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A Los Angeles Primer: Rodeo Drive

I brought a friend visiting from Canada on one of my nighttime bus rides down Wilshire Boulevard. Halfway through the trip, he looked out all the windows in search of any feature that might identify the area around us. Finding none, he turned to me and simply asked. When I told him that we'd reached Beverly Hills, he reacted with incredulity: what could this dark, silent row of office buildings possibly have to do with that internationally recognized pair of words, less a place name than an incantation of opulence? I tried my best to explain that, despite Wilshire's status as the closest thing to the "main street" of western Los Angeles, it doesn't necessarily play the same role for all the neighborhoods, districts, and municipalities through which it passes.

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So if Wilshire doesn't expose the heart of Beverly Hills, he asked, then what street does? I could only offer an assumption: Rodeo Drive. Among impassioned shoppers everywhere, its name surely sparks as much of reaction as that of Beverly Hills itself. Its four blocks between Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevard run through the middle of the "golden triangle," a commercial zone that, though small, has successfully exported its image of itself far and wide. More than a few Angelenos who originally came from other countries have told me that, when they envisioned Los Angeles from afar, they'd imagined miles of glossy façades fronted by palm trees; a landscape of vertiginously high-end brands and forbiddingly expensive boutiques; parking jammed with Rolls Royces, Maseratis, and Hummers; numerous plastic surgery clinics; cafés and spas populated by those clinics' even more numerous clients waited on by the soap-opera stars of tomorrow.

They'd thought of Los Angeles, in short, as one big Beverly Hills, or even as one big Rodeo Drive. Some of them found the prospect highly unappealing; some of them found it appealing indeed. A visit there today reveals that, despite these much-lamented economic times (and in fact, modern Rodeo Drive has its origins in the even worse economic times of the seventies) the street still draws visitors in like a tractor beam. Walk among them, and you'll hear mostly foreign languages, and when not foreign languages, often foreign accents. This veritable United Nations mills past Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Rolex, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Porsche Design, most of them constantly taking pictures of one another. I've found it almost difficult to snap a picture of the crowds on Rodeo Drive that doesn't contain someone else aiming a camera, which suggests to me that here — not Watts Towers, not the Walk of Fame, not even the Hollywood Sign — we have the most photographed location in all of greater Los Angeles.

Hang out on Rodeo Drive long enough, and someone will inevitably ask you to take their picture. Last it happened to me, a Middle Eastern girl, shopping solo and laden with handsome paper bags, wanted a shot of herself standing before one especially glamorous intersection. As I took the first, and then a second in case the first didn't appeal, I wondered why this particular form of photography has, on this particular street, reached such near-comical prevalence. You usually only see this kind of zeal for photographic proof of one's presence at landmarks of great majesty, universally and immediately recognizable icons, or places famously difficult to get to. Under which of those categories of attraction does Rodeo Drive fall?

I admit that the place does have its own sort of majesty. In few other parts of town do you see design, architecture, material, and branding converge with such intensity on a single purpose: to look, in this case, as expensive as possible. To Rodeo Drive's credit, each of its businesses engineering their individual presentation in this way could have led to an even more ostentatious whole than it has. In their efforts to catch the eye, some shops have taken their window displays beyond elaborate and into the realm of strange and grotesque, employing human and animal forms that at times border on nightmarish. An odd way to sell handbags, you may think, but they come as a welcome break from the luxurious blandness into which the street, whose overall aesthetic still has more to do with the studied inelegance of perpetual new money, occasionally lapses.

The longer I walk here, the more I suspect that the "real" wealth of Beverly Hills must spend itself elsewhere: somewhere less conspicuous, somewhere less known as a tourist destination, somewhere that never inspired a game show on the Lifetime network, somewhere filled with fewer people announcing, in one way or another, that they've arrived. This, it seems to me, explains another element of the need for a picture of oneself on Rodeo Drive, differing in content but not form from a picture of oneself atop Mount Kilimanjaro: it demonstrates having reached some sort of summit, for individual and brand alike. Despite all you can theoretically purchase on this street, most must take away only these snapshot self-portraits. Many of the businesses themselves, though ostensibly operating as retail spaces, seem less interested in actually making sales on Rodeo Drive than in having risen to the status of a brand with a presence on Rodeo Drive.

People are so determinedly collecting images of themselves, in a place so carefully cultivating its own image and projecting it so effectively, that it has come to stand as the image of the city that surrounds it; the remaining postmodern academic theorists could have a field day amid these layers upon these semiotic layers of capitalism, aspiration, and desire. But on a simpler level, Rodeo Drive also provides that rare thing, a distinctly non-anonymous backdrop that identifies your location as Los Angeles — well, Beverly Hills, anyway — and nowhere else. The culture may not have immortalized the corner of Rodeo and Dayton to the same extent as it has, say, Pico and Sepulveda, but the crafted affluence of the former makes a much clearer and more immediate statement than the utilitarian strip-mallishness of the latter. Utilitarian strip malls may well say something more interesting, but it takes more time than a shopping trip in Los Angeles to hear it.

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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