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A Los Angeles Primer: West Hollywood

West Hollywood came into official being on November 29, 1984, 25 days after I did. But which of us wears our years with greater dignity? I strain to look timeless, but timelessness, improperly cultivated, slides easily into blandness; West Hollywood can rest assured, at least, that it runs little risk of that. A mixture of the uneasily dated and the insistently progressive, the tiny municipality — an "r" shape containing less than two square miles, surrounded on most of its edges by Los Angeles proper — would seem now to punch above its weight in most of the important modern rankings: food, no doubt; culture, in certain senses, yes; street life, seemingly so; homosexuality, most definitely.

Urban theorist Richard Florida gives the homosexual population serious weight when gauging a city's vitality, having gone so far as to order the metropolises on something called a "Gay Index." This goes especially for cities driven by what he calls the "creative class" — engineers, scientists, designers, artists, media-makers — and thus it looks like no coincidence that West Hollywood labels itself "The Creative City." A walk down its stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard, surely some kind of Gay Index in and of itself, presents rainbow-striped crosswalks at intersections, rainbow-striped city logos on police cars, and a variety of specialized bars and sex shops. But unlike, say, San Francisco's Castro, the neighborhood doesn't feel like a solemn monument to lost hedonism. By late 1984, Castro-style hedonism had taken its last rites anyway; West Hollywood, at least on certain streets, keeps living, keeps breathing, keeps chatting itself up. (Though not in a way everyone necessarily finds palatable. "The term 'WeHo boy,'" as a friend and longtime resident of the neighborhood patiently explained to me, "is not meant as a compliment.")

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This very chat surrounds me as I write at the tiny, bathroom-less Starbucks on Santa Monica and Robertson. Even without actively eavesdropping, I every hour hear dozens of stories, expertly told by customer and barista alike, of thrilling flirtation, parental rejection, sexual complication, and bottomless romantic woe. (The vicissitudes of heterosexuality, I report with both regret and relief, reach rather lower heights and shallower depths.) Assuming a pair of middle-aged fellows sitting at a table are out on a date, I feel a twinge of disappointment when it comes clear that I'm actually watching a script meeting. The visible Creativity of the Creative City manifests, often, in this form: the mechanized processes and hardened, goofy terminology of mainstream film, and especially television production. Not every Santa Monica-Robertson Starbucks habitué labors over the next episode of a hit network comedy or respected premium-cable drama, but the aspirational vibrations in the room point in that direction with a dispiriting uniformity.

As anywhere in greater Los Angeles, a glance at the architecture clears the mind, or in any case clutters it with such variety of input that you remember how much more exists in Heaven and Earth than plot points, false dawns, and character arcs. Cesar Pelli's Pacific Design Center, just down San Vicente Boulevard, does the trick for me. Coming in for a landing at LAX, it always surprises me how easily I spot the complex from the air, yet standing on the sidewalk next to it, I believe I could see the place from orbit. Built on a scale almost comically grander than anything else in the vicinity, the PDC comprises three very differently configured office buildings: one blue, opened in 1975; one green, opened in 1988; and one red, opened in 2011. Though apparently built for maximum conspicuousness, they nevertheless exude a calming anti-ostentation, at least when laying seemingly empty on weekends.

I observe these hulks, cappuccino in hand, from the coffee shop at the less hulkish West Hollywood Library across the street. Still large by non-PDC standards and gleaming almost three years after its veil came off, the library nevertheless demurs from the unignorable scale of the trio across the way. Despite the buildings' aspiration to architectural icon-hood and their attainment of functional landmark-hood, the PDC bespeaks, to me, neither great wealth nor influence. Part of it has to do with the oldest, largest brother, Center Blue. Despite undergoing what looks like admirably thorough maintenance since its early-seventies construction, the "Blue Whale", as many know it, can't quite hide its age — like the younger city that surrounds it, and thus, for that matter, like me.

Another part has to do with Center Red, the third and presumably final structure, whose difficult-to-apprehend shape perches two office towers upon seven levels of pure parking. The West Hollywood Library, though slick, also suffers under the debilitating mundanity of its own garage — two of them, in this case. Whether owing to zoning laws, presumed necessity, or a mixture of both, this car-serving infrastructure tends, ironically, to render these buildings pedestrian. Shifting back into literal pedestrianism myself, I head to Melrose and La Cienega and bask in the jagged, gloriously unapologetic datedness of a black-and-white faux-marble mini-mall. Driving a car can make parts of West Hollywood, especially San Vicente as it bends toward La Cienega, feel like a faintly futuristic and very expensive life-size slot-car track. Yet the city's chunks after stubborn chunks of the early eighties live on, their now-humble faded ostentation practically unnoticed by anyone moving more than five miles per hour.

Unlike the bulk of its built environment, political West Hollywood looks, like a miniature of San Francisco's utopian sandbox, ever forward. The rest of America may do well to adopt now much of what the city adopted early, such as the rights it grants to same-sex couples, but other proposed laws, such as one renaming pets "companions" and owners "guardians," ring to me like a slow day at the city council. Whatever the fruits of these policies, you'll need to make a deliberate effort to come enjoy them, the city being accessible by neither rail nor freeway. Even then, stray too far from the street life along Santa Monica Boulevard, and you may find yourself at an unchanging crossing light, staring at the featureless rear of a shopping center or lost among the boutiques and specialty furniture shops that present themselves as the city's silent commercial majority. I've never felt welcomed by these businesses, exactly, but I do draw comfort from knowing that, come the satiety of all my current desires, by political means or otherwise, they'll gladly generate a few new ones.


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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