A Los Angeles Primer: Westwood

I often ask Angeleno acquaintances between forty and fifty years of age if they really, at one time in their lives, thought of Westwood as a place. Most reply that, especially during the early 1980s, they not only thought of Westwood as a place, but as the place. More recent arrivals such as myself have trouble believing these stories of Westwood nightlife, especially given the bad press the neighborhood has endured over the past couple of decades: too much a clash of elements, say architectural observers; too far-flung and emblematic of the west side's backward resistance to rapid transit, say urbanists; too hard to park there, say longtime Los Angeles residents and visiting shoppers. Other than the Hammer Museum, which plays the role of sole attraction for as many people as does the Annenberg Center for Photography in Century City, the area seems, at present and from a distance, to have mostly strikes against it. Hence that question I put to those here long enough to have experienced its heyday; the very phrase "Hey, let's go to Westwood on Friday" rings, to me, more than a little false.

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Whenever I make my own way over there, I do find a nice enough place to pass an afternoon, but so the commonly agreed-upon sentiment that it used to enjoy a great deal more vitality than it does now makes sense. Fewer agree on what, exactly, drained it away. Writing on Old Pasadena, I mentioned UCLA parking theorist Donald Shoup's research into the parking policy of that neighborhood, which seemingly revitalized itself through productive use of parking meter revenues; versus that of Westwood, which involved reducing parking rates instead and hoping for the best. This resulted in little more than a hardening of the place's already-earned reputation of unparkability. That, in and of itself, may say little against Westwood — you'd have an even tougher time parking in most of the world's most exciting cities, by their very nature — unless, of course, like a fair few of those who would converge there in its era as "the place," you had to come in by car from ten, twenty, thirty miles away.

Young graphic designer Karen Toshima lived a little farther away than that, in Long Beach. Gunned down in Westwood one January night in 1988 during a gang altercation, she quickly became media shorthand for an incomprehensible, apparently inescapable condition of violence that had must have seeped into the fabric of Los Angeles when the public had its back turned. Whatever damage Westwood's parking-related choices have done — and Shoup's persuasive findings show it doing plenty — the average citizen can't help but see them pale against whatever Toshima's shooting both reflected and preceded. Looking back a quarter-century on, the tragedy appears to have opened a particularly uncomfortable decade for the city, characterized not just by paranoia about random violent crime, but by an ominous sense of imminent natural disaster, from the Big One on down; the prevalence of salacious news stories of celebrities run amok; an automotive infrastructure beginning to seize under its unforeseen burden; a police force turned nearly as threatening as the criminals with whom it struggled; and the seething resentment that exploded into and simmered long after the 1992 riots.

Just as New York City at its nadir stood for the ills that plagued urban America in the 1960s and '70s, so Los Angeles stood for its diseases of the 1990s. You can see it in the high-profile Los Angeles-set films of that decade, almost all driven by anxiety, not all as hand-wringing as Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon," as hyperbolic as Joel Schumacher's "Falling Down," or as apocalyptic as Mick Jackson's "Volcano." I can only see the 2006 Academy Award for Best Picture granted to Paul Haggis' "Crash" as a vote of some sort of reverse nostalgia for this strange, fearful period in the city's history, so perfectly does it revive the then-decade-old vision of life amid the lawless, barely navigable ruins of a fallen modern Tower of Babel. I at first thought the film badly out of touch with life in today's Los Angeles, hardly an unknown syndrome among Hollywood films. But everything fell into place when I read an interview with Haggis, who explained that he'd based the screenplay on a carjacking he'd experienced in — when else? — 1991, when, for outsiders, the name Westwood had come to signify innocent people slain by thugs previously assumed contained in their own troubled neighborhoods.

Sometimes, though, they confused it with nearby Brentwood, whose name signified, around the time of O.J. Simpson's "trial of the century," public figures possibly committing brutal crimes, while paparazzi mass themselves to stoke the flames. In 1994, at the height of that particular frenzy, novelist Douglas Coupland wrote "Brentwood Diary," a long, calm, and eloquent essay examining the wealthy, deliberately identity-stripped district, site of the trial's double murder, and its surroundings. "With a hindsight look at Brentwood, it seems inevitable that what happened did happen, if not with O.J. then with some other cataclysm reconfigured. Brentwood's is a landscape where too many unraveling and overpowering factors collide; it is a municipal and psychic bevatron, a smashing together of fame and paranoia and desire and bodies and money and power, and race and denial and media overload and all of the machinery of late-twentieth-century living." Over in early twenty-first-century Westwood, the machinery of living looks positively well-tuned by comparison. With its walking-distance proximity — no common thing in west Los Angeles — to UCLA, it has the feel of nothing more storied than a mild college shopping zone.

I've never tried to drive a car there, but can imagine the frustrations of doing so. (Those of pedaling for an hour on a bicycle, or of riding a bus for even longer, can add up on their own.) The almost comical contrast between the low-slung Spanish Revival of Westwood Village and the gleaming, jagged 1970s and '80s-style high-rises that line Wilshire Boulevard below has drawn much harsh commentary from critics of the built environment, and indeed, those rows of forceful towers lend the place a Potemkin Village aspect, in light of the fact that most everything (apart from a couple of coffee shops greatly enjoyed by Bruins in finals week or, so personal experience informs me, writers trying to capture the neighborhood on a deadline) shutters by 10:00 in the evening. I thus have another routinely asked question, of friends who spent undergraduate time at UCLA: what did you do when you wanted to go out to eat after midnight, surely a common occurrence in any collegiate life? Most shrug in response, describing how they made do with Denny's, or quoting by heart the number they'd call for pizza delivery. Still, just as nobody expects danger of any kind in Times Square anymore, nobody now in Westwood acts as if they expect die there — except, as waggish students who've spent one too many years in the neighborhood might add, of boredom.


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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