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A Los Angeles Primer: The Miracle Mile

Los Angeles once had a Seibu. Those who delve into the city's history tend to obsess over some obscure happening from the past decade, the past century, the past two centuries. My own transfixing blip appeared just over half a century ago and disappeared soon after. "Even in Los Angeles -- the city of gala premières for everything from Hollywood spectaculars to hamburger stands -- the 'grand opening' last week of the U.S.'s first big Japanese-owned department store created quite a splash," reported Time magazine on March 23, 1962. "Within 15 minutes after Seibu of Los Angeles unlocked its door, 5,000 shoppers were inside, women were fainting, policemen had to bar all entrances to slow down the rush and traffic was backed up for four blocks along Wilshire Boulevard." But just two years later, America's only Seibu, purveyor of the "oishii seikatsu" -- "sweet life," as I'd translate it -- gave way to the probably more practical but crushingly less exotic Ohrbach's. It shut down twenty years before I was born, but I still find myself thinking about the old Seibu whenever I walk by its location at the end of the Miracle Mile.

Though it gives me time and space to reflect on Japanese department stores of bygone days, traversing this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard on foot does perhaps snub its historic spirit. First developed in the twenties by A.W. Ross, a bust of whom still stands at 5800 Wilshire, these blocks between Highland and Fairfax Avenue (which actually add up to a mile and a half) offered prewar shoppers an automobile-friendly alternative to downtown crowding. Ross' idea, the improbable success of which qualified as the "Miracle," enjoyed a few good decades of eating downtown's lunch, as they say. But by the time Seibu set up shop, decline had already set in, and the Miracle Mile's own lunch got eaten in turn by postwar America's signature far-flung suburban malls. (You can read more about this process in Nathan Masters' "How the Miracle Mile Got its Name".) Today, as city-center shopping and living undergoes a renaissance, many of those distant commercial behemoths look depressingly worse for wear; how long before we see a country-wide wave of mall demolitions? And where does that leave a place like the Miracle Mile, optimized neither for motorists nor pedestrians?

Despite its lack of foresight, Ross' concept still commands a certain admiration. He wanted to create a rival to downtown, a new downtown, a driveable downtown, a linear downtown of wide, proud Art Deco buildings optimally viewed at thirty miles per hour. We think of going shopping by car as a phenomenon distinctively of twentieth-century America, but the notion behind the Miracle Mile smacks more to me of the recklessly innovative impracticality of the century before. Though now pocked by free-standing fast-food joints, those solemn monuments to bland efficiency, the street still boasts just enough buildings evocative of the Miracle Mile's heyday, more of them than you'd expect actually from the Miracle Mile's heyday, to give you the feeling of moving amid the remains of grandeur. (Billboards for the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, up as of this writing, resonate with the hollow artifices of Jazz Age decadence.) We get a cheap laugh from references to the street as "America's Champs-Élysées," but think of its inflated scale, its strained ambition, and, as a result, its unintentional poignancy -- does the comparison not seem apt?

Then again, I doubt the Champs-Élysées has quite so many wig shops. The seemingly disproportionate number of Miracle Mile businesses concerned with hair -- cutting, styling, extension, replacement -- suggests that the district's sights, which clearly fell after Ross' day, never regained their original height. But these coexist, if not shoulder-to-shoulder then at least in the same one-point-five miles, with a formidable cluster of museums: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Architecture and Design Museum, the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the La Brea Tar Pits. In the very same building Seibu once occupied, we now have the Petersen Automotive Museum. By the same token, the shifting permutations of high-end food trucks that line up outside these noted cultural institutions, offering Brooklyn-inflected spring rolls, duck confit tacos, or nine-dollar experimental sandwiches, coexist with all those low-lying brown-and-yellow burger delivery systems. We come to the modern city in large part to experience a mixture of "high" and "low" on the same ground; if Los Angeles as a whole has lagged in providing that, the Miracle Mile in particular has done it, or a version of it, for longer than I'd realized.

Before living in Los Angeles, my introduction to the area came, as it does for many outsiders, from LACMA. The museum's film program had me making increasingly frequent and desperate trips to town for hit after 35-millimeter hit of Bernardo Bertolucci, Hong Sangsoo, and Yasujiro Ozu (only to switch programmers months after I moved, a subject about which others have grumbled more eloquently), and thus for exploration of the surroundings. It once surprised me how instantaneously either side beyond the Miracle Mile flattens out into sleepy residential territory, but even a week in Los Angeles inures you to sudden changes in density and architectural profile. Now it surprises me, and pleasantly so, what range of rich non-museumgoing cultural opportunities the neighborhood holds out to the curious visitor. Or rather, it holds them out but slightly back, and sometimes only serious curiosity indeed can close the gap. The Japan Foundation, where I volunteer, recently moved its main offices to a complex on the Miracle Mile; the other half of the building houses the Goethe-Institut's local branch, where I've sat down to twelve-hour Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders marathons. Not a third of a mile away stands the Korean Cultural Center, where I turn up for language classes each week.

Yet one spot above all shows me the promise of the Miracle Mile, and it doesn't even operate on Wilshire Boulevard proper. Follow the squat A-frame sign pointing just south down Dunsmuir Avenue, and you soon arrive at Yuko Kitchen, a Japanese-Californian eatery operated by the eponymous Yuko and a coterie of her countrywomen. There, as Michael Jackson plays on the speakers and a Hayao Miyazaki animated film plays on the television, I order a "bowlito" -- a seaweed-wrapped, fish-filled cross between a bowl and a burrito -- from one of Yuko's Run-DMC-capped lieutenants. This, judging by the amount of time and money I've spent there, not to mention the number regulars I spot there (grateful, no doubt, for a non-chain eating opportunity), ranks as one of the most compelling cultural experiences now available between Highland and Fairfax -- the means to an oishii seikatsu indeed. Who can say how many more such green shoots will sprout when the Miracle Mile finally receives its long-delayed Purple Line subway stations? Get back here, Seibu; I sense a second miracle coming on.

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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