Josh Gray-Emmer grew up in the Valley. When he found himself in a bad living situation with roommates, he packed up all his stuff and landed in an old friend's downtown loft on Spring Street the next day. He had no intention of staying; his boxes sat unpacked in the corner.
"There was absolutely no way I was going to stay downtown in the 'hood," Gray-Emmer tells L.A. Weekly from his current penthouse overlooking the historic core.
"I immediately started looking for other houses in the Valley. I didn't unpack my boxes for seven months."
He slowly discovered that he could be himself downtown. He entertained friends at his loft parties and nobody would bug him.
"The most important thing that changed my mind about downtown Los Angeles was it was that true picket-fence community that I was looking for," Gray-Emmer says. "We left our loft doors open. We would borrow cups of sugar from each other. The things that you would expect from the suburbs, where the neighbors know each other and hang out together, I never experienced in the Valley. I only saw that on television." He finally unpacked, made himself at home and never looked back.
That was 17 years ago, and he hasn't left Spring Street. He started in a $1,600-a-month, 2,200-square-foot loft at Fourth and Spring, and now overlooks the city from his penthouse in a restored historic building between Sixth and Seventh streets.
But the living wasn't always easy, starting with grocery shopping.
"I remember when I first moved down here, I had to drive to Silver Lake to shop at the Ralphs and the Trader Joe's over there," he says. "So when the Ralphs finally came to downtown L.A., it became a tipping point that started to bring more people here. It was a significant differentiator to have a big grocery chain downtown. I think that people are still thinking of downtown Los Angeles as a destination, but there are 65,000 of us who live down here and we need to eat every day."
The next big vote of downtown confidence came when Whole Foods planted a store at Eighth and Grand Avenue, which triggered a boom of restaurants for local residents, including Sweetgreen, Paris Baguette, Shake Shack, Starbucks Reserve, Cassell's Burgers and Modern Times, to name a few. The location made sense because of the proximity to thousands of new residences there.
A new Tocaya Organica downtown space opens in early 2019 and will be unique from the others across the city. It will be the first location with a separate and dedicated bar space and cocktail program. A stand-alone bar area is meant to cater to the single diner, those grabbing a quick after-work meal, happy hour guests. It will be the first Tocaya with TVs behind the bar showing news and sporting events to help provide a gathering spot for neighbors.
"We specifically chose our location at the Atelier because we loved the design aesthetic of the building," Tocaya co-founder Tosh Berman tells L.A. Weekly. "It represents a crown jewel in the residential landscape of the area. We have a corner location, offering us high visibility, and we're close to fitness and grocery concepts that coalesce well with Tocaya Organica.
"What we found missing downtown were great restaurants that were relatively quick and easy — no reservations, fast-casual ordering process, and affordable with high-quality food in a beautiful setting," Berman says.
Sweetgreen aims to blend in with the neighborhood as well. The new store is a representation of L.A.'s local artists and vendors, with furniture by Silver Lake's RAD Furniture and the patio lighting by Brendan Ravenhill Studio in Northeast L.A.
"Our 8th + Hill store champions those special items handmade by local artisans, celebrating and supporting the community," says Nicolas Jammet, Sweetgreen co-founder and chief concept officer.
"We're also proud of the large-scale mural being painted on the exterior of the building, which wraps down and continues through the interior of the store. We partnered with DTLA-based Art Share and local artist Katy Ann Gilmore for the defining piece."
Gray-Emmer's company, BridGE DTLA, provides community engagement services for developers and connects neighbors with one another. For eight years he has hosted the DTLA Dinner Club, which helps bring the downtown community together on Wednesdays for free pop-up dinners featuring some of L.A.'s best chefs.
"You really have to match your price point to what the neighborhood can afford," Gray-Emmer says. "People who live downtown might have a larger amount of disposable income but a larger percentage of where that money goes is rent, or mortgage.
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"I would like to see more affordable and diverse options that give me a filling meal for about 10 bucks. As a resident just walking up and down the block at 5 or 6 o'clock in the evening and I haven't had time to make dinner, I want to stop someplace and spend 10 bucks on a bite to eat. My options can be limited, so I'd like to see more places in that price range, and lots of downtown L.A. residents feel the same way. They'd be regular patrons at many spots if they were more affordable."
Like many downtowners, Gray-Emmer doesn't own a car. He walks to Whole Foods, Ralphs or Smart & Final, does his grocery shopping and then Ubers home for about $3 or $4. He says it's incredibly easy and more efficient and affordable than owning a car.
"I did the math, and there's absolutely no way I get even close with Ubering wherever and whenever I want, to what a car would cost me with insurance, gas, car payment and downtown parking costs," he says.
"I'm really excited to see more diversity in restaurants downtown," Gray-Emmer adds. "We need more than just destination hot spots — which are incredible and very welcome, and we never get tired of — but it's good to see a new, diverse group of spots opening up that offers residents affordable fare where we can become regulars. I can't wait for Silverlake Ramen to open, and hope for a good Indian restaurant soon."