Earlier today the Smell, the legendary all-ages club in Los Angeles’ historic Skid Row, shared a photograph of a demolition permit application notice posted on their building. Even at the start of a holiday weekend, the response from incensed patrons was deafening.
We love the Smell, too, and agree that Los Angeles would be much diminished by its loss, should the permit be approved.
But the threatened structures at 245-249 South Main Street are so much more than just their familiar 2016 businesses: the Downtown Independent Theater, the Smell and the New Jalisco bar. They are the last physical remnants of a lost early 20th century Main Street, a zone of deliciously low culture entertainment that encompassed the burlesque arts, tattooing, freak shows, shooting galleries, wax museums, nickelodeon theaters, taxi dance halls and bars catering to all manner of men, an honorable tradition continued by the New Jalisco.
It is a world as lost to us as the Aztec and the Maya, but one that continues to fascinate and to inspire, and that we attempt to visit four times a year on our crime bus tour Hotel Horrors & Main Street Vice.
These are not the kind of buildings that inspire book-length studies, appear in pristine archival photographs or are featured on the walking tours of the Los Angeles Conservancy. To find their stories, one must browse through cinema enthusiast websites and the back pages of old newspapers, source rare bits of b-movie footage, keep both ears to the ground.
Here, in a rare bit of color Main Street film shot by the Union Rescue Mission in 1949, we see the threatened structures (The Civic Theater/Downtown Independent, The Victory Cafe/The Smell and Palace Cafe Chop Suey/New Jalisco Bar), set between the lost storefronts to the south and north.
So as 21st century Angelenos rally to Save The Smell, let’s remember that succeeding will also Save The Victory Cafe, and the last stray remnants of Main Street’s astonishing, vanishing entertainment zone. We think it’s worth preserving.
Did we say these are not the kind of buildings featured on Conservancy walking tours? Happily, our friends have no such compunctions. Here’s architectural historian Nathan Marsak, LAVA’s Visionary of the Year for 2015, celebrating these modest storefronts on the Union Rescue Mission Walking Tour: 121 Years on Skid Row. (If you dig these clips, please consider making a donation to the good folks at the URM.)