Why Television Turns to Downtown L.A. to Stand in for New York City

New York Meets Stand In Los Angeles - H 2013
Chris Hawkins

New York Meets Stand In Los Angeles - H 2013

The City of Angels' Historic Core continues to double for Gotham on everything from "Mad Men" to "Glee." But its recent gentrification is making that a lot more difficult.

Downtown L.A. has been standing in for New York City onscreen since the silent era, when Harold Lloyd careened through Manhattan — actually Flower Street — as a cabbie in 1928’s Speedy. Much more recently, even as iconic a New York show as Mad Men has used it for shoots. In the fifth season, for instance, the series made use of a long-obscured area in the Security Building, a 1920 office tower-turned-loft space at 510 S. Spring St. The wood-paneled, gilt-edged space, recently discovered behind the locked door of what was presumed for many decades to be a janitor’s closet, stood in for a high-rise corporate boardroom.

Downtown L.A.’s look-alike stonework architecture — particularly the Beaux Arts and Art Deco buildings located in the 28-square-block neighborhood known as the Historic Core — were constructed mostly before the 1930s. Its urban-canyon streetscapes have lured film productions including Ghostbusters, Spider-Man and Catch Me If You Can to substitute it for Gotham. (The low-slung Arts District farther east occasionally does double duty for Brooklyn.) “Right underneath our noses in Los Angeles is this New York backlot,” says Harry Medved, spokesman for Fandango and co-author of Location Filming in Los Angeles. “It’s like the faces of character actors, where you don’t know their names but they’re instantly familiar.”

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Big Apple-set (but not filmed there) TV shows most frequently render downtown L.A.’s landmarks as Manhattan. “The buildings — when they were built, how they were built, their height, their look — are very similar,” says Mad Men location manager Scott Poole. “If you’re shooting on Spring, Main or Broadway [in downtown L.A.], you have no idea that you’re not in New York. Last week, someone asked my wife how she deals with her husband being in New York so much. That’s how much magic you can do in this area.”

Downtown L.A. has gentrified rapidly during the past decade, its long-vacant and evocatively decaying buildings turned into thriving condo projects, restaurants and bars. But the transformation has proved a challenge for an industry accustomed to having the place to itself on evenings and weekends. “Years ago, we’d shoot there, and you’d barely have to tell anybody,” says Chris Campbell, who handles locations for Revenge. Notes Poole: “We used to film car chases all over the place and land helicopters in parking lots. You’d never have to ask permission or get letters from residents — they weren’t even there.”

Productions always have had to navigate adjacent Skid Row, populated by the homeless and addicted. “But those people know the routine,” says Castle location manager George Shockley. “We have more issues with the yuppies not waiting for a shot and going to walk through it with their dog or to get to yoga.”

It’s not only the crowd that’s complicated matters but also the neighborhood’s new amenities, like bright-green bike lanes. (A Portland-esque trolley line also is planned.) “These things make it more difficult,” says Glee’s Peter Sands, who has scouted locations for the show’s New York scenes. “Now it’s not just palm trees you have to frame out.” Of course, carting in a few suggestive props is every location manager’s not-so-secret fix. Explains Shockley, “Yellow taxicabs and hot dog stands with umbrellas — those are always your saving grace.”