Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 6 | Winter 2024


“A mí me gusta ir de compras
En еl centro de LA con los compas
Tocan banda y traen botas
No estás aquí entonces, baby girl, ¿ontas?”
— “Santee”, Estevie.

by Jonathan García

Beyond the coastal estates of the world’s elite, beyond the formerly Japanese enclave of Sawtelle, now overrun with UCLA students, beyond the office towers and bougie shopping centers of the west side, beyond the trendy gayborhood of West Hollywood and the gated studios of its ever so slightly more famous sibling to the east, beyond the gentrified cafes and still-hanging-on carnicerias of a now-former Echo Park barrio, beyond the live poultry shops and open-air markets of a MacArthur Park barrio that shows no signs of gentrifying, lies the so-called downtown of America’s most polycentric city.

Distinguished from the rest of Los Ángeles by its density of office towers and papered-over storefronts, downtown has earned a reputation among white collar Ángelenos as an unimportant relic of a bygone era, a reputation that has been difficult to shake even as the upper middle class is priced out of the very same neighborhoods they hold in higher esteem.

Like in many American cities, the flight of the upper classes for the suburbs left downtown Los Ángeles forgotten, bereft of investment and dependent on an increasingly poor, majority-minority tax base. But even today, as urban cores around the country are resurrected as residents remember their roots, redevelopment of Los Ángeles’ alleged center remains lopsided at best. Even as monied interests inject investment into new, eye-catching architectural marvels like the gleaming expanses of the Walt Disney Concert Hall or the ad-covered ritz of LÁ Live’s entertainment district, the historic spaces of the urban core rot on. The once-glamorous theaters of Broadway still host money transfer services and storefront churches proclaiming “Jesucristo es el Señor.”

portrait of Stella Bennett
portrait of Stella Bennett

Main Street, the former fulcrum of the nation’s greatest streetcar system, remains littered with half-empty surface parking lots. Once the beating heart of the center city, the weakening pulse of Pershing Square’s concrete-covered moonscape still awaits defibrillation. Far from fixing these failures, developers seem content to create new playgrounds for the rich that loom over the unchanged decay. So, left to fend for themselves for decades now, the predominantly poor and Hispanic Ángelenos that remember the promise of the forgotten downtown turn to creative (and, occasionally, semi-legal) means of making a living for their families. This double-edged legacy of social abandonment and individual resilience has had two outputs. One is Skid Row, that depressingly dystopian district whose denizens on the margin sell stolen goods, drugs, or themselves to survive. The other is Santee Alley.

Despite its location in an even-more-forgotten warehouse district of the forgotten downtown, the Santee sphere of influence is hard to miss. Walking east on Olympic Boulevard, you are struck by the change as soon as you cross Los Ángeles Street. Gone are the Joe’s Parking lots, aging bank branches, and “for rent” signs plastered to darkened windows. In their place, a series of low-lying, stucco-covered warehouses that span entire city blocks dominate the landscape. The buildings themselves are faded and unassuming, and would be entirely unremarkable if not for what spills out of them. Nothing less than an ocean of informal commerce floods out of the warehouse interiors, spilling onto adjacent sidewalks and even street rights of way with the wares of dozens of sellers. Merchants in the aptly named Fashion District hawk wholesale clothing, Mexican cobijas (blankets) and serapes (cloaks), semilegal discount goods, and definitely illegal designer counterfeits, all cash only. Also present are food carts serving up tacos and bacon-wrapped hot dogs for hungry shoppers, their brightly colored umbrellas like boats casting shadows on the sea of activity below. Meanwhile, hundreds of passersby carefully navigate between islands of open sidewalk as the assembled vendors call for their attention. And this display is only the precursor to the alley itself, which can be found at the headwaters of the makeshift market, two blocks east.

portrait of Stella Bennett

Hanging high above the crowds, a banner over the entrance reads “The Santee Alley: Open 365 Days a year!” Ever since the market coalesced (for Santee Alley is not the kind of establishment that is founded) across four city blocks in the mid-1980s it has never permanently closed, not even during the coronavirus pandemic. In some sense, there is no one to close it. The alley is a public right of way of the City of Los Ángeles, a city that has chosen to concentrate its interests elsewhere. The thoroughfare’s many shops are absent from official city zoning maps, which label the overtaken warehouses as “light manufacturing”, or, incredibly, as “institutions for the aged.” The economic activities of the alley also evade detection from the Chamber of Commerce, the City Office of Finance, the LAPD crime maps, the IRS, and the Census Bureau. Santee’s cultural influence is simply too vast to not be known by government administrators, but they collectively seem to turn the other way as there remains no official acknowledgement of the market’s existence. Thus, despite the changes of recent years, despite the vendor-operated Business Improvement District and its gleaming new website, despite the “gentrification” of some shops (meaning they sell boba on the side or now accept Venmo), despite the dubious legality of certain goods, Santee remains unregulated and unbothered by outside interests. The implications of this are immediately apparent upon entering the space. Stalls are haphazardly carved out of warehouse walls or shoddily constructed of any available material and strewn against walkways. Merchants boast of their stock of counterfeit goods without a care in the world. If a bargain for electronics, jewelry, toys, or designer goods seems too good to be true, it’s likely because it is. The food carts found at the end of each block make no claims about sanitation compliance, and workers look at you sideways if you ask about public health records. What occurs in Santee Alley is grassroots, informal, unplanned capitalism spurred by the pervasive do-it-yourself attitude of those who remain downtown.

Down the narrow alley passageway separating man from material, merchants wage an all-out war on the senses, competing for your attention. Garishly colored signs hang directly into the walkway, each more enticing than the next.

“¡Especial! 20% off.”

“Free shoes, free shirt, free tie, free belt, free socks.” The suit seems to be the only piece that isn’t free.

“40% más grande.”

“Tenemos los precios más bajos, no pague más.”

portrait of Stella Bennett

And, in case you’re interested in going into business, “Estamos buscando vendedores. Llama a Manuel. Se habla español y ingles.”

portrait of Stella Bennett

Aromas of a thousand different origins float through the air, creating a uniquely pungent mix of sickeningly sweet incense, fruit-flavored vape smoke, cheap men’s cologne, and grilled hot dog. Not content to simply allow their products to sell themselves, meanwhile, vendors entice you into their respective stalls: “¡Pasale, pasale compa! Tengo los productos mejores en los callejones.”

portrait of Stella Bennett

Los callejones, or “the alleys” in English, is the more commonly used name for Santee Alley and the greater Fashion District. Here, Spanish is the true lingua franca of commercial activity. To speak only in English is to make oneself known as an outsider to this part of downtown, an identity that increases the likelihood of being targeted for spontaneous upcharges or suspiciously slow service. Stall owners clearly take great pride in creating an in-group based on their shared Spanish-speaking immigrant backgrounds, an impression only enhanced by the aesthetic design of the alley itself. Mexican papel picado and kitschy portraits of Frida Kahlo adorn many of the stall walls, while Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan flags hanging over the alleyway create makeshift shade for passersby. In a forty-nine percent Hispanic city in the heart of Mexican America, appealing to shared ethnicity isn’t just a sentimental gesture: it’s a highly effective marketing technique. In its informality, visual identity, language, and culture, Santee Alley creates the form and function of a Latin American market from the leftover scraps of a once-great American commercial district.

portrait of Stella Bennett

The cultural vibrancy of the dance between Santee buyer and seller belies a much harsher reality on both sides. Santee Alley was born of economic necessity following the bottoming-out of downtown, and it remains in business in part due to continued desperation. According to a recent study published by the Los Ángeles Times, most street vendors in LÁ live on the brink of homelessness or are stuffed into precarious, overcrowded housing conditions with as many as a dozen people per bedroom. Those that flock to Santee Alley are no exception, regardless of the lively crowds that the alley attracts. Beset by rising rents, inflation, street crime, and lingering consumer uncertainty from the COVID-19 pandemic, all but the most successful Santee Alley shops have felt a steadily constricting financial squeeze that threatens to become a chokehold if conditions do not improve. Adding to their burden, many vendors are undocumented and live in near-constant fear of deportation, limiting their employment opportunities to informal work like that found in the alley. Trapped in a neo-Gilded-Age version of America without the minimum wage protections or worker safety laws taken for granted by the documented, immigrant vendors often have little choice but to double down on their shop investments and hawk their products all the more fervently.

The desperation that keeps vendors from leaving Santee Alley also keeps their customers returning. The discounted and often bootlegged goods sold at these informal establishments are typically far cheaper than their equivalents at major retailers, making them important bargains for those residents of Los Ángeles who desire the materialistic status afforded by luxury consumerism without paying luxury prices. The cultural currency of comfort in speaking Spanish with shopkeepers is an even more compelling draw for the thirty-eight percent of LÁ’s population that speaks that language exclusively. Furthermore, in an increasingly digitized and surveilled economy, Santee’s reliable acceptance of cash is a boon to those who prefer to keep their transactions under-the-table, especially the undocumented. Far from just being a creative example of ethnic capitalism, therefore, Santee Alley also serves as a lifeline for individuals on both sides of each transaction.

At the pinnacle of the alley at Pico Boulevard, the vendors have annexed a shopping mall. What was once a tri-level temple to suburban-style consumerism has since been rearranged to accommodate the needs of a poorer, much more diverse population. Its sun-bleached stucco façade has been shorn off to create an airy, brick-lined passageway through the former mall that acts as a continuation of the alley thoroughfare, with rafters repurposed as awnings serving as the only reminders that this space was once built for someone else. Here, too, the walls are lined with makeshift stands selling anything you can possibly imagine, but at the mall’s center rises a small concrete podium where, on Saturdays, local singers and musicians practice their craft for impromptu audiences. At any given moment, the lilt of music might drift through the mall: the soulful gritos of mariachi, the wail of brass banda, the steady beat of cumbia, the riffs of Chicano rock. Crowds gather to socialize and dance as the musicians play on, transforming this end of Santee Alley into a scene more closely resembling that of a party than that of a bustling commercial establishment. Invariably, inevitably, someone requests a classic Mexican folk anthem, often “Cielito Lindo” or “Mexico Lindo y Querido.” As the familiar strains soar through the air, a hush falls over the crowd. Vendors cautiously step out of their stores and into the crowd, always with one eye on their merchandise. For a brief moment, the alley is united. And together, they sing. They know every lyric, hum every melody. And when it ends, the crowd dissolves. Back to staffing the stalls, back to work, back home. Back to the realities of everyday life. Back to carving out a living.


portrait of Stella Bennett
portrait of Stella Bennett

Not far from the southern tip of Santee Alley, the gargantuan 10 freeway looms. Raised on thick concrete pillars to tower above the remains of the neighborhood it desiccated, the gunmetal grey roadway creates an impenetrable wall of noise, pollution, and darkness that even the vibrant energy of Santee Alley cannot penetrate. Under the freeway’s withering gaze, the stalls and street traffic that bring the alley to life abruptly give way once again to the same soulless, blocks-long stucco-covered warehouses from which the alley was birthed. Constructed in the building boom of the Eisenhower administration, the ten-lane 10 carved a path of destruction and decay through this part of downtown that displaced the residents of Historic South Central, a formerly vibrant Black neighborhood known for its prominent jazz nightclubs. Today, the freeway funnels wealthier and whiter Ángelenos from the west side out to parts beyond, choking the communities of color on both sides of its right of way with their exhaust. The imposing visual and geographic barrier of the freeway serves as a sobering reminder that despite the efforts of those who remain in the forgotten downtown to claw themselves towards social mobility and cultural vibrancy, their fates are still shaped in part by civic attitudes that at best, constrict their growth, and at worst, actively undermine them. And yet, the persistence of Santee and its injection of life and energy into a derelict downtown district is a tribute to their resilience.

Santee is messy, chaotic, overcrowded, unsexy, uncouth, and unregulated. It is a symbol of desperation due to disinvestment, as a means for the marginalized to continue the struggle for their own American dream as the one promised to them is denied by systemic forces. It is inglorious, and even exploitative of the buyers and sellers who return with few other options. And yet, somehow, it not only survives but thrives, reactivating what were once abandoned spaces into uniquely vibrant urban markets that once again draw crowds from all over the city to its purported center. Just as the vendors revived the former mall on Pico, so too does Santee Alley revive its section of downtown, making the city ever so slightly more livable in its wake.