whiteboy Towers

At the southern reaches of the Financial District, the dark fortress of Whiteboy Towers is protected by heavily armored, Mordor-like gates, state-of-the-art surveillance cameras and a dangerous-looking intercom panel. Welcome home.

Inside, I’m introduced to the Lord of Whiteboy Towers, a polished and scented and buttoned-down man who takes one look at my unshaven face and untucked T-shirt and calls for the concierge to take me away. The Lord is a very, very busy man.

The concierge is, to my appalled delight, Nancy Reagan circa 1970. Nancy is happy to do the bidding of the Lord. She likes to smile and talk at the same time. I say I’m a writer; Nancy says she’s a writer. I say I don’t live downtown; Nancy says she doesn’t live downtown either. What are the odds? I say something that Nancy doesn’t quite hear, and Nancy laughs. Nancy says something that I do hear but don’t give a fuck about, and I laugh. We’re getting along famously.

Then the elevator doors open and we go strolling down ultrawide hotel-style corridors — like ’80s Bunker Hill condo hallways, but more austere. Beside each doorway is a little table with a little light — a place to set down The Wall Street Journal while fidgeting through Coach leather for keys.

Nancy Reagan points out such amenities as dramatic elegance, genuine carpet, washers and dryers, and a 200-square-foot patch of rooftop groundcover — ice plants and such — that Nancy believes has a positive effect on downtown air quality. Isn’t that nice?

Nancy tells me fascinating tales of the professional people who live here. They have lots of money. They like things. They do things. They especially like lounging around the rooftop pool, where they can be observed by voyeurs in the surrounding skyscrapers without the aid of binoculars.

Between units we pass several in-house laborers, who make certain that Nancy can see them smile at me, as if their jobs depend on it.

Nancy returns me to the parlor of the Lord of Whiteboy Towers, so I can thank him and say goodbye. "Thanks again," I call out from the doorway, and await a response.

But the Lord’s eyes are turned inward, his thoughts thick with numbers. I leave while it’s still safe.


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