From Prohibition to Rooftop Follies: Why Alcoholism Has Always Been the Best Thing to Ever Happen to Downtown Los Angeles

Dtla roaring 20s

Alcoholism (noun): uncontrolled drinking and preoccupation with alcohol, or the inability to control drinking due to dependence.

Remember the days when happy hour was the best way to avoid the 5 o’clock traffic rush?

Locked in grid lock, never lending a second opinion to our daily routines other than downtown was dangerous at night. Little did we know downtown Los Angeles had a hidden vibrate underground party scene and a history of libations that dated back to the roaring 20s.

Shhhh, speak easy!

For the friends of the well-to-do, and the local artists who kept up their empty properties, underground parties on abandoned floors, rooftops, and hidden basements were happening all along.

A favorite hidden, Speakeasy choice is the unassuming downtown art gallery, where complimentary wines could help art buyers make quicker decisions. As tipsy collectors admired artworks above, those with knowledge of the secret password found themselves below, staying until sunrise to enjoy blues, burlesque, and a well of spirits, all shrouded within the cigar smoke rising from the hidden basement.

As adapt reuse projects invited more and more people to explore, inevitably Downtown’s mix of historic buildings, art, and hard liquor would spark a renaissance, illuminating an unforgettable discovery of possibly staking claim to what would soon become the new downtown Los Angeles. 

Soon, bar pioneers would attempt to recreate the old Speakeasy days with every nail and hammer they could muster. Olden-day wood, deer heads, and golden gophers would reemerge, dripping with flappers, old tunes, and cigar rooms drenched in old-fashioned cocktails. 

The stern look of the bartender, dressed in 1920s gear and working under the stress of being possibly busted by G-men at any moment, took over the promotional pages of downtown history. It would be these images that were favored by news outlets across the globe when it came to marketing the new downtowner.

As people began to flock, footsteps sent echoes through the hidden tunnels below where long ago mobsters ran barrels of moonshine, hobos and bar patrons found happiness somewhere in the middle of intoxication and rebellion. 

But what was grain without grapes? Drinking on an empty stomach was never a good idea. Soon restauranteurs would find their way to the downtown trail, bringing with them a selection of the finest wines and something previously unheard of in downtown LA—something miraculous, something called the bottomless mimosa. Now “downtown tipsy” could be enjoyed morning, noon, and night, bringing in a non-stop era of intoxication the town had never seen before. 

What are sports arenas without concessions? 

At the same time, across town, superstar Lakers fans found themselves sharing the arena with millions of visitors, convention seekers, and traveling tourists stocked inside the rooms of a growing number of nearby hotels.

With each new hotel came grand lobbies and acclaimed chefs, with daily rituals of hopeful check-ins that led to nighttime celebrations. The fancier the hotel, the fancier the cocktail beverage program. 

Over a short period of time, the larger the crowds, the more practice downtown got at distributing alcoholic beverages. Soon, desks filled with temporary alcohol permits would allow outdoor festivals and even city parks to be filled to the rim with sponsored alcohol brands.

By 2020, the future of downtown had become littered with cans of manhood eagerly picked up by hobos looking to redeem these welcomed handfuls of change.

Surrounded by unpredictably, it seemed any amount of alcohol could rinse away the fears and allow the drinkers to escape their inhibitions if just long enough to celebrate unhinged within our city streets. 

And then in March of 2020. The party stopped. 

In the years that followed, it would be the bars and restaurants that would suffer the most from the rage of the pandemic. With city and county officials demanding bar owners take responsibility for ushering out their unenforceable mandates.

Four years later, in the aftermath of the COVID Wars, after numerous closures and crushed hopes, downtown crime and homelessness would be on the rise, while commercial real estate would find itself spiraling downward. 

With tourism and hospitality scenes offering a glimpse of what downtown had once become, all hope hung in the balance. Would the mighty vines of grape and the hearty stalks of grain be enough to pull off another revolution of commerce as they once had in the past? And if so, would alcoholics finally gain the respect they deserve for their tremendous contributions to downtown LA? Was Downtown in itself an alcoholic? And if so, who were its modern day Prohibitionists?

May the liver be the judge.

In the mean time, anybody planning on drinking, please take rideshare. We hear the G-men will be stepping up DUI checkpoints this New Year’s Eve.

Long live our speak-easy town. 

Author: Keri Freeman

Military mom and proud parent, artist, writer, musician and film maker. Cocktail connoisseur. Publisher of DTLA Weekly.