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A Los Angeles Primer: Culver City

The Expo Line may not come to stop in the middle of Sawtelle, but it can already carry you somewhat closer to the center of an even better-known west-side neighborhood: Culver City, which — the name doesn't lie — actually counts as a city on its own. People seem, generally, to know that it enjoys this status in a way they don't always know it about, say, West Hollywood; despite encirclement by several areas we call "Los Angeles," Culver City has retained a noticeably separate identity. Ten miles of distance from downtown have no doubt helped it to do so, but in the century since developer Harry Culver took the first steps to establish his eponymous municipality, the place has also cultivated something else. Having resisted strong bids for annexation, the way the likes of Venice didn't find themselves in the position to do, Culver City has even made a fair few annexations of its own, resulting in a confusing zig-zag of a border, but one that has apparently done no harm to its brand. Not that this comes as surprise; if anyone can build a brand, movie studios can, and you'll find a great deal of studio activity in Culver City's history.

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The modern robustness of the Culver City brand draws much from twentieth-century film production. You recognize this early, provided you enter on the right street; one particularly notable sign doesn't just present the words "CULVER CITY" inside a stylized film strip, but places the silhouette of a motion-picture camera beside it, and over that, the motto "THE HEART OF SCREENLAND." You get the impression, looking into the matter, that the local city fathers never really got over how "Hollywood" became the synecdoche for greater Los Angeles' entertainment industry. One especially telling late-1930s struggle saw the Culver City Chamber of Commerce adopt the slogan "Where Hollywood Movies Are Made," not quite managing to push through a proposed change of the city's name to, simply, Hollywood. But whether you consider its center Culver City or Hollywood proper, the glamorously polished old American film machine would soon thereafter achieve peak performance in its annus mirabilis, as acknowledged by many an observer and insider alike, of 1939. These days, I imagine such historically distant territorial disputes weigh none too heavily on the minds of either the Hollywood tourists flocking compulsively to Graumann's Chinese Theater, or the workaday Culver City studio employees just looking for a decent lunch panini.

I grew up associating Culver City with the entertainment business myself, though not with the opulent productions of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in its heyday, nor even with the comparatively modest (if still often blustery) productions of Sony today. As a near-religious listener to "Loveline," Adam Carolla and "Dr. Drew" Pinsky's sex-and-drug advice show broadcast nightly on rock radio stations across America, I heard countless hours of their complaints about the Culver City studio in which they sat at their microphones: its cheap, ill-maintained equipment; its shambolic construction; its dead-eyed, intransigent staff. Carolla in particular could take these jags quite far, all the way out to the inconvenient right-turn traffic lights on Culver City streets, and beyond to inflated speeding tickets in Burbank, the chintzy seediness of Gardena, and the unhappy memories of his high school years in North Hollywood. Though they hardly sound like endorsements of greater Los Angeles, much less encouragements to move there, these bitter reflections nevertheless began, as I tuned in from my bedroom in the Seattle suburbs, to sketch the region's outlines upon my brain. Over subsequent years of "Loveline" listening, my compulsion to fill in the map only grew stronger.

But Culver City in particular, which at first glance exudes a studied blandness, rarely draws the fascination of Los Angeles' first-time visitors and new residents. Spend a little time there, though, and certain details soon stand out: the jauntiness of its signature logo font (which, in its way, really does look like a signature), its vivid green buses, and the seemingly disproportionate presence of chunky, neon-highlit signs from a more earnest commercial era, more than one of which advertise businesses called "Johnnie's." Again, the Culver City brand: the place has spent no small sum of time and resources refining its nostalgic, pre-war none-dare-call-it-Hollywood air, especially in its small downtown, renovated, with a certain degree of admirable foresight, back in the nineties. In this downtown you sense the brand at it strongest, which at times feels like a victory for walkable small-scale urbanism, but at other times feels like more of a victory for friendly-enough configurations of chain eateries both local and national. That said, downtown Culver City's 1926 wedge-shaped Washington Building houses in its tip what surely must rank as one of my own personal favorite Starbucks locations in all of Los Angeles County. Yet it gives me little more than cold comfort, since the real draw of Culver City, to my mind, shuttered just a few years ago: the Tokyo 7-7 Coffee Shop, the sole eatery in the entire history of greater Los Angeles dining that may, perhaps, have attained perfection.

Occupying a squat beige-and-blue cinder-block building hidden from view an alley behind a parking garage — one rung up from a shack, compared to the structures that eventually surrounded it — Tokyo 7-7 offered the diner with a ten-dollar bill a chance to eat a breakfast, perhaps the last of its kind in Southern California, of ginger beef, scrambled eggs, pickled cucumbers, hash browns, miso soup, and hot mustard. This diner, moreover, could eat it in a classically wood-paneled environment, on a Formica table, clutching a weighty brown ceramic mug of hot coffee (or green tea), sitting amid countless baseball pennants and signed eight-by-ten glossy photographs of minor, often hard-to-place stars, both Japanese and American. My first dining experience at Tokyo 7-7 solidified my decision to move to Los Angeles. Alas, the establishment closed just as I executed that move, thus casting itself into the realm, at least in my mind, of Things Too Pure for Our Fallen World. Thus began my use of the term "Culverization," meant to indicate the simultaneous promotion and inadvertent destruction of a distinctive small-scale city environment. Not terribly long after that, I turned up to the last days of another favorite Culver City spot, the combined tea shop, art gallery and "maid café" Royal T, once found on the other side of downtown on Washington Boulevard. "Culverization," I once again muttered darkly.

But plenty of interest remains in Culver City — much, I would submit, that even the frequent visitor may have yet to explore. One day, I figured I'd pay my respects to the vacant site of Royal T and then continue pedaling down Washington until the street signs — made to look, as in most of Los Angeles' technically independent municipalities, slightly different than Los Angeles' own — stopped reading "CULVER CITY" at the bottom. How long could it possibly take? Yet the ride went on for mile after unexpected mile, the Culver City brand dissolving with every block into a flatland of credit dentists, tax preparers, and auto body shops. Still, these liminal zones of the Los Angeles cityscape, broadly defined, cry out for further exploration, as arduous as their long distances and unappealing surfaces would make such an effort. I recommend giving it your best only after coming in to Culver City through Palms on Venice Boulevard, a street more or less free from the sometimes sad claims of Screenland, and one that presents you with the Museum of Jurassic Technology. This deliberately inexplicable institution, topped by a Russian tea room, enshrines, among other curiosities, bizarre folk remedies, decaying dice, the fruits of pseudoscience, and scale models of trailers. I never miss the chance to bring outsiders to the MJT, and I've even heard it recently underwent an expansion. Culverization, it seems, has only gone so far.


Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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