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A Los Angeles Primer: Melrose Avenue


Architecture and design observer Frances Anderton mentioned loving not just Lincoln Boulevard but Melrose Avenue, two streets that would, at first, seem to have little in common: Lincoln, the oft-derided, "unplanned" linear heap of clashing commercial enterprises; Melrose, the world-renowned destination and longtime bastion of "alternative" shopping culture. And Melrose's six miles seem almost manageable by comparison to Lincoln's ten, though, like most of Los Angeles' east-west streets, Melrose lays out an even more striking study in textural, cultural, and economic shift per mile traveled, and sometimes even per block. A visitor may expect a particular sensibility, but unless they target that visit quite specifically, they'll find nearly all the sensibilities Los Angeles has to offer.

Hence the tendency of so many to entrust their experience to tour companies who, all day long, run various eye-catching vehicles, including London-ish red double-decker buses, through relevant stretches of Melrose. They pass close to institutions of current or former importance to the entertainment industry, stopping at the densest clusters of high-end shops, and slowing down for historic sites of celebrity misbehavior, confirmed or alleged. Their routes on Melrose usually go from west to east; if you travel the other way across the street's entire length, an intriguing metamorphosis occurs before your eyes: dogs get smaller; signs advertising marijuana dispensaries and "gentlemen's clubs" fall away; signs identifying the source of coffee beans rise up; stores offering old furniture, clothing, and objects in general grow ever more curatorial; hair salons decline slightly in number, balanced out by establishments dedicated specifically to eyebrow grooming.


All this will seem especially pronounced when you cross Highland Avenue, an intersection near which, not long after coming to Los Angeles, I had lunch with a comedian friend who preceded me to Los Angeles by several years. Despite enjoying the city on the whole, he did take it upon himself to poke fun at some of the more garishly, hollowly self-important types it tends to attract. He'd recently shot a sketch satirizing the type of the not-quite-young man, possessed of few discernible skills but an overpowering hunger for fame, who flails away loud and long at the distant edges of the film and television businesses. A character like this might naturally wear, as my friend wrote it, a T-shirt studded with rhinestones. But where to find such an outlandish garment? "You're going to want to go to Melrose," he unhesitatingly responded.

Given that context, I could clearly envision the sort of person he meant. Even if these bedazzled reality-TV aspirants fail to draw the attention they see as their due, they seldom pack their bags and leave town defeated. Instead, they simply integrate themselves permanently into one of Los Angeles' many tolerant ecosystems, the way that, as local lore has it, excess soap-opera actors get absorbed into the real estate industry. You can move through one of these ecosystems, or through overlap of several, on Melrose Avenue. The street has developed into the kind of disorganization people have long associated, derisively or excitedly, with Los Angeles. But since the 1980s, the prospect of fame — mainstream or countercultural, of a brand, a studio, or any given stroller on the sidewalk — has leavened its mixture of carpet dealers, Pentecostal churches, massage parlors, frame shops, and Yoshinoya Beef Bowls.

Attempts to tame this tough-to-parse variance appear here in the form of lengths sectioned off under brands of their own: the Melrose District, Melrose Heights, the La Cienega Design Quarter. While these do identify real differences, mostly involving how much you're prepared to spend, on what, and in whose company, I've never heard anyone say, for instance, that they "like hanging out in Melrose Heights." This may have something to do with my running in few circles willing to shell out for John Varvatos, Vera Wang, and Oscar de la Renta, but I'd say the main incompatibility comes with Los Angeles' sense of place, based less on state than on transition — Reyner Banham's "language of motion," still, in a sense, spoken today.


Not that the "language" has become any easier to acquire. In my experience studying foreign languages, I only learn when I focus on just one of its elements at a time: connections between sentences, the pronunciation of vowels, certain tricky verb conjugations. By the same token, you can gain a richer sense of Melrose Avenue by paying attention to the changes in just one of its elements at a time: the handoff between commercial territories and residential; the fashions worn by sidewalk diners (or for that matter, the presence of sidewalk diners); the type of buildings going up or coming down; the variety and health of street trees; and the faces of those driving the (often open-topped) cars. Tourists, few of whom stick around for more than a week or two, understandably lack the time or inclination to devote to this sort of thing; those circulating tour buses might seem to offer a viable shortcut to understanding.

But that temptation brings problems of its own. My most recent bike ride through Melrose ended at the West Hollywood library, where a girl approached me with a map in hand and a bewildered look on her face. She'd arrived from Korea just two days before, and didn't know the area well enough to find her tour bus' nearest stop. She'd chosen the right passerby, given my years spent here attempting to master both Los Angeles and the Korean language. (It proved equally fortuitous for me, since I needed the speaking practice.) This led us to talk in a bit more detail about her situation, which had involved her wandering for the past few hours, looking with increasing desperation for a stop that — due to conflicts between company policy, city regulations, and other complicating forces besides — simply lacked any kind of marker. Even Los Angeles made easy, it seems, doesn't make it easy.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

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