A Los Angeles Primer: Pico Boulevard | KCET
A Los Angeles Primer: Pico Boulevard
In the early 1980s, well before his doggedly exploratory restaurant criticism in the Los Angeles Times and the Weekly made him famous, Jonathan Gold gave himself a mission: "to eat at every restaurant on Pico Boulevard and create a map of the senses that would get me from one end to the other." This rigorous mandate demanded that he has at least a few bites of food in every one of Pico's eateries, of every kind, in order. "As often happens with these restaurants, they close down," he explains on a 1998 "This American Life" broadcast, "so if I'd gone two miles and a restaurant I'd gone to had closed down and opened up again, I would have to go and eat at that restaurant before the next one." He soon "became obsessed with the idea of Pico Boulevard. Almost every ethnic group that exists in Los Angeles, you can find on Pico," from "specific blocks that are Guatemalan, Nicaraguan blocks, Salvadoran blocks" to "parts you can drive a mile without seeing a sign that isn't in Korean" to "a huge concentration of Persian Jews that came over around the time the Ayatollah took power. I don't think there's another street in Los Angeles quite like it."
The young Gold's mission strikes me as an appealingly and almost quintessentially Los Angeles journey to undertake: ambitious, hedonistic, self-assigned, and totally Sisyphean. He never finished it, but no one could have. He mentions the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of the businesses on Pico, which goes a fair way toward explaining the difficulty of completist eating. When you multiply that by the boulevard's sheer length, difficulty becomes impossibility. In most other American cities, having eaten everywhere on a particular street would sound mundane, almost dull, less an accomplishment than an admission that you don't get very far afield. But Los Angeles' streets present another experience entirely, something the Dutch novelist and traveler Cees Nooteboom discovered when he came to Los Angeles for a stay in Beverly Hills in 1973. "On the third day, I ventured outside," he writes. "I walked, which was crazy — not because it is dangerous but because it does not make sense. In a city with streets longer than fifty kilometers, the measure of one foot is absurd, and so is the use of one's feet as a means of transportation."
Though this has something of the caricature to it, even the most partisan Angeleno can't deny that the streets do go on for an awfully long time. Pico has a length of no less than fifteen and a half miles, or, as Nooteboom would put it, nearly twenty-five kilometers. Still, every Massive Attack fan knows that you can walk on at least some of Pico: the music video for the band's song "Unfinished Sympathy", which consists of one long Steadicam shot of Shara Nelson strolling down it between South New Hampshire and Dewey, demonstrates that fact. Though 22 years old at this point, the footage, having captured in its background the zone between half-industrial-looking discount stores and informal sidewalk commerce, remains a more or less accurate representation of the urban texture of that part of the boulevard. You may find it worthwhile to walk a few blocks of Pico now and again, those immortalized by Massive Attack or any others. Try to walk it all, though, and even if you refuse to stop for so much as a chuchito, it'll take you well over five hours.
Even by bicycle, my own means of choice for traversing Pico and streets like it — though no other, as Gold points out, feels quite like it, though some stretch out even farther — I spend a good hour and a half getting from one end to the other. Yet I do find it, quite literally, a good hour and a half, or more precisely a highly fascinating one, since any trip beginning (or ending) at the ship-shaped Streamline Moderne Coca Cola Building downtown and ending (or beginning) at the Pacific Ocean must fascinate. And what comes between the water and the boat? Heidi Furniture. Monte de Jehova. Wurlitzer Service. Greek Tommy's Teriyaki Burger. King Coin Laundry. Auto Bahn Motors (ì??ì?°í? ë°? ì?ë??). Rico Menudo. The Best Chinese Food. Mexican and American Food, Open 24 Hours. Liquor, Park in Rear. Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles. The C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles. Chinese Bible Church. Dog Training Available Here. The Original Marty's, Home of the Combo. Fantasy Island Show Girls. The Bahamas Apts. Vidiots.
The variety of Pico Boulevard comes not just in its ability to address a bewildering variety of commercially fulfillable human needs, but in the ever-changing look and feel of the boulevard itself, right down to the quality of the pavement, which oscillates between pleasingly smooth and frustratingly wrecked. That sort of thing depends on the neighborhood (and, in the case of independent Santa Monica on the western end, which city), and Pico passes through plenty, from well-known ones Koreatown, Little Ethiopia, Pico-Union, and Century City to those like Rancho Park, Wilshire Vista, and the Byzantine-Latino Quarter, whose names may ring a somewhat fainter bell. As simple conceptual models go, Los Angeles: City Where Nobody Walks has had quite a run, but has in recent years shown enough cracks that we've had to try out a few potential replacements. The experience of Pico Boulevard — ironically, usually the experience of Pico Boulevard by car — reinforces the somewhat newer and now fairly popular model of Los Angeles: City of Contradictions, which holds that, as soon as you think you've defined the dominant quality of the city's geography, economy, demographics, politics, or aesthetics, it vanishes behind you as its exact opposite races up to confront you.
Such grand models doom themselves, by their very simplicity, to failure. Still, Nietzsche described a thinker as one who "knows how to take things more simply than they are," and though much thinking about Los Angeles errs on the side of rendering the city too simply, you've got to reduce the place somehow in order to think about it at all. I meet those who accomplish this by rarely leaving their corner of the map; by considering every place relative to the physical and psychological lines of the freeways; by following the currents of film, music, and art; or by looking at everything through a historical lens, the more telescopic the better. Thinking in terms of major streets offers a way to at least apprehend Los Angeles in microcosms, especially in the case of Pico, one so diverse as to outwardly appear almost patternless. Jonathan Gold, setting out to sample all fifteen and a half miles and countless traditions of the boulevard's cuisine, must have done so with dream of attaining just this sort of understanding. He may have chosen a hopeless method, but I'd say it still worked out pretty well for him.
Photos by Colin Marshall.