This is the latest for our series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
There is something so very raw and idiosyncratic about Los Angeles. It’s the food (fusion). The people (fusion). The architecture (Spanish Mission Revival, Mid Century Modern, Art Deco, Craftsman… AKA fusion). It’s the sunsets and the way the sky bends to meet the deep, deep blue-green ocean as if they were one and the same. The vibrant, larger-than-life murals by Chicano and Mexican American artists on Cesar Chavez Ave. and throughout the city. I could go on for days because I love L.A.. Anyone who knows me, anyone who’s talked to me for even five minutes really, knows this.
So imagine my surprise—after so many years visiting and then living in L.A., after all those weeks turned into months just driving aimlessly, wasting gas and filing away little polaroids in my mind of crooked homes on hills and palm trees curling toward the heavens, coyotes on street corners like deer in headlights at dusk, green parrots flying home every evening near Griffith Park—when I learned that West Adams is L.A.’s oldest suburb with a thriving coffee, culinary and cultural scene to boot, and that I’d never spent any time there.
Bound by Baldwin Hills to the south and a major freeway to the north, Jefferson Park to the east and just under three miles from Culver City (to the west), the development of what’s now known as West Adams began toward the end of the 19th century. The oldest suburb—developed by railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington and real estate investor and Pasadena Millionaires’ Row resident Hulett C. Meritt—quickly became the most affluent neighborhood in LA, when filmmakers and movie stars, USC professors and DTLA businessmen and their families established roots here.
During Compton’s white flight, there was a shift as white residents left the 1.5-square-mile neighborhood and Black artists and entertainers moved into West Adams’ Victorian mansions and Craftsman-style bungalows. Actresses Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel, band leader Johnny Otis, performers Pearl Bailey and Ethel Waters are just a few household names that called West Adams Heights, or Sugar Hill, home. The neighborhood is known for having played a huge part in L.A.’s Civil Rights movement, too. The 1965 Watts Rebellion’s northern curfew line is here, and during the L.A. Riots in 1992, the First AME church served as a safe haven for people victimized or displaced by violence, looting, and fires.
Since the 1960s, it’s endured significant stress starting with construction of the Santa Monica Freeway which cut West Adams in two. Home demolitions followed. Detailed by the West Adams Heritage Association (WAHA), West Adams lost its ornate street lighting and its red brick streets when the city paved over them in the 1970s. Despite this, the neighborhood has remained culturally diverse with nearly 38 percent Black residents and a whopping 56 percent Latino residents. The affordability factor has drawn young people to the area over the last decade, along with its central location (just 15 minutes from LAX and 12 from DTLA). Until a couple years ago, it was still possible to purchase a home here for under $500,000.
In 2003, West Adams was recognized by the City of L.A. as a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone for its early 20th-century architecture and its social and cultural heritage. Today, it’s where you’ll find the two oldest Black churches in L.A., and a stroll through the neighborhood will reveal Chinese food (MIAN), Israeli food (Mizlala), a Salvadoran pupuseria (Es Con Sabor), a Cali-soul food spot that’s been visited by both Jay Z and Diddy (Alta), a wine shop that specializes in women and BIPOC-produced wines (Adams Wine Shop), beauty salons, dog groomers, a Black-owned art gallery for emerging, mid-career & established contemporary artists (Band of Vices), old school taquerias and lavanderias, multiple collision centers, a drop-in co-working space (YOUBE) and a gorgeous new Tartine that’s focused mainly on breads and pastries—all on one long block. It is, in short, an ever-evolving melting pot, a cultural amalgamation in South L.A..
One of the most recent additions to the area and the reason I ventured out in the first place is Alsace LA, a 48-room boutique hotel on Alsace Ave. that opened toward the end of 2021. It’s beautiful, but not in the Four Seasons or Proper Hotel or even Ace Hotels kind of way. Alsace has a breezy, open pastel-colored courtyard with tables, chairs and sofas for guests to lounge and/or work; there’s a gym and pool on site, and select rooms have garden patios, giving them a really “homey” and cozy apartment-style feel. It’s design-focused. Mosaic tiles throughout the property are by local artists, which adds to the authenticity of the space. It fits into the neighborhood, understated and modest without making a fuss, while still feeling like a posh place to recharge your batteries. At night, the front gates close and a guard is posted up outside the entrance for added safety. Ambient noise includes the occasional dog barking or muffler rumbling, but otherwise it’s quiet.
A 1993 story in the LA Times mentions a West Adams tour that used to take place during Black History Month. It covered the Biddy Mason Monument (paying homage to Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a formerly enslaved woman who founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in LA in the 1850s), Ralph Bunche’s home (a United Nations mediator in the Palestine conflict, Bunche was the first African American and person of color to win a Nobel Peace Prize), business and residential buildings designed by architect Paul R. Williams, the Dunbar Hotel, other notable homes and of course the city’s oldest Black churches. Alsace also offers monthly tours in collaboration with Adopt-a-Bike x West Adams Bike Tour, owned by a local realtor. On the first Sunday of every month (paused for summer and resuming in the fall), Jose Prats takes eager visitors out on two wheels to show them the beauty and educate them on the history of the neighborhood he calls home. If you can’t make it or prefer to check it out on your own time, the hotel has maps for self-guided tours here as well as free bike rentals available for guests.
A few places you’ll see if you join the tour: The house that belonged to Marvin Gaye, which is also the house he died in. A new and vintage record store called High Fidelity (going out on a limb here and saying it’s named after the movie from 2000). And Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens, a spiritual center that offers weekly classes and workshops on personal growth, practical spirituality and more.
What I love most about West Adams and Los Angeles as a whole is the culture, the diversity, the deep-rooted sense of community in an area where there are people who look like me, talk like me, speak a language I grew up hearing and other languages I’ve come to recognize over the years. My hope is that as it continues to grow its charm will be preserved and protected because it would be a shame to dilute something that, currently, feels like the perfect balance.