Exploring Downtown L.A.’s extensive underground tunnels is a glimpse into 1920s prohibition

There are millions of interesting little details threaded through the rich, and often controversial, history of Los Angeles, one of the most storied cities in the world thanks to its confluence of just about everything you can think of. It’s one of North America’s most multi-cultural, famed for it’s (mostly) sunny weather and largely distinct districts which push L.A. more as a collection of numerous cities in one. It’s why a non-driver could feel a little lost (although public transport is much better than it was a few years ago), and it’s why you could spend weeks here and still feel like you haven’t even thought about scratching the surface.

Perhaps the best way to approach L.A. for someone heading over for the first time is to adopt the mindset that you’re just not going to see everything there is to see, or do everything there is to do. The population of L.A.’s city limits alone could be rounded up to four million, and if we’re talking county then that figure exceeds ten million. It is the single most densely populated area in the United States, although if you pick your destinations within L.A. wisely, you’d hardly notice.

The upswing of this is that there is plenty to do no matter where you find yourself, and this is now especially true for those heading to Downtown L.A. (often referred to as DTLA), the once-feared and often misunderstood heart of Central Los Angeles which has been receiving a lot of attention as of late. The large-scale gentrification that has been sweeping the neighbourhood for these past few years has been met with controversy from locals, although much of it has opened up certain connections to Downtown’s complicated past that weren’t really accessible to the public before.

Hotel Indigo: Charming common rooms, immaculate guest rooms.

While local creatives are engaging with numerous adaptive reuse programs, the DTLA community as a whole seems committed to preserving the strong undercurrent of culture and history embedded in the streets and its many iconic buildings. This leaves a lot of history to be uncovered around Downtown, which is a big plus on the side of Hotel Indigo, the boutique-minded brand of InterContinental Hotels Group that is beloved for the fact that no two Indigo properties around the world are same. The reason for this is the enthusiastic way in which the property absorbs the immediate scene around them and interprets elements of the area’s history to inform the design and guest experience. In terms of the DTLA property – a thoroughly impressive 18-story, 350-key hotel – that cultural vacuum draws from the five blocks surrounding the building’s southwest location, leading to plenty of charming and nostalgic details in all common areas and guest rooms. Their story is one which tracks the initial boom of Los Angeles and continues through to the notorious 1920s prohibition-era, which led to much illegal activity flowing through L.A.’s extensive 11-mile network of underground tunnels, some of which are only now becoming accessible.

Hotel Indigo’s charming lobby

And that accessibility is what is fueling one of Hotel Indigo’s biggest points of difference. The property, which opened in March 2017, has smartly extended their guest experience beyond the walls of the hotel by teaming up with local creatives Cartwheel Art to curate a series of walking tours – both packaged and bespoke – of the surrounds.

Away from the colourful homages to the historic Fiesta de los Flores, away from the witty nods to trailblazing actress Anna May Wong, and away from the subtle references to the nearby Jewellery district, is the grit and grime of former speakeasies and secret meeting spots. Indigo’s guests have access to all of that via Cartwheel Art’s signature “Underground L.A.” tour, which can be easily booked at reception. It’s currently their most popular tour, tip-toeing through the darker and more dangerous side of history by ducking in and out of abandoned speakeasies, some hidden underneath towering apartment blocks, that look like disused, untouched sets from Boardwalk Empire, or recalling stories of the famous prohibition-era murders and the secret lives of Hollywood’s elite.

A disused speakeasy with history all around

These tunnels were used so Golden Age celebrities and renowned gangsters like Al Capone and Meyer Lansky could shuffle between bars, many of which were only recently rediscovered due to certain buildings being boarded up during the age when parts of DTLA were labelled no-go zones. Just standing in one teases the imagination to no end, serving as true time capsules to what would have been dangerous and exciting times in L.A.

The best thing about this tour is that it doesn’t feel edited, nor gimmicky or rigid. The collective is made up of well-travelled locals fluent in DTLA’s very comprehensive contemporary art scene, and hence exceptionally knowledgeable about both the good and bad parts of L.A.’s history. On a condensed version of the tour with Cartwheel founder Cindy Schwarzstein, I was zipped in and out of dusty subterranean speakeasies, taken through eerie tunnels, and treated to drinks in dive bars I never would have known existed otherwise. It’s a realistic and matter-of-fact look at the city’s underground, breaking up a bit of that rugged charm with some more modern bars and by-the-by food suggestions (all of which hit the mark).

You’re going to need a nightcap after the tour. Hotel Indigo’s Metropole Bar + Kitchen.

And it genuinely feels like a logical extension of what Hotel Indigo are trying to do for their guests. The ingeniously executed 1920s theme is just the beginning, and all the subtle touches begin to make sense post-tour. Besides, the best hotels in this day and age are the ones which are constantly finding creative ways to encourage guests to explore the area around them, a measure which positions Hotel Indigo as one of the very best stays in Downtown L.A.

Cartwheel Art also offer tours on art, architecture, history and more across various L.A. neighbourhoods. You can check them out over at their website, and to read more on Hotel Indigo DTLA head on over HERE. For further details on the property check out our hotel review.

Hotel Indigo

Address: 899 Francisco St, Los Angeles, CA 90017, USA
Contact: +1 213-232-8800
Website: hotelindigola.com

All images supplied. The writer stayed in Los Angeles as a guest of Hotel Indigo.