by Dan Johnson
Mai’s was dead to begin with.
It’s been almost two and a half years since the cash-only burrito shack on the 600 block of S Spring St shuttered its doors. With every passing day, the humble casa de carnitas slips deeper and deeper into the realm of mythology where I keep nostalgized memories of places I will never visit again.
Objectively, Mai’s was not the world’s best counter service Mexican restaurant. It was a mess. The odds of bowel distress stemming from one of their burritos were pretty high. Sanitation was not always a priority. On more than one occasion, I watched a visibly ill staff member cough directly into my food.
Many of us still pine for Mai’s because it was an emblem of its era. It wasn’t perfect, but it was affordable. Even at your most hard-up, a filling $4.50 burrito was within reach. Mai’s was a relic of a day and age where people moved Downtown because it was cheap and interesting.
Alas, Downtown’s history is a social geology. The strata of time are written in a language of erosion and supplementation. The businesses, people and activities that sustain one era are washed away or covered up in short order.
The age of middle ground died on January 6, 2014—the day GQ declared Downtown “America’s Next Great City” with a rousing fluff piece that played like a coronation of the business interests who had the foresight to invest in Downtown years before.
When the glossy tastemakers proclaimed DTLA to be the hippest of all hip places, decades of real estate consolidation, blowhard branding and patient posturing paid off. The time was nigh for residential rent increases and a changeover in retail tenants. No long-term lease? Sorry! No one was going to deny stakeholders the price per square foot rates they had lusted after for so long.
It was an age of dreams that too many of us bought into vicariously. The promise of the future was bright, after all. Sure, we’d give up a few of the establishments we’d come to know and love, but just think of all the boutique hotels we’d get!
Mai’s had to die so a proposed tower could go up in its place. Or so we were told. Two years later and the cabin that once held Mai’s still stands. A profusion of unmemorable pop-up restaurants has marched through the location like sailors through a whore house and still no tower. Meanwhile, Downtown has changed.
On a scale bigger than one burrito shack, the GQ mentality inspired two foolhardy and ultimately destructive phenomena.
First, a wave of rent increases (to be followed year after year by many more rent increases) jacked up the market rate of local housing in anticipation of a glut of moneyed jet setters who would be the new bedrock of Downtown. Gone were the mainstays of yesteryear and with them a roster of bar goers, artists, minds, hell raisers and outsiders whose conversations made our culture all the more interesting and whose hearty sensibilities helped maintain a certain order on the streets.
Second, a glut of new and pricey businesses rushed to anticipate the needs of the promised glitterati who would definitely have enough money not to feel economically strangled by absurdly high housing rates.
Upside: I can now buy a ten dollar all black ice cream cone that will earn the envy of sugar hounds across the internet.
Downside: I can’t feel safe walking in my own neighborhood because the savvy Downtowners that used to hang out at now evicted markets and restaurants have gone the way of the do-do while boneheaded policies, inept or absent policing, non-existent mental health checks and a Mayor who has given every indication that the problem is above and beyond his capability to administer a city on Instagram has opened the door to new dimensions of dystopia.
I’m sorry if you’ve read this far because this really isn’t for you. It’s for the con-artists who charge five dollars a square foot and encourage saps like now-dead class of 2015 standouts Tabachines Cocina and Bier Biesl Imbiss to build relatively expensive businesses on a delusion.
Can you read the writing on the wall? Is it starting to sink in that the elitism and price gouging is a cognitive disease coupled with toxic greed that threatens the viability of the whole experiment in Downtown rejuvenation? Can you comprehend that an unaffordable city center in this day and age is unsustainable? What do I have to do to explain to you that encouraging a low cost of living supports a social middle ground that may not satisfy your lusts for return on investment, but serves a useful purpose just the same? Do you get that perpetuating a poisonous and dishonest image of a city is very different from supporting its substance?
You can slap a new coat of Slytherin paint on the San Fernando Building, but without cutting rates, the Skid Row adjacent haunt is still going to be below capacity. You can commission a touchy-feely mural of sociopath babble and people will still sell drugs beneath it. You can inject capital into whatever compensatory mega-tower you feel the need to erect, but until you grapple with the reality of Downtown at street level, you won’t have built a damn thing.
Let that sink in.
While you’re processing a statement on Downtown that doesn’t involve someone congratulating you for having the foresight to make money, why not pop into Happy Day Café on 6th St between Spring St and Broadway.
The tiny kitchen is the inheritor to Mai’s legacy—an affordable, cash only, quick service Mexican food location where we can begin anew on the quest to build a Downtown for everyone.
For $8.25, I feasted on a taco and a huevos rancheros plate that featured a fat stack of corn tortillas on top of abundant flavor. The food wasn’t disappointing like calling the green shirts at 5:54am regarding a man who had been incoherently screaming since 4:14am only to have them arrive at 7:20am. Nor did it burn like witnessing a crime and attempting to flag down LAPD as they sped past on their way to LA Café. More so, the staff maintains a congenial demeanor and ample seating so your stay won’t be interrupted by a tool bag in designer overalls notifying you in hostile tones that you’ll have to pay more per minute if you’d like to stay and if you choose to leave, it’ll be no problem because a lot of people would like to sit on the busted-ass naugahyde chair you’re occupying.
I award Happy Day Café a “1” on the binary and encourage you all to support them before it becomes a forty-story helicopter landing pad.