Goldplaited Organic: Millennials and the Sinister Appeal of the Ace Hotel

I’m sheepish about entering. Even at 6:30am on a Tuesday, the Ace Hotel’s wrought iron doors are lined with hipsters in wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses and $2,000 vintage mohair jackets and Nikes. The guy in line in front of me seems to still be in his pajamas. He wrestles his Husky to a sit with one hand and clings to a giant mason jar with the other. He sleepily asks the barista to fill it with coffee. Dark roast, he is not too tired to clarify.

I hesitantly order my coffee over a deep mahogany espresso bar, all the while wondering if my sweater is too white, my jeans not distressed enough. The barista, gleaming with early 20s hip, smiles at me pityingly from behind an elegant sheet of glass. It is an unspoken rule that if you’re not ordering food you’re to self-banish yourself to the upstairs “coffee hang-out area,” as the Best Girl waitress called it. I take the walk of shame up the lacquered stairs where those of us not prepared to drop $30 on breakfast can ogle the other, more financially capable clientele through the banisters above. I lean back into a custom leather chair that is far less comfortable than it looks and watch a young British couple below, the woman with shiny red hair and a polka dot dress and the man dressed in a flannel button down, a meticulously maintained 5 o’clock shadow clipped to the side of his face.

I feel out of place here, though I, a middle class woman in my late 20s with no children, no husband and a disposable income, am probably their most likely clientele. And that’s the genius of the Ace—its ability to make you feel like you shouldn’t be there. To tap in to the well of lack felt by the middle to upper class millennial generation. There’s always something not-quite-right, whether it’s our jobs, our partners, our unlaunched creative careers, or just the state of the world in general.

Many millennials I know are itchy in their own skin, myself included. A child of two painters, our family hovered over the barometer of middle class. My sister and I were two of few Latinas at the Blue Ribbon public schools we attended with the sons and daughters of the white-collar who had moved to the area for its relative seclusion from greater Los Angeles. It was a haven of modern conservatism tucked into the San Gabriel Mountains, just 20 minutes from downtown. I grew up straddling a certain kind of privilege. The Ace purports to mirror this same contradiction—a luxury hotel selling $50 plain white t-shirts but also $1 coffee if you bring your own mug. It mirrors middle class millennial values, and it doesn’t. It satisfies our taste for luxury and upward mobility, while also maintaining a second-hand, “sustainable,” “socially conscious” aesthetic. And that’s just what it is: an aesthetic.

The hipster generation is now more upwardly mobile than ever, and the result is a playground of taste and hypocrisy. A 13-story jungle gym of privilege for the generation that cares about nothing but also everything. It cares about organic, though not locally sourced coffee (Ace carries Stumptown Roasters, based in Portland, Oregon). It cares about unfinished concrete, an open layout.

I, too, am sensitive about my aesthetics. I like strong coffee and I like it in a porcelain cup. I salivate at the sight of hardwood floors and exposed brick. I have roamed the tree-lined streets of Portland, besotted, taste-testing all the local coffee I could find. I travel to certain places just to geek out on the architecture. And I like being part of a tribe. Because, ultimately, isn’t this what it’s about? The Ace has made a three-tier catchment system—eat, sleep, play—to lure the entertainment elite. We want to know that the person next to us already knows the favorites at Sundance. We want them to have written articles for The New Yorker or designed logos for the hottest indie bands. These are aspirational friendships, aspirational connections. Aspiration is the bargaining chip of the Ace. There’s a funny naivete to an establishment that plays at irony and sincerity at the same time, as if the grasp for authenticity wasn’t the very skin of irony. Within a minute of logging on to the Ace Hotel’s wi-fi I get an email from them. You’re on the A-list, it says, and I can’t help but feel the slightest pang of pride.

From downtown to the Fashion District I watch the streets pocked with graffiti stencils that say things like “You are beautiful” turn to remnants of human shit, forgotten spaghetti, discarded clothes. When I was a teenager, my friends and I fled the San Gabriel Mountains enclave we lived in for shows at a basement venue downtown that’s since shut down. Back then, downtown was apocalyptic, certainly not the walkable destination it is now. Downtown was a shell of a city, with streets lined with tents, tarps, and other makeshift roofs of the homeless. The drug-addled and abandoned roamed the streets, talismans of an income disparity that has now been spackled over with salad bars, coffee shops, and yoga studios. After coming back to LA for a job after living in the Bay Area for six years, I was shocked by the new trendy restaurants and coffee bars. The people ducking in and out of Manhattan-style apartment buildings. People have dogs here! I told a friend over the phone as I walked down Broadway ogling Labradors and French bulldogs.

After leaving the Ace,  I walked down Olympic guiltily clutching the remainder of my hipster coffee as I avoided making eye contact with the mostly Latino Fashion District vendors. I caught a whiff of chorizo sizzling as I walked by a restaurant and began to calculate in my head what kind of delicious breakfasts I could have spent with the price of my Best Girl coffee. But it’s the ambiance! I justified to myself, heart sinking as I realized my lack of connection to an environment perfumed by my mother tongue—why am I, a Latina with a degree in Latin American Studies and a ten-year professional background in Latino community development, more comfortable at the Ace than the corner panadería? What is wrong with me?

As a British-Colombian born in the South and raised between rural England and LA, I’ve always had a contentious relationship with my sense of belonging. I am highly aware that the places that I do and do not feel safe have everything to do with race and class and the ever-changing hydraulics of where I do and do not fit in these parameters as a bicultural woman. I hate that I love the Ace. I hate that I love it while also feeling inadequate within it. But it’s just this inadequacy that the place is banking on. To come to the Ace is to aspire to be someone or something, or at the very least to know or to come to know someone who is someone or something. The Ace only confirms that lack, giving us enough of a taste of the kind of lifestyle we want while also showing the seams of its problematics to indicate to us that even if we had the money to live in this world full time, our values wouldn’t allow it.  

That morning at the Ace, Cat Steven’s “Where Do The Children Play?” floats across the crowded restaurant, a fitting ditty when one considers what establishments like these have done to housing prices, community development efforts. Of course, the Ace is not alone in its erasure of the inconvenient side of local history. During a recent trip to Portland my boyfriend, a Portland-native, took me through the various “revitalized” parts of town reciting what had existed before the coffee shops and vegan restaurants and rare bookshops. Across the street from his old high school he pointed out a beer garden that used to serve as the funeral home for the memorials of young people killed by gang violence. I eyed the trendy clientele around my age sipping beer at three o’clock in the afternoon and wondered how many of them would come here if they knew what it used to be. [We] jumped into the project with both feet, the now deceased co-owner of the Ace Alex Calderwood once said, had absolutely no idea what we were doing and through instinct, came up with something fresh. Creativity, instinct, intuition, effortlessness—all mouth-wateringly appealing to the middle-class millennial generation. The generation that wants to do exactly what it wants. But what if we can’t do exactly what we want? What if, for once, we are told no? The issue of space in Los Angeles is becoming more and more contentious. In an era in which social consciousness is social capital, how will places like The Ace put their money where their mouths are? Will they be asked to?

The answer to this question is not Never go to the Ace, but rather that middle class millennials with more than enough financial agency ask more of the institutions and venues they support. As millennials stack their financial power, should we not be flexing our sense of morality in addition to our ambition? Maybe we should all put down our $4 coffees, close down our brightly mapped-out Google calendars, close out the article we’re writing on Nicki Minaj and national identity, and look around every once in a while. Ask questions. If so, we might be able to see vestiges of what came before, and the potentialities of integrating the past and the present into the future.

Cities Without Cafes

“Maybe, if there were more of us in the city insisting on just the small things in life, and we had a space to exist, he wouldn’t have to die.”

The Hotel

From The Hotel Years; translated by Michael Hoffman