If gumption is the driver’s seat of risk-taking, then bravery is the act of turning the ignition. Fueled by such courage, Jeannine Denholm followed her passion to a struggling area, against the advice of just about everyone she knew. It was a move many people questioned eleven years ago, but Jeannine gave the final say to her intuition. The result was an extremely fruitful personal investment, and a ripple effect that began the restoration of a city.
Hi, Jeannine. Thank you for sitting down with us to talk about your amazing loft. Why did you choose the downtown Los Angeles area?
My husband and I had lived in Los Angeles for eight years before we moved downtown. I always had an interest in the area, ever since I saw an article in the L.A. Times in the late 90’s about artists moving into old buildings and repurposing them into work spaces. When we decided to buy a place, we looked at condos all over West L.A. It wasn’t until we started looking downtown that it felt like home. The other condos we could afford didn’t have much character, charm or a view. They felt very ordinary. When we walked into our loft and saw the high ceilings, big vaulted windows, exposed brick and other architectural details, we knew it had to be ours.
Our loft is in the historic core, surrounded by buildings from the early 1900’s. They are really ornate and so well-preserved. It’s almost like they are living time capsules. And they are really inspiring. It’s one of the reasons I started my Instagram account @loftytales, as well as the book I’ve been writing for nine years about my downtown experiences. I felt like I needed to document the area that was disappearing right before my eyes. It got me to pay attention to the little architectural details easily overlooked. It made me feel like a tourist in my own city.
What is it like living through the changes of an area?
Los Angeles isn’t always known for preserving its buildings, yet it has an unbelievable history and so much great architecture. Downtown was different in that so many vintage buildings were still there. They were neglected and rundown, but still there waiting to be restored and given new life. A lot of people who lived outside of downtown Los Angeles had no idea there were so many beautiful theatres along Broadway, since even if you did drive past them, most didn’t look that special. It wasn’t until the L.A. Conservancy started tours and showing movies at their “Last Remaining Seats” that a new generation of people began to appreciate and see with new eyes. Suddenly, The Los Angeles Theatre, The Million Dollar Theatre, The Palace and others were rediscovered and appreciated for their historical significance and beauty.
We bought our loft almost 11 years ago long before most people thought it was a good idea. I had friends who thought we had lost our minds. Some of them didn’t even want to visit. But I just knew I couldn’t be the only person who felt this passionate about the redevelopment. I could look past the dirt and grime and see something very unique to L.A. And I wanted to be a part of the process.
Downtown L.A. has been through so many redevelopment cycles that I’m not sure people were convinced it could ever really stick. Which is why in the early years of our move, it was a very different conversation with people outside the city core. They couldn’t understand where we would shop, how we would feel safe, or even why we would make the decision to invest in the inner city. I’m not sure why that never was an issue for me, but it just wasn’t. I wanted to put down roots somewhere and make positive change, and downtown seemed like the perfect place to make that happen.
Why is preservation of downtown L.A. so important?
In the early years of living here, there were a lot of people who moved here thinking things would change overnight and that it wasn’t much different than other areas of the city. But then they got here and saw the grit, the rampant homelessness and other problems, got frustrated and left. The mistake people made was believing they were coming in to rescue an area, when the reality was they were joining a community that already existed; that meant the entire community: the good, the bad and the difficult. You have to commit to helping bring positive changes to an area, and respect the residents who already call it home. If you have an “us versus them” attitude, that helps no one.
It took many, many years for us to see change. It also didn’t help that we watched so many of our neighbors go into financial ruin when the housing market bubble burst in 2007. But the people who remained banded together despite the challenges became a very strong community.
Over the past eleven years, a lot has changed in our neighborhood. It used to be that change seemed to take place very slowly. We would read about a possible development, restoration project or business opening up, and then it felt like years before we saw any progress. I just returned from a summer vacation and was only gone a week. Within that week, a new bike share program was installed outside my loft, more scaffolding went up on a building right down the street, and a new mural was painted on the side of a loft two blocks away.
What is your hope for the future?
After years of neglect, failed projects and a bad economy, downtown is finally moving forward in a very big way. I no longer have to defend our decision to invest in the city core because new bars, restaurants, and art projects in the area are on every magazine cover, blog and social media feed. People who once told me we were crazy are now asking about the latest and greatest place to go downtown. Despite all the progress, there is still a lot to be done. My biggest concern is making sure that everyone in the city isn’t forgotten, that social services for the mentally ill and homeless can be addressed. I’m hoping with the renewed interest in the area, those who are struggling will no longer be ignored.
Interview by Joanna Heitz
Photos By Renee Mcmahon