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A Los Angeles Primer: Third Street Promenade

I hear a wide variety of languages spoken in greater Los Angeles, but nowhere have I found a richer Babel than the very same place whose other chief attractions include shoe shopping at Foot Locker, a hamburger at Johnny Rockets, and a 3D Hollywood spectacle at the AMC 7. No matter how hard I concentrated on one nearby conversation conducted in an exotically indecipherable tongue, I could understand no more than two words: Abercrombie and Fitch. Though surrounded by a near-Platonic ideal of retail homogeneity, I also beheld the diversity of the world before me; what's more, I did so from a reasonably comfortable seat, the free availability of which hardly comes guaranteed in the public spaces of Southern California. Yet you usually stand a decent chance of finding one (especially if you go, as I do, in the middle of weekdays) at Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, which offers a concentration of the American commercial mainstream, attracts representatives of seemingly every known nation, and amid it all still cultivates scatterings of the grotesque.

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Santa Monica itself presents something of a challenge to those writing or thinking about Los Angeles: though possessed of status as a separate municipality, distinctive blue-and-yellow street signs, and even its own bus system, few Angelenos would even consider excluding it from their conception of their city. Hence my use of "greater Los Angeles" above, a commonly heard fudge of a term meant to catch those zones that, while legally — and, perhaps to some of their residents, psychologically — separate from Los Angeles, remain, for many intents and purposes, its neighborhoods. Incorporated in 1886 and now hosting a population nearing 90,000, Santa Monica ranks in league with, say, Pasadena as a particularly large, venerable, and on the whole wealthy example of what some call Los Angeles' "satellite cities." That certainly sounds a bit cooler than "suburbs," and indeed describes places a bit cooler than the traditional bedroom community, usually with greater density and a less utilitarian identity. Yet the Third Street Promenade, today a Santa Monica attraction seemingly equal in drawing power to its signature pier, at first looks like nothing more than an a linear, al fresco version of the hulking, monolithic shopping malls now decaying in suburbs everywhere.

These three blocks first turned pedestrian-only in the sixties, coming as a piece of greater Los Angeles urbanism well before its time. A retooling and a rebranding later, it became the Third Street Promenade in 1989. By the time I got to know the place, it had long since settled into integration with Santa Monica culture. Though outwardly dismayed by the predictable procession of Old Navy after McDonald's after Victoria's Secret after Subway, I still found reasons to go: first the well-regarded architecture bookstore Hennessey + Ingalls, then the second branch of Little Tokyo coffee shop Demitasse, just off the Promenade's northern end. At some point, the Gap and the H&M and the Forever 21 having faded from my view, I began noticing the less standardized elements. Not that one can fail to notice Claude and Francois Lalanne's metal-and-foliage dinosaur sculptures in the middle of the street, nor the regularly spaced musicians that Santa Monica, reputedly stringent about much else, allows the opportunity for amplified performance. Though often without originality — I've heard their renditions of Maroon 5 hits a tad too often — these players do demonstrate a considerably higher level of vocal and instrumental skill than your average busker, to the rare where, on occasion, I pause and listen.

"It's all about you, Jesus," sang one earnest young fellow with an acoustic guitar and a loudspeaker, over and over again. I cringed, not exactly due to the presence of Christian pop music — my acquaintances who most rue the genre's very existence tend actually to belong to that faith — but due to how easily it must confirm the hundreds upon hundreds of passing foreigners' not-quite-accurate assumptions about the naked, thoroughgoing religiosity of the American people. Then again, maybe they came to the United States to see exactly that. I have a hard time pinning down what else could have brought them to Third Street; Spain has a few branches of Zara too, after all, and as I understand it, certain cities in France also boast respectable promenades. But the clusters of kids with crisp board shorts, towels hung just so around their shoulders, unusually pale skin, and a European air of self-possession assume the spirit of the beach cities more fully than do many locals. And if they simply oscillate between the beach itself and the same international chains they frequent back home, they may do it because, as I myself discovered when traveling, you can most clearly identify the differences in another country when you enter an environment with as many similarities as possible to one the country you came from — a Starbucks, for instance. (Of which this immediate area has four.)

You can, unlike traditional enclosed shopping malls, live on the Third Street Promenade, though it surely takes a rare kind of both money and desire to move into an apartment above American Eagle. But the solidly mid-range shopping experiences in its fixed retail spaces require nothing special in the way of finances, less still the kiosks operating between them. From these you can purchase sunglasses, cellphone covers, and various pieces of California merchandise, most of them hooded. And a level of commerce exists on the Promenade still further down, even past the CDs offered by the street performers: there you find one middle-aged man performing handwriting analyses on a card table, and half a block down, another offering the chance to gaze upon his dog, splayed motionlessly out on a wagon and wearing a bikini made of dollar bills. ("SHE IS NOT A STRIPPER," a cardboard-and-marker sign below the animal clarifies, "SHE IS AN INTERNATIONAL SWIMSUIT MODEL.") These not entirely controllable elements of a genuine street, which also include the occasional pickpocket or beggar shambling on hideously swollen legs, remind you that, for better or for worse, you haven't gone to the Sherman Oaks Galleria.

And yet all this exists in the same venue that offers things like the most sanitized version of Barney's Beanery, when even the West Hollywood original has turned into a sanitized version of Barney's Beanery. Condemn the Third Street Promenade as too slick or too haphazard, too bland or too unfocused, too touristy or too crowded if you must, but you can't argue with the impressive flow and range of people there. They may flow mostly toward fast-food burritos, t-shirts declaring their love of the Pacific Ocean, and movies described as "great rides," but they do it with engagement in a space that, if perhaps inadvertently, demonstrates both the salvation of the basic shopping-mall concept in a time when it has fallen far out of fashion and the potential of a street when nobody has driven on it in decades. I may not necessarily recommend it to visitors looking for their first insights into Los Angeles — or even looking for their first insights into Santa Monica — but I, who come from no farther than Koreatown, will no doubt return often. The temptations of $24.95 deep V shirts or $99.99 zero-gravity loungers I can resist, but the temptation to watch and consider all that goes on on the Promenade, I can't. Like any of the world's successful public places, it makes itself unignorable by its sheer observational possibilities.

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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