Yes, Virginia, there is a downtown L.A.

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Clifton’s Cafeteria, opened in 1935, reopened in October after a renovation.
Clifton’s Cafeteria, opened in 1935, reopened in October after a renovation.
Danny King
Danny King

The neon sign out front read "Cabinet of Curiosities," and while that term dates back to the Renaissance, I'd never seen a description fit so perfectly.

There was a 40-foot fake redwood tree to climb into.

There was a mix of kids and elders waiting in line to have their lunch scooped onto their food trays.

There was massive taxidermy, featuring a big stuffed lion and an even bigger buffalo preserved behind glass encasements.

There were costumed workers greeting guests and surveying the place.

No, it wasn't an amusement park or museum. It was the newly reopened Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles.

Sociologists, activists and local authorities will endlessly debate the pros and cons of gentrification and its impact on various communities, but make no mistake: The downtown districts of U.S. cities have joined the ranks of theme parks and museums as bona fide family attractions.

Granted, this idea isn't new in a city like New York, where Times Square's transformation from seedy to approachable (way too approachable, for locals) took place a couple of decades ago.

But here in the car-culture capital of the world? That's a more recent affair, and it's served us well, as downtown has become a go-to answer to the question, "What are we gonna do with the kids today?"

The recently revamped Grand Central Market is a century-old marketplace.
The recently revamped Grand Central Market is a century-old marketplace.

Some of the occasions are more obvious than others. Last year's "Hello Kitty" exhibit at downtown's Japanese American National Museum was a gimme for my daughter, and it gave us an excuse to explore Little Tokyo's shops, bookstores and noodle houses nearby.

More recently, the trips have gotten more improvisational. By night, the restaurant Baco Mercat in downtown's Old Bank District remains a difficult reservation even for a date and despite a loud atmosphere. But go at 2 p.m. on a Sunday, and the seating is instantaneous, the attitude is engaging (no "deer-in-headlights" looks from servers as you seat the little ones) and the cuisine eye-opening.

From there, the plan was walk three blocks to Grand Central Market and its dozens of food stalls for McConnell's Ice Cream, but the sight on the way of a massive art installation through a glass door detoured us into the expansive gallery of topical local artist Tod Lychkoff, where we stayed about an hour. (My kids made sure we eventually got those root beer floats, though.)

Speaking from first-hand experience, the idea of taking young kids to the local downtown for a day of activities and exploration was unthinkable a generation ago. When I was growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs in the 1970s and '80s, the region was a veritable donut of activity, with downtown only serving strictly as a business center by day and to be avoided at all costs at night.

As a result, my childhood images of "downtown" were those of a bygone area, whether it was listening to an oldies station playing Petula Clark's "Downtown," that relentlessly chipper 1965 hit about swinging London, or watching a rerun of the sublime 1945 Tom and Jerry cartoon "Mouse in Manhattan," complete with skyline-view dances, stomach-contorting elevator rides and parachute-like drops off of skyscrapers, all to a soundtrack straight out of the Great American Songbook.

My own downtown experiences didn't come until later, though, and they weren't local. My first experience at a downtown sports arena was a Utah Jazz basketball game at Salt Lake City's old Salt Palace when I was 14. My first subway ride didn't happen until a year later when I visited Boston. Both experiences blew my mind.

Fast-forward 30 years (much too fast, of course), and things are different. My daughter experienced the sights and sounds (and smells) of a New York subway as a 5-year-old, and my son has played in the Boston Common Spray Pool.

Where things have really flipped, though, is in our hometown.

Los Angeles’ Downtown Art Walk takes place once a month in the district’s historical core.
Los Angeles’ Downtown Art Walk takes place once a month in the district’s historical core.

Like many U.S. cities, Los Angeles set an annual record for visitors last year, with numbers rising 4.8% from 2013, to 44.2 million visitors, according to the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.

What's unusual, for a local, at least, is that about 10 million of those visitors hit downtown, where the district's population has more than doubled since 2006, to about 55,000 people, according to the Los Angeles Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

The area has had some tailwinds. Staples Center opened in 1999, and the L.A. Live mass of theaters, restaurants and entertainment venues debuted eight years later, triggering the development of the JW Marriott/Ritz-Carlton buildout within the project.

Like other U.S. cities, Los Angeles has also funded some of this activity via tax breaks.

Specifically, many developers were given a push to rebuild the area's century-plus-old office buildings into live/work loft spaces and mixed-use projects via the so-called "adaptive reuse" ordinance that kicked in about 15 years ago.

More hoteliers are obviously taking notice. Cranes are up, and holes are in the ground for downtown's first InterContinental, W and Hotel Indigo properties as well as the newly opened Residence Inn/Courtyard by Marriott dual-branded property amid the office towers on downtown's western edge.

Meantime, edgier badges, such as Ace Hotel and Nomad, have either made their mark or plan to soon amid downtown's older and more social districts farther east.

And while it's difficult to measure how many of those downtown visitors are families, a weekend visit to many of downtown L.A.'s sections will include some stroller and Baby Bjorn encounters that were pretty unimaginable even a decade ago.

Can the visit be dicey? Absolutely. Walk a couple blocks east of the Old Bank District and you're on Skid Row.

And even in the busier, buzzier areas of downtown, my wife still had a "Hey kids, I think we gotta walk this way!" moment when her husband was accosted for spare change.

That said, the trip is never boring. Take Clifton's, which opened in 1935 (the motif stemmed from founder Clifford Clinton's trips to the Santa Cruz Mountains), shuttered four years ago and reopened last month after a $10 million restoration. After wandering through the restaurant's three-story maze of faux-redwoods, babbling brooks, tree-trunk chairs and other "curiosities," my wife remarked that it was "like Disneyland."

Nah, it's better, for being curiouser and curiouser.

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