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A Los Angeles Primer: Hollywood

Though you can no longer go to a Japanese department store on the Miracle Mile, you can go to one in Hollywood. Half a century after Seibu took leave of Los Angeles, Muji arrived, representing the current shopping generation as thoroughly as its predecessor represented its own. Seibu, which in its native country harks far back, and far away, to the lavish department stores of fin-de-siècle Europe, theoretically dovetailed right in with the automobile-oriented, fully enclosed shopping experience which developed so rapidly in postwar America in general and Southern California in particular. Why it didn't take nobody can quite say, though at that time the country still regarded things Japanese as a novelty, and by the early 1960s its traditional department stores, even those out on the "suburban" stretches of Wilshire Boulevard had already ground to much larger, even farther-flung suburban malls, against whose comfortable convenience even the grandness of Seibu proved no match.

Despite occupying more square footage than any other branch in America, Hollywood's Muji, by contrast, looks like a utilitarian, almost bare-bones operation. Clothes, snacks, housewares, gadgetry — all of it occupies a single floor, and little separates one type of product from another in placement, design, or (often nonexistent) packaging. Everything at Muji shares the family resemblance of maximum simplicity, a deceptively rigorous aesthetic reassuring shoppers that they haven't paid for frivolity, for display, for bells and whistles. A far cry indeed from the days when opulence sold in quantity, and one whose number of eager respondents signals the definitive end of the developed world's previous cycle of big spending. Muji's product shows us something about the new vogue for what we in America and Japan like to think of as the old unwasteful virtues, but so, given the newest wave of city life, does its location.

As a synecdoche for the Southern Californian entertainment industry, Hollywood has taken on more than its share of tarnish over the past century. As a concrete part of Los Angeles, it during certain suffered an even worse reputation. When I talk to someone who lived there at any point between the late sixties and the late nineties, they can't think back to it without a grimace, recalling the social texture, commercial atmosphere, and level of cleanliness evoked by the poems of Charles Bukowski (who famously passed most of his life as a Hollywood resident) or the songs of Tom Waits (who has paid characteristically rough-hewn tribute to all of Los Angeles' underbellies on albums like "Heartattack and Vine"). Weave exquisite imagery of drunkenness and destitution, seediness and prostitution though they may, those two bards hardly present a face amenable to most above-board commercial enterprises, let alone one like Muji.

Clearly, Hollywood has changed, and rapidly. While it hasn't undergone as spic-and-span a cleanup as, say, Times Square — a once-unsettling space that more than a few longtime New Yorkers say took its own sanitization too far — it has become an area that Angelenos with no professional or residential stake there might want to go. At one time, I would have added the qualifier that, generally speaking, the less far west past Vine on the neighborhood's eponymous boulevard they go, the more enjoyable experience of Hollywood they'll have. This still holds true in the sense that they'd give a wide berth to the street's inexplicably numerous tattoo parlors, its purveyors of tacky erotica, its swarms of aimless tourists, and its slack, sallow imitators of superheroes and long-dead movie stars, not to say that sort of grotesquerie, all of it essentially performative, doesn't have a place here.


I've heard Hollywood dismissed as a tarted-up husk, that "they don't really make movies there anymore," and indeed, major studios have tended to opt for the cheaper expanses to the north and south. But have a walk around Hollywood's unglamorous blocks — meaning those that, rather than trying for glamor and falling short, have no need to try in the first place — below Santa Monica Boulevard, and you'll find represented most essential tasks of film and television production: processing, color correcting, editing, sound recording, duplicating, all housed within structures unimposing and nondescript enough to make you see the whole machine as something of a cottage industry. The music remains as well, providing an abundance of both live and recorded performance. A commission recently took me to the Hotel Café just off the Cahuenga strip, which, even as a lower-profile evenue, still fills almost every night of the month with four, five, six acts. And the cavernous Los Angeles Branch of new-and-used retailer (and concert space besides) Amoeba Music, which sits like a mothership on the less bothersome Sunset Boulevard, needs no introduction.

But now those who steer clear of the bothersome thick of Hollywood Boulevard would also miss Muji, which opened in a complex just west of the Hollywood and Highland Center, bête noire of local architecture connoisseurs but container of a useful Red Line subway station. Hollywood, possessed of three such stops, the kind of density that has given rise to an established nightlife, and towers just tall enough (and in the case of Capitol Records Building, described in local lore as resembling a stack of vinyl albums, iconic enough) on its small skyline to let the occasional outsider mistake it for the center of Los Angeles. Yet, given the city's tendency not to acknowledge distance, maybe they haven't made a mistake. The urban core of Hollywood, together with downtown proper, increasingly feel as if they constitute a single, unconventional urban core for all Los Angeles, separated by geography but linked, as anyone used to conventional downtowns expects, by underground rail. Advocates of downtown development wonder aloud why Muji didn't choose to locate there, the site of so much current and future retail action — but maybe, in a way, they have.

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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