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A Los Angeles Primer: La Brea Avenue

Thirty years ago, Missing Persons sang that nobody walks in Los Angeles, but experiencing La Brea Avenue suggests a new, more nuanced thesis: some walk in Los Angeles; they just don't stop walking. If they sit down, they do so in a restaurant, bar, or coffee shop. La Brea offers a great many of those, some highly respected, yet with hardly a spot between them to take a breather without having to tip. Despite making genuinely credible claims to importance in eating, drinking, and specialty shopping, the street remains, on a human being's scale, for much of its twelve-mile length, starkly inhospitable. Perhaps La Brea still retains too much usefulness as a thoroughfare to make meaningful concessions to street life, yet that very automotive stream and its many attendant eyeballs entices businesses to open there and thus act as their own billboards. "Be here" and "Keep moving": this street somehow sends both messages, and also neither.

I put the question of La Brea's simultaneous abundance and discomfort to Los Angeles Magazine's Chris Nichols, as much of an expert on this city's streets as anyone I know. "It's in the middle of major change," he explained in an interview on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. "La Brea is ground zero for these dense apartment projects right now. I'm not defending that Carl's Jr. [formerly at the corner of] Santa Monica, but when a very low-grade car-culture thing -- easy-breezy parking, you go in and do your business -- is replaced by a dense, to-the-sidewalk, giant sun-blocking apartment building, the whole neighborhood is changed. You don't realize there's about to be a wall of humanity there that didn't exist before." La Brea, in other words, has become a locus of the dominant process in 21st-century Los Angeles, whether you call it "densification," "infill," or, to use the term favored by critics of Councilman Eric Garcetti, "Manhattanization." Garcetti stands accused of having presided over this process in Hollywood, and his opponents in the mayoral race have warned us that it could happen elsewhere if he wins. I've heard participants in radio debates speak portentously of the the coming Los Angeles in which citizens find themselves "all smushed up together."

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Myself and many other Angelenos under 40, on the other hand, pray that a mayor like Garcetti would Manhattanize the entire city as swiftly and remorselessly as possible. But walking even La Brea Avenue suggests that such a density hardly lays dead ahead. The planned Wilshire/La Brea Purple Line subway station remaining a dispiriting decade away, I begin my strolls three miles south, at the Expo Line's La Brea station. That stop opened last year just north of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, a park always more vast and undulant than you remember it. A backward glance at that impressive green space does give me pause enough to wonder whether it might become a casualty of a Manhattanized Los Angeles, but then Central Park does come to mind. A forward glance, however, reveals gas stations and fast-food joints, precisely the sort of low-slung, palm tree-dotted, power line-webbed landscape of modular commerciality that triggers a genuine Manhattanite's gag reflex. While I wouldn't make quite so harsh a judgment myself, walking alongside six lanes of traffic from Carl's Jr. to 76 to Popeye's does get you calculating the acceptable collateral damage.

Only when La Brea passes through the core of a neighborhood like Baldwin Hills do I sense anything irreplaceable going on. Embedded within these countless blocks of duplexes, their porches often decked out with weary living-room furniture, appear a variety of cottage operations: barber shops, tax preparers, residences equipped to serve pupusas and caldo de res as soon as the sun begins to set. Then you come to the taco trucks, by which time you've crossed under Interstate 10 and have almost certainly noticed a stray mural or two. These illustrate, quite literally, the tendency to regard La Brea as a blank space, available for any use its occupants might make of it, without so much as lip service paid to a grander design. What should you expect from La Brea? It depends on which block you stop on, especially below Wilshire. As you approach the intersection with that grand concourse, certain patterns begin to emerge, such as the sudden, inexplicable proliferation of dealers of bulky Chinoiserie. When next someone asks me where to rent a folding screen or reclining Buddha, I'll answer confidently.

North of the well-known Art Deco Clem Wilson Building, the conversion of whose crowning Asahi sign to Samsung marked a decisive change of East Asian Los Angeles' guard, stretches an altogether higher-end La Brea Avenue. The makeshift pupuserías, gated yards of carved teak, and garages outfitted with salon chairs give way to yogurt chains, Italianate bistros, vintage stores, juice bars, and yoga studios. Though this class of business would seem to go hand-in-hand with a certain degree of foot traffic -- indeed, would seem to depend upon it for its very survival -- I rarely pass more than three or four other people per block, half of them en route to a parked car. This feeling of desolation compounds my unwillingness to actually enter any of these places; I already fear the standoffish attitude emanating from an eyewear shop with a DJ booth, but dread even more deeply the prospect of feeling the brunt, as the hour's only customer, of the staff's full attention.

And yet whenever I brave it, I find the tip of an iceberg of hidden wonders. This iceberg may consist mainly of classic men's accessories, cups of unusually rich coffee, and creative reinterpretations of the nacho, but how many other streets bring all those things together? How many have anything like the eccentric avalanche of objects -- wavy midcentury dinette sets, Mexican lottery-number machines, full-size plastic Simpsons characters -- on the corner of First Street known as (nobody quite knows for sure) Metropolis, Nick Metropolis, Metropolis Nick, or Nick's Metropolis? All this hints at a promise which, due to the sheer inconvenience imposed by the street's current suspension between automotive utilitarianism and urban accessibility, still awaits realization. Whenever I walk past the intersection with Fourth, I stop and gaze upon the giant, metal head of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin installed on the corner. Thirty seconds' searching on the internet would reveal how and why it got there, but I prefer not to know. Something about its mysterious presence suggests to me that a fully Manhattanized La Brea Avenue could offer things Manhattan itself wouldn't even try to.

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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