If these walls could talk

I’ve been thinking about redevelopment lately. The city wants to build a state-of-the-art LAPD headquarters downtown to replace Parker Center, and one of the buildings that might be torn down is an art gallery on Main Street. It’s a fine gallery, with interesting art and high ceilings and there’s even rumored to be a speakeasy in the basement where the bouncer won’t let you in unless you know the password.

Aware that their days may be numbered, the gallery threw a little shin-dig earlier this summer that was billed as a farewell party. It was a weekend night and the space was crammed with artists and loft dwellers and the usual beautiful and glamorous people. Then there was me and David and two of his sisters. David’s family wasn’t there to make the scene. They were there to step back into the past and see ghosts.

You see, David’s family pretty much grew up along this stretch of Main Street.

Long before the galleries and artists and developers moved in, back around 1969, there was a Mexican restaurant in this building called El Norteño. My in-laws owned it. They were Mexican immigrants who came here penniless but worked seven days a week to afford a house in El Sereno and Catholic school for their four kids. David and his sisters helped out at El Norteño on weekends and holidays. Downtown was pretty safe then during the day if you avoided the bad patches. David remembers walking to the movie palaces on Broadway by himself at 13 to see a double bill. His sisters accompanied their mother on shopping trips. It was their stomping grounds.

As the neighborhood deteriorated in the 1970s, they remember homeless people begging for tortillas and lots of break-ins. It got so bad that Rene took to leaving the cash register drawer open so burglars could see there was no money inside. The register was expensive to replace, and at least that way, the thieves wouldn’t destroy it. They always found and drank the booze, though.

It’s 2006 now and David and his sisters are all grown up. David hasn’t been back to this building in almost 30 years. We step inside and he looks around, eyes glazed with memories.

“The counter used to be here, along this wall,” he tells me. “And there were tables here.”

We walk some more. “There was another room with tables in the back,” one sister says.

“The ceiling used to be lower,” David says. He points to the brick wall at the rear of the building. “One time, thieves backed a truck into that wall to get inside.”

“Didn’t Tio Artemio live here for awhile?” one sister asks. “I seem to remember he had a cot and some clothes on hangers in a little room

They reminisce about Tio Artemio awhile. He wore a cowboy hat and never married. When we were newlyweds and he came over for holiday dinners, he brought his own bottle of Don Pedro brandy and demanded a bigger glass when I brought him a lowboy.

We walk through the gallery, while David and his sisters travel back in time. They agree the place looks good. They marvel at how it’s changed. There is a sense of dislocation, of something hovering, just out of reach.

“Pop and Tio Artemio used to get drunk and go down into the basement and shoot off guns,” another sister says. “I remember it was always dark and scary down there. It went back forever, under the street, didn’t it?

We cluster around the entrance to the basement. It is guarded by a doorman. He’s from Mexico City and has been here for a year and a half. He speaks great English and is dressed all in black.

I chat with him awhile, tell him about David’s family and their history in this place. The doorman is sympathetic but firm. No one can go in without the password. Someone says the basement has been rented to a film company that’s shooting a scene down there and that accounts for the cloak and dagger secrecy. But no one can confirm or deny that story. One of David’s sisters say she was down there not too long ago and they have a bar and funny lights and it’s done up like a cheesy Mexican bordello. I think about the girls in a real Mexican bordello and get sort of sad.

David and I walk around some more. We end up by the loading dock. We’ve arrived late, most of the drinks and munchies are gone. I think of the food that his parents used to serve up, nothing fancy, just big platters of grilled meats, rice and beans, menudo on weekends. If El Norteño was still here, maybe the hipsters would ‘discover” it and brag to their friends about how cheap and quaint it was.

“The skyline’s changed so much,” David says. “That hi-rise wasn’t there. And that building used to be a really scary hotel. And next door to El Norteño was this bar, and it was really notorious. They had knifings, real shady characters. Prostitutes. We weren’t allowed to go near there.”

We walk back to the main room to say goodbye to David’s sisters. My husband must feel like a drifting ghost here in this place, seeing his childhood self running through the restaurant, chopping lettuce in the kitchen, greeting his Dad’s regular customers, the ones who came every day for the familiar food of home. Mexican actors and musicians would come in too, after playing the Million Dollar Theater. Rene kept the restaurant open late for them. They’d drink and have a good time. Rene knew them all.

Things got worse downtown in the late 1970s, around the time David’s parents got divorced. His Dad opened another Mexican restaurant in MacArthur Park and his mother got El Norteño in the settlement and sold it a few years later after failing to make a go of it. Eventually, like so much of downtown in those grim years, El Norteño may have been shuttered and abandoned. At some point, the pioneering art gallery moved in and played its own role in downtown’s rejuvenation. And now, years later, it may face eviction so the new LAPD center can go up.

We look out the front entrance. A stretch limo has just pulled up, disgorging a group of partygoers. We walk to our car and drive away, leaving downtown and David’s memories. He won’t be going back there again, he says. He was just curious to see the old building once more, especially if it was going to get torn down. We never did make it to the speakeasy. I had kind of wanted to stand for a moment in the basement, close my eyes and see if I could hear the distant echo of a long-ago pistol, some gleeful drunken laughter, Rene in his stained apron, shouting encouragement to Tio Artemio in Spanish. When they were young men, filled with hope and dreams about their adopted homeland.

But David is impatient, ready to go. El Norteño, El Norteño, I whisper to myself in the car, over and over. But those words no longer unlock the door. They are ancient, discarded. They belong to another era, haven’t worked in almost 30 years. And there is no password for the place where David has just been.

More by Denise Hamilton:
Previous blog post: The gray area
Next blog post: On vacation
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed