At Grand Central Market, a New Wave of Vendors Is Changing Up an L.A. Mainstay
after hours at Grand Central Market
Many years later, as Grand Central Market faced the renovations that would once again shift its fortunes, Filomena Eriman remembered the day when she first arrived here, one of this country's oldest and largest public markets.
It was 1969, and Eriman had been hired as an accountant for the family that owned the Homer Laughlin building, part of the century-old jigsaw of buildings (a mash-up of vintage and new, reworked and decrepit) in the so-called historic core of downtown L.A. The centerpiece of that jigsaw, both now and when it opened in 1917, is the market — a wonderful, noisy, deeply multicultural synthesis of food and people, commerce and neighborhood, that has operated continuously for almost a century. It's at once a giant food court, a disassembled grocery store and an enduring civic paradigm, all wedged into 84,000 square feet between Hill and Broadway.
Inside the market
Photo by Anne Fishbein
See also: Grand Central Market Restaurant Issue
"They spread sawdust on the floors every morning," says Eriman, now 74, who came to L.A. from the Philippines via Toronto, and managed the market for 43 years before retiring in 2012. "It was so crowded that you could barely walk here on Fridays." The basement was packed, with a Chinese restaurant, a tortilleria, even a Safeway grocery store.
In the 1960s there also were rows of vitroleros, the jars used for aguas frescas, at Emilio's; beef heads for $16 each at the butcher shops; and men in straw cowboy hats and mustaches jamming the aisle in front of Roast To Go, a market fixture that's still here today, albeit under different ownership. Tourists would come at Christmas to find spices they couldn't get anywhere else, Eriman says, adding, "Back in '69, there was very good pastrami."
Now there are more downtown loft dwellers sporting retro mustaches than there are Latinos in farm boots, and pressed juice instead of repeating roaster chickens. These days, the very good (some would say excellent) pastrami is at Wexler's Deli (stall D-5), opened this year by chef Micah Wexler, who makes his own pastrami and smoked fish on-site in a decidedly upscale stall with bagels strung on metal rods stacked on a central column, like an edible abacus. Wexler's Deli is part of the market's new wave of vendors — partly its hipsterization, and partly a throwback to earlier times, when Italian, German, Russian and Japanese vendors peopled the market. That era ran from the 1920s through the '50s and '60s, before they were replaced by a wave of Asian and, increasingly, Latino vendors, who have dominated the market since the '70s.
Much has changed, inevitably, in the almost 100 years since the market began operating, replacing the Ville de Paris department store in the city's first fireproofed, steel-reinforced structure. A historic building on the outside, an ever-evolving network of vendors on the inside, Grand Central is our Les Halles, a grungy Faneuil Hall, a decidedly less upmarket (even after recent renovations) Ferry Building.
Yet the market is none of those places. It is instead a specific microcosm of L.A., featuring our own unique alchemy of culture and race, in the lateral shadow of Vibiana Cathedral and the L.A. Times building, downwind from Bunker Hill and, despite all the cheery PR, still, perhaps irrevocably, only two short blocks from Skid Row.
For all the changes, much has remained constant here, too. The market has never shut down: not for the wars or the Depression; or the massive renovation orchestrated by Ira Yellin and architect Brenda Levin (the Griffith Observatory! the old Rex Il Ristorante!) in the late '80s and early '90s, after Yellin bought the complex in 1984; or for the market's more recent recalibration, led by Yellin's widow, Adele Yellin, who took over its management two years ago when Eriman retired.
The old-school neon signs are still here. A constant since the market opened, they have been refurbished, based on old photographs, by Levin — who is working with Yellin on the current renovations. One is required in every stall, under the terms of the vendors' leases.
But the sawdust that spread a dirty carpet on the floors is gone, albeit only recently, the concrete swept clean but for the city grime that is inevitable in an open, urban market. And the place is lighter than it used to be: The paint that had covered the skylights since World War II, to protect the fresh produce below from the relentless Southern California sunshine, was scraped off during Levin's first renovations. Now a breeze blows in some days off Hill Street, down Bunker Hill and the Angel's Flight, through the sightline from Hill to Broadway.
In 1923, you could pick up a loaf of bread from Federal Bakery, baked on-site; get a cream doughnut from the folks at Stall C-1 (now Eggslut, with its permanent, maddening lines); restock your larder at the Old Missouri Horseradish and Peanut Butter Stand; or pick up some bacon (sliced and rind-free!) at the Broadway Bacon Boys at Stall B-2.
Now you can get a macchiato at the G&B Coffee bar (Stall C-19) and listen to Muddy Waters on its highly caffeinated playlist, through the percussion of the espresso machine.
The blues on a recent summer morning — the market filling up with locals and tourists, the counter full at China Cafe (Stall C-14), a constant since 1959 although the owners have changed a few times — is a fitting signifier, at once both retro-trendy and ageless. Waters was born four years before the market opened, and died shortly before Ira Yellin bought the place. Yellin himself is these days a ghost, too.
Photo by Anne Fishbein
Adele Yellin, who's a fiercely energetic 67, knows that the changes she's made to the market in the last year and a half are seen by many as gentrification.
"I'll be criticized no matter what; I'll be accused of destroying the market," she says, sitting in her office in the Bradbury Building, the beautifully restored building across the street from Grand Central. (Although it's been sold since, the Bradbury Building was owned by the Yellin Company, which still owns the Million Dollar Theatre, and it also was restored by Levin.) Because despite the previous renovation project of the '90s, the market, and nearly every other business downtown, was hit, and hit hard, by the recession.
Yellin says the market carried many of the vendors in the hard years between 2008 and 2012. Even with that, by the time Yellin was ready to begin the new renovation project, 40 percent of the stalls were vacant. The economic downturn was a factor, but she also cites increased competition as downtown began its own revitalization.
Indeed, Ira Yellin died in 2002, but Adele Yellin waited 10 years to initiate a series of big changes. She'd been waiting to see what would happen to downtown, to figure out how to engineer the renovations that she knew the market needed. While she waited, people moved in to the neighborhood with their coffeehouses and cocktail lounges. The renaissance included chef Josef Centeno's one-man restaurant row, begun with the opening of Bäco Mercat in late 2011 and now including two more acclaimed eateries, all within walking distance of the market.
"As soon as I saw that," Yellin says, "I thought, 'It's time.'?" She hired Joseph Shuldiner and Kevin West as vendor curation consultants; developer Rick Moses, whose company oversees day-to-day market management; and the marketing firm Breakwhitelight to help transform the market again, this time for the 21st century.
Starting about two years ago, in a process that's decidedly ongoing, Yellin and her team brought in new vendors, upgraded the current facilities, extended the market hours into the evening on weekends, allowed more liquor licenses and started holding events. Recently foodie legend Colman Andrews gave a reading on a bustling weekend, telling an assembled group of fans about growing up eating at Chasen's and his affair with Ruth Reichl, while the folks from Belcampo served a bacon-intensive breakfast on paper plates.
The modern paradigm of the mixed-use building now so popular in hipsteropolis could have started in downtown L.A. at this very building a century ago, as the ground floor of the Homer Laughlin building was zoned for commercial use, with other floors used for offices and, later, apartments. (Frank Lloyd Wright had an office in the building in the 1920s.)
Maybe because the market has been open for so long, weathering a century of politics and history, the city has seemed to absorb it: Unless something happened (ownership changes, mostly), no one paid much attention, taking it for granted. Sift through a century of newspapers and you'll find surprisingly little about the food or the people who made and sold it — just atmospheric lines here and there, like fragments of newsreel footage.
A few outtakes: In 1973, Tom Bradley, then a city councilman, visited Grand Central, probably to publicly interact with Real People, otherwise known as potential voters. While there, he bought three bags of fruit for his staff. A mariachi band trailed him past the shoppers, and Bradley stopped to dance. Dance! Also with Bradley were athletes Happy Hairston and Elgin Baylor, of all people. (The Times does not mention if they danced.)
That newspaper also reported the first time the market was used as a film location, with Elliott Gould and Robert Blake filming a shoot-out for Busting (United Artists, 1974), running through the aisles of the market, "guns blazing, leaving a wake of strewn fruits and vegetables, cracked eggs, spilled noodles, shattered showcases — and screaming extras." Of course they did. And in the summer of 1980, Sen. Teddy Kennedy toured the market, shaking hands in a crowd among the produce stands and, according to the Times, worrying the LAPD. One officer later reported, "Well, that's over, and no one even threw a tomato."
Not only have Grand Central's cheery, grimy corridors hosted politicians and movie stars but the market also has helped launch a few significant businesses. Dave Gold, who started dreaming about discount stores while working at his father's liquor shop here, opened the first 99 Cents Only store in 1982, the first in what would become a massively profitable chain. And Homeboy Industries, the gangs-to-bakery program started by Father Gregory Boyle in 1988, opened its first tortilleria, and second location, on-site.
Eriman remembers Gold's first store, which opened after the prosperous times of the '70s gave way to a slump in the early '80s. "It took a while," Eriman says, for Gold's new concept to catch on. "The economy was bad and downtown was changing; the people were changing, too."
This tradition of the market functioning as a business incubator is something that Adele Yellin hopes to continue as she and her partners bring in new vendors — and work with the older ones, whom she calls "legacy" vendors. "I want an amazing place with amazing food," Yellin declares — eventually, she hopes, "the best food hall in the U.S."
If you want an irony check, in 1987 the L.A. Times, pondering yet another long-forgotten change at the market, questioned whether things were getting too, well, gentrified. "Can quarter-a-loaf bread buyers co-exist with the La Salsa clientele when that quintessential yuppie taco stand opens a branch just inside the Broadway entrance soon?" Your yuppie, my hipster.
Sara Clark Serrano with husband Paul Serrano, Sr. and son Paul Serrano, Jr. at Grand Central Market
As her son Paul Serrano Jr. translates for her, Sara Clark Serrano remembers when she and her mother, Blanca, came to Los Angeles from El Salvador, back in 1980. The two women worked at the market, saving up to buy their own place, often sharing a single taco for lunch to save money.
Serrano and her family, including husband Paul Sr., who is from Mexico, first opened Grand Central Jewelry (Stall F-6) in 1983, then took over the lease from King Taco to open Sarita's Pupuseria (Stall E-5) in 1998. Now Paul Jr. works with his parents in both shops, helping them update the businesses and synch them with the new wave of upgrades. "I've been here since I was in diapers," he says.
The pupuseria sign, the jagged outline of El Salvador in neon designed by Sara herself, is staying, as are most of the recipes, although they took off a few of the more labor-intensive ones. "We're getting more people," Paul Jr. says "She still has her regulars." And there will always be menudo on the weekend for the hungover.
This summer, the World Cup was a working international holiday for many people in L.A. and certainly at Grand Central, where a great majority of Yellin's "legacies" are Latino or Asian. For a happy month, the daily routine of the market — setting up, morning traffic, midday rush and so on — included the rush and bellow of the games themselves. The pizzaiolos forming pies at Olio's Wood Fired Pizzeria (Stall B-6), a shiny new operation with a Naples-built Stefano Ferrara brick oven, listened to the games on a radio. And at Valeria's (stall D-6), behind stacked tubs of moles and open cases of gorgeous, obscure chiles, a small TV monitor above the cash register played the game. Regular televisions are not allowed at Grand Central, a normally good policy that helps keep the place from feeling like an LAX food court, but which was palpably frustrating during the month of fútbol.
As the flow of shoppers moved through the passageway between Valeria's and Sarita's, the scent of mole poblano mingling with the heady smells coming from the pupusas being griddled in Serrano's kitchen, people stopped to see if Lionel Messi would propel his team into the finals.
In the wake of Brazil's loss and owing to a general dislike of Germany ("not my people," said Micah Wexler, whose Jewish family is rather from the San Fernando Valley), the people in the cluster agreed that Argentina was the best they had left. And in the jammed space across from Wexler's Deli, Michael Palmer and his adult kids, who had been peering at the game with Sara Serrano on Valeria's TV, crowded around an iPad streaming Univision to watch the game's end while they got ready to open McConnnell's (Stall D-4).
McConnell's Ice Cream
The family-run, 70-year-old McConnell's was opening its first ice cream shop outside of Santa Barbara in Grand Central. "You can't fake heritage," Palmer explains.
Palmer's own family has lived in Mid-City Los Angeles for generations. They were drawn to this market because of the way it mirrors their company's central tenets (history, family, links to the homespun past). They also, of course, noticed the revitalization of downtown, and the market itself. "Along with Reading Terminal in Philadelphia and just a few others I can think of, GCM is the most legitimate, most historically significant and most beautiful of all of them," Palmer says. "And it's right here in downtown L.A., a city that myself and so many others believe is destined for a whole new caliber of greatness over the next years."
What Palmer and many other vendors like about Grand Central is its feeling of being in an actual city, close to public transportation and real locals instead of traveling bands of tourists with Star Maps.
That said, Palmer is quick to note that Grand Central's urban "grittiness" — so appealing to downtown's current wave of loft dwellers — comes not only from being in an actual multiracial, multicultural part of the city but also from a hundred years of actual real dirt. This dirt, tracked and blown in from the huge, open, garagelike doorways on Hill and Broadway, then spun around by ceiling fans, may be urban authentic, but isn't so great when you're making artisanal ice cream and rose petits fours and chocolates.
Valerie Gordon, whose Valerie Confections was one of the first "new" stalls to open, says she loves the location. But between the lack of temperature control and all that grit, making and holding her gorgeous retro desserts on-site is sometimes difficult — and making chocolates is impossible. From a pastry standpoint, "It either rots or drops," she says.
But there is a convenience factor: Gordon spends a lot of time at nearby Valeria's, getting smoked chiles and cane sugar and the red mole for her mole brownies from the longtime vendors there.
Fernando Villagomez of Villa Moreliana
Fernando Villagomez opened Villa Moreliana with his brother Abraham and his mother, Telma, in 2008, which makes him a "legacy" vendor. Villagomez approves of the changes. "They're doing something good; I don't know what it is," he says. "They're not bringing in Latin people, but they're bringing in people."
Villagomez, 34, who has a thick Michoacán accent, serves carnitas made in massive cazos. It's all very traditional. But he is not: On a recent morning, he's wearing a red Monopoly T-shirt ("This Is How I Roll") with a pack of Marlboros in the pocket, carrying a leather clutch and an iPhone.
Born in Mexico, Villagomez went to school in Toronto, where he opened a carnitas restaurant ("when I was in Toronto, there were 10 Mexicans; now there are, like, 100") before coming to Los Angeles. His uncle had a carnitas restaurant in the farmers market in San Diego; Villagomez, starting when he was 17, came up from Michoacán every summer to help him. It was his uncle who pointed Villagomez to Grand Central. Now he hopes to open a new cevicheria project in the market.
Villagomez was among the first vendors to apply for a liquor license. He recently started serving Mexican beer with his carnitas. "I'm gonna sell Micheladas," he says.
The market's new booze policy is part of an effort to extend the market from a daytime shopping venue to an evening hangout (for years, China Cafe was the only place you could get a beer). Other changes include longer hours, Thursday game nights (ping-pong, Jenga, even a cornhole toss), and hip movie nights at the Million Dollar Theatre next door.
With the changes has come a rent increase, although Yellin declines to say how much. Even so, Villagomez accepts it as part of the overall upgrade, though he wishes Yellin would advertise as much to the Latino community as to foodies.
"Now it's only white people. Where are the Latin people? Where are the people who have been here for years?" Villagomez asks. "Mexicans will spend more money than hipsters; they'll bring three kids," whereas white people tend to come in ones and twos. "And the hipsters will want [free] beer refills."
The Latino community, he adds, often wants food that reminds them of home. It's not only 21st-century foodies who search for "authentic" food; the people who grew up with Mexican food made in copper cazos in, well, actual Mexico, want the real stuff, too. "Everyone does carnitas now. Even El Pollo Loco makes carnitas. Come on. What the fuck."
The old market still remains. Downstairs, under the neon signs and into the basement, is a subterranean vault that feels more like a museum to grunge and concrete than a trendy marketplace, a still-derelict world that's thus far avoided any upgrades. Where Eriman remembers crowds and freshly made tortillas, now there's just the Grand Central Discount Store (Basement), a sprawling jumble where you can buy jumper cables and cat litter. The signs advertising the market changes don't extend down here, nor do any changes — although the restrooms (broken stall doors, a 25-cent entry fee) are finally scheduled for a massive upgrade in late August.
Down here you get a sense of the old market, the place where Sara Serrano brought her infant son to work with her, where Filomena Eriman came to work in 1969. An elderly homeless woman applies lipstick above the bathroom sink. A pair of young Latina market workers takes turns holding the door so it won't require a second quarter. Another woman, a universe of tattoos covering both pale arms, strides through.
Along with the basement bathroom renovations, there are more changes coming: The Oyster Gourmet (stall E-13) has finally broken ground, the Eggslut folks are opening a ramen-ya, and Yellin says she's dreaming of a garden on the roof, a brew pub in the basement, a bicycle hub under Tim Hawkinson's outdoor clock. Because while many, hungry for both food and nostalgia, might prefer the days of $1 ice cream scoops, this is, for better and worse, an operating market — not a museum to it.
Earlier in the day, after Eriman finished her chronicle of four decades, she'd stopped, the cacophony of the market seeming to hold her still, however briefly, and concluded, "Now you know the story of my life." And later that night, after the vendors have mostly closed and dusk drops on downtown Los Angeles, two skinny skateboarders (black, probably no more than 14), stop to rest, propping their boards against Berlin Currywurst's (stall C-1½) vacant bar stools, the vendor's "Deutschland" sign dark above them. A dozen years earlier, Paul Serrano Jr., Sara Serrano's now-26-year-old son, snuck in his own board and skated between these stalls while his parents worked. Because all of us, living through and beyond a hundred years of urban food, have as many opportunities as we make of them. Our food, our city.
See also: Grand Central Market Restaurant Issue
Skateboarders at Currywurst
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