What Do We See When We Look at L.A.? The Swells on Wilshire Boulevard in 1936

The participants at the online forum Noirish Los Angeles (among them Michael Ryerson) have been scouring the digital collections of UCLA, USC, and the L.A. Public Library since early 2008 for images of the city and performing a kind of photographic forensics on them. It's wonderful stuff.

A recent posting by Rynerson compiles some of the 27 photographs from the USC Digital Archive taken by "Dick" Whittington Photography of people on the sidewalk in front of Perino's restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in 1936. And these photographs are wonderful stuff, too.

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(Christopher Hawthorne, as part of his series on the streets of Los Angeles, has more about the history and place of Wilshire Boulevard.)

The Whittington photographs are neither noir nor consciously a sales pitch for the myths of the city. They're documents of the everyday -- upper-middle-class division -- and another way of reframing our memories of Los Angeles.

These ladies have exited from Perino's to chat on the sidewalk. How public they are and indifferent to being in public on a street where double-decker tourist buses passed. True, it's not New York's Fifth Avenue -- then or now -- thronged with walkers, with life in public, but the sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard, like others in Los Angeles, are deserted only in our mistaken assumptions about them.

It would seem to be summer by the dapper guy (below) in straw boater and white trousers and shoes, clutching a bulging briefcase. He seems old-fashion even for the mid-1930s. If this were a screwball comedy, he'd be the gullible, harassed foil for some smart girl and her smarter guy: Edgar Kennedy versus William Powell.

That's St. James Episcopal church on the right, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and St. Andrews Place, built in 1926 when the boulevard was already the city's most fashionable highway. How wide the sidewalk is, the façade of Perino's so deeply setback.

Limousines are idling in front of the restaurant (below). A chauffeur shoots the breeze with another driver of what seems to be a Packard. Double-parked for the moment is a 1935 DeSoto Airflow, one of the most radically designed cars of that streamlined era. Airflows were too radical even for car obsessed Los Angeles, and the design was dropped in 1937 after nearly bankrupting Chrysler Motors.

The 12-story Pellissier Building towers over the intersection of Wilshire and Western Avenue in the background. Those stately lamps along the sidewalk are "Wilshire Specials" -- tall, bronze streetlights that once lined nearly six miles of the boulevard from McArthur Park to Fairfax Avenue. The brackets at the corners of the lantern are shapely, undraped caryatids.

The show window at The Bachelors as caught her eye (above) as she tugs at her left glove, clutch under her arm. Slim, brisk, wearing a light hat, a light dress hemmed at mid-calf, and white shoes, she makes the women walking west on Wilshire seem a little dowdy, a little stolid, by comparison. By the shadows at their feet, it's not much past noon. I don't know what The Bachelors sold behind its rectilinear façade of stainless steel and dark granite. Probably men's furnishings.

He's well furnished (below) in suit, vest, and fedora presumably in gray. A trick of the moment -- his step, his turned and lowered head, his gesture -- gives him the look of a chorus boy about to break into a dance step. The couple behind him is more sober in their stride, and he's wearing a hat -- a Panama -- fitted to the apparent season.

It's later in the afternoon (above) by the shadows they cast, and this young couple (she's nearly hidden) is probably stopping for a cocktail or two at Perino's. What will they serve their dog? Though perhaps not "urban" enough for purists, what could be more expressive of a comfortable and casual urbanity than this trio?

We run the risk, in being oblivious to our past, of imagining that Los Angeles has always been a disappointing place, an unsatisfactory and inauthentic place. It has been and continues to be a place troubled by inequalities and social fractures, by loss and undeniable tragedy, as all American places are.

But Los Angeles did have and does have its sweetness, too.

As Christopher Hawthorne rightly points out, a more urban Wilshire Boulevard is inevitable, but its urbanity need not be amnesiac either. Just look at these swells on the sidewalks of the boulevard -- what a time they're having.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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