Downtown California Hubs Are Bustling on One Corner, Desolate on the Next

Downtown California Hubs Are Bustling on One Corner, Desolate on the Next

A street musician plays for the occasional passerby in downtown Riverside, Calif. [Credit: Sonya Singh]

(RIVERSIDE, Calif.) – A lone busker sits on a bench, picking the strings of his acoustic guitar. The opening riff of “Here Comes the Sun” rings through the small but powerful Bose amplifier near his feet — Beatles songs are his favorite to play, he says — but there’s no need to turn the amp to 11. There’s no need for an amp at all. This stretch of downtown Riverside, Calif., usually a hub of activity at this time of night, is eerie in its emptiness. A man stands about 25 feet away, tapping his foot to the tempo, while another adjusts his mask so he can approach to drop $20 onto the guitar case.

Across the street, it’s a different scene entirely — the pandemic patio is alive and well. Few of these restaurants existed 15 years ago. Now, groups of people gather for dinner in proximities that would make Dr. Anthony Fauci sweat, masks removed because they’re eating, but remaining off even when they’re not. Servers wear the restaurant’s branded masks. This precaution is the only obvious reminder of the novel coronavirus besides the patios themselves, with their expanded real estate, spaced tables, and string lights for ambience.

But on a Southern California night like this, when the first days of fall mean 73-degree evenings, everyone would rather be outside, anyway. A man on the patio of a taco spot says he enjoys the outdoor experience more and hopes restaurants stay this way after the pandemic has passed.

Up the street, a padlock hangs from the door of an antique store and coffee shop, while another business — it’s hard to tell what it was — is boarded. It’s unclear whether those boards were nailed because of protests over the summer or because the financial downturn finally became too much. Businesses down the block display bright yellow canvas banners reminding pedestrians “WE ARE OPEN!” There’s a sadness to the all-caps urgency.

Art covers the boarded windows of the Fox Theatre in Riverside, Calif [Credit: Sonya Singh]
Art covers the boarded windows of the Fox Theater in Riverside, Calif. [Credit: Sonya Singh]
Around the corner, the glass siding of Fox Theater remains boarded, its box office blocked by a pull-down barrier and littered with a few fallen flyers from events past. Artists have adorned the boards with vibrant displays, some with messages supporting the racial justice movement and others celebrating the power of live music, which would have been pulsing through the closed doors at this time last year.

Nearby, the Riverside Food Lab, a hipster food court with Mediterranean instead of McDonald’s, bustles with crowds looking out at a sizable apartment complex under construction. A new hotel opened on this street last year, as well. At the base of the apartment complex-to-be, a homeless man settles in for the night.