When I moved to Downtown LA in 2007, it felt abandoned. Going out at night was a bit like being in a zombie movie – it was so empty. It’s changed massively: there’s so much construction going on now, so many new buildings. If there is a parallel in London, it’s King’s Cross.
I’m part of a street art crew called Uglarworks. I met them through a mutual friend. They had read my first book, All Involved, set during the 1992 LA riots, and liked it. I loved what they did and we wanted to collaborate. They essentially took me on as an intern. I carried their paints at first, then eventually began painting with them.
Being able to prowl the city with the crew gave me access to new neighbourhoods. In places most people never really go to, like Lincoln Heights, I learned so much about the city’s past. They’d say things like: “Oh yeah, that serial killer the Night Stalker was caught over there.” History is tied to geography in a really specific way here.
There’s a long history of graffiti and street art here. Graffiti by the LA river dates back to the 1920s, done by hobos and later local gangs used the [stark black and white] cholo-style graffiti to mark their territory. One of the first stencil artists, Chaz Bojórquez, worked here in the 1960s, and created the character Señor Suerte long before the art form really took off. LA’s always had its own thing going on.
LA is the most diverse city in America, the globe in a small space. I found it amazing that I could drive 15 minutes and only hear Mandarin, or Urdu, or Armenian. I love the openness to new cultures and ideas, and the collaborations you see everywhere – the diversity leads to amazing authentic cultural mashups. You can really see the hybrid culture in the food scene. You get incredible food combinations you won’t find elsewhere – the Korean taco, for instance, was created in LA.
One thing I find exciting here right now is the new wave of Mexican food. Called Alta California cuisine, it grew out of the fact that every region of Mexico, with all its diverse culinary traditions, is represented in LA in a condensed area, so people share recipes and create new things. Balam in the Lynwood neighbourhood is my favourite place to go for tacos. It does a coconut shrimp taco that’s unbelievable. It has won awards, and with good reason.
There’s a lot of history Downtown: some buildings date from the 1800s. The Bradbury building is one of my favourite structures on Earth. It has been in movies like Blade Runner and (500) Days of Summer. The architect designed it by imagining what a building in a Victorian sci-fi novel would look like.
One of the first places I take visitors is Homegirl Café. It’s a great place for Latino food in Downtown run by a Jesuit priest, Father Gregory Boyle, who provides training and careers for at-risk youths, especially from gangs.
There’s so much more to LA than what we see in the movies or on TV. So many neighbourhoods that have lives and histories unto themselves. That’s what I write about – places with their own culture and character, like Lynwood. That’s where my new novel, Safe, a thriller that’s set during the 2008 financial crash, is based. There’s an amazing resurgence going on in Lynwood right now. Its first art gallery opened recently, the Lynwood Union – it’s a really exciting time.
The Little Tokyo area of Downtown is a special place. The Japanese American Museum there is world class and a favourite of mine. The city has one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world: there’s lots of opportunity for young artists and great places to see contemporary art, from the Warehouse district Downtown to Culver City and Chinatown or, for more upscale galleries, Beverley Hills and Pasadena.
I’m an old man and don’t go out much! But there are a couple of old throwback places in Downtown that are great, like The Edison, which is a beautiful old power plant turned into a gorgeous bar. Another place I’d recommend is Seven Grand Whiskey Bar, which serves great scotch and bourbon.
The LA river is a gem: they have been revitalising it, allowing wildlife back in. There’s lots of flora now and you can kayak or hike south-east all way to Long Beach.
• Ryan Gattis’s latest novel, Safe (Picador, £12.99), is out now. To buy a copy for £11.04 including free UK p&p, visit guardianbookshop.com