Monday, October 23, 2017

California Food Market Revival: Los Angeles’s Grand Central Market Turns 100

Opening Day at the Grand Central Public Market, October 27, 1917
Courtesy of Grand Central Market Collection via

“Years ago the only reason people went to downtown Los Angeles was to dump a body.
But that’s all changed. This is LA’s Brooklyn now. The place is bustling with new reasons to go there. One of those reasons is about a hundred years old.” Phil Rosenthal
The Grand Central Market Cookbook: Cuisine and Culture from Downtown Los Angeles (2017)

In Los Angeles, the simplest pleasures—a sunset, a symphony, food and drink—are destinations. And this week, one destination stand outs, as it has been for the last 100 years. Downtown Los Angeles’s Grand Central Market, the city’s largest and oldest public market, celebrates its centennial. Once a convenient market for the residents of upscale Bunker Hill, today the Grand Central Market is, in food critic Jonathan Gold’s estimation, “an essential food center.”

Like San Francisco’s Ferry Building, the market’s transformation is part of a culinary trend sweeping the nation. Today’s food halls feature a variety of vendors whose products—local, exotic, and artisanal—cater to the hunger for variety that diverse populations have come to know and appreciate.
We celebrate Grand Central Market’s 100th anniversary this Friday, October 27, with a photo essay of the marketplace and its neighborhood over the years.

Homer Laughlin Building, c. early 1900s
The Grand Central Public Market opened in the Homer Laughlin Building, designed by architect John Parkinson and built in 1897 by potter and businessman Homer Laughlin. Its ground floor location was also home to a dry goods company owned by merchant and clergyman B. F. Coulter and to the San Francisco-based Ville de Paris dry goods company. In 1905, an adjoining building was constructed that extended the original building to Hill Street. One of downtown’s oldest commercial structures in continuous use and the city’s first fireproofed and steel-reinforced structure first steel-reinforced and fireproofed concrete sculpture, the Beaux Arts-style building also leased office space to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who constructed a number of concrete residences in the Los Angeles area.

Broadway North from 4th Street, Los Angeles, Cal., c. 1900s
The Haskell Post Card Emporium 

By the time the Grand Central Public Market opened, Broadway was downtown Los Angeles’s main commercial and entertainment district. Above Broadway, on Bunker Hill, lived some of the city’s most prosperous residents, who descended the Angel’s Flight railway to shop at the market, only a few steps away. The residents of the segregated Bunker Hill and the market’s all-white vendors bear little resemblance to vendors and their patronage today.


Grand Opening of Angel's Flight, December 31, 1901
Courtesy Water and Power Associates

 Angel’s Flight (called Los Angeles Incline Railway when built) began at the west corner of Hill and Third Streets and ascended two blocks to Olive Street on Bunker Hill. One of its highly touted features was the observation tower, whose view was described in a brochure by J. W. Eddy, the railway’s financier, as “grand beyond compare, overlooking city, sea and mountains.” The railway was relocated half a block south in 1996. Following numerous closures, Angel’s Flight was restored and another grand opening was held on August 31, 2017—exactly 116 years after its 1901 opening.


 Grand Central Market, c. 1924–25
Courtesy The Bancroft Library
By 1920, Los Angeles had surpassed San Francisco in population (both over the half-million mark). Two years later, a promotional brochure bragged that Grand Central Market was “Feeding a Million People.” The market featured over 90 stalls, with vendors selling fruit, baked goods, meats, and other products. Prepared foods and restaurants also were available. Perhaps an unknown piece of its history is a visit by the State Department of Public Health during an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1924–1925. It is not clear whether any diseased rats were discovered from the writing accompanying the photograph above (housed at The Bancroft Library), which most likely was taken by the health inspectors.

Interior of Grand Central Market, c. 1930s
Courtesy Grand Central Market Collection
Melton’s Fine Meats at Grand Central Market, c. 1940
Courtesy Grand Central Market Collection via 

Shoppers found their way by bright neon signs displaying wares and stall numbers, c. 1950s
Courtesy CitySleuth
 As described in The Grand Central Market Cookbook:Grand Central Public Market was true to its name—grand. It covered some 80,000 sq. ft., with 2 levels of retail space and a subterranean network of hallways lined with storage rooms, walk-in freezers, and refrigerators large enough to park a Model A Ford. Dumbwaiters from the basement to the street-level sales floor allowed vendors to stock their stalls without ever having to venture into the crowded aisles. It was a modern marvel.” Despite its grandeur, the post-World War II years and beyond were not kind to the areas surrounding the market, including Bunker Hill, where slum apartments arose as early as 1948.

Grand Central Market Shoppers, 1966
Los Angeles Public Library
As to the rest of the nation, the 1960s brought change to Los Angeles. The Watts Riots and a new immigration law brought “white flight” and a wave of new immigrants from Asia and Latin America, who introduced foods and specialty ingredients and lower prices to the market. A year before the decade began, the city adopted the Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project. The project brought an end to the Bunker Hill neighborhood as Victorian homes and hotels were demolished to make way for skyscrapers. Within a decade of the project’s adoption, the hilltop community was gone.
Grand Central Market 75th Anniversary, December 5, 1987
Los Angeles Public Library; photo: Mike Sergieff
In the 1980s, real estate developer and lawyer Ira Yellin called Broadway a “bustling Hispanic secret.” With a new vision for the market—connecting Broadway, a major Latino shopping venue, and the upscale Bunker Hill district—he upgraded the space and began the market’s renovation, the Grand Central Square Project, which was completed in 1995. During the 2008 financial crisis, the market’s fate reflected the economic downturn in many parts of the city. By 2012, however, a resurgence of downtown residential and commercial activity revitalized the market, which only two years later was included in Bon Appetite magazine’s “Hot 10” list of eateries nationwide. Today, as Curbed Los Angeles observes, Grand Central Market “is a vibrant and thriving community of multicultural stands and food stops. . . . Flashy new food halls are marching into Los Angeles, but none can compete with the enduring Grand Central Market.”

Happy 100th Birthday, Grand Central Market!

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager


Rusty Beaman, “What’s Hiding in the Basement of This Historic Building Downtown?”;

Jenna Chandler and Farley Elliott, “LA’s Grand Central Market: A complete guide,” Curbed Los Angeles;

Farley Elliott, "The History and Politics of Street Food in Los Angeles;

Emanuella Grinberg, “Step into the new era of food halls,” CNN;

Danny Jensen, “Grand Central Market: A Look Back at 100 Years,” KCET/The Migrant Kitchen, October 23, 2017;

Nathan Masters, “Rediscovering Downtown L.A.’s Lost Neighborhood of Bunker Hill,” KCET/Lost LA, July 11, 2012;

Adele Yellin and Kevin West, The Grand Central Market Cookbook: Cuisine and Culture from Downtown Los Angeles (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2017)





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