Street of Contrasts in a Changing L.A. : Sunset Boulevard: Epitome of L.A. : As It Winds From Plaza to Ocean, Diversity Is Its Name
It traverses Los Angeles for 27 miles from Chinatown to the Pacific Ocean. But Sunset Boulevard is more than just any old city street. It’s known worldwide and it always has been an important part of the city’s history. Now as Los Angeles undergoes sweeping changes, Sunset also serves as a black-topped epitome of the diverse lives of the millions of people who live along it from Downtown to Beverly Hills, from Echo Park to the Pacific Palisades. Want to know what life really is like in 1988 Los Angeles? Take a rumble down the boulevard.
When he wants to show visitors the essence of Los Angeles, Alan Kreditor, dean of USC’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, takes them on a tour of just one street: Sunset Boulevard.
“I would take them from the beginning of Sunset to the sea and I would be giving them a good slice of Los Angeles,” he explains. “They would see: the marginal downtown ethnic neighborhoods, Hollywood in its faded glory, West Hollywood and that sort of glitter, Beverly Hills and that wealthy manicured, tidy community; and other communities west of Beverly Hills, which take on a kind of high-class, rustic quality.”
The 27-mile Sunset Boulevard is the black-topped epitome of the city, agreed John D. Weaver, author of “The Enormous Village,” a history of Los Angeles. “Sunset covers the whole city,” he said. “The ethnic mix, the rich, the poor, show business, everything is on that street.”
Because of the barrage of publicity it has received from film studios, Sunset also probably is one of the world’s most famous streets.
Movie Titled After Street
The movie “Sunset Boulevard” was named after and set on the street; most of the film action was supposed to have occurred in a typical Sunset estate, populated by William Holden, playing a gigolo who was fatally shot by his co-star, Gloria Swanson, playing a fading, troubled actress.
Ironically, the street made so glamorous by Hollywood owes its origin to grazing cows. In 1781, the first 11 families to settle El Pueblo de Los Angeles turned some of their cows loose to graze on a sloping pasture west of the Plaza.
The result of the feeding was a dusty trail about 25 feet wide, which was the start of the boulevard, said Joe Kennelley and Roy Hankey in their 1981 book, “Sunset Boulevard: America’s Dream Street.”
Sunset spread through what is now Echo Park, Silver Lake and Hollywood along a route that was higher than the flood plain of the Los Angeles basin and that operated as a seam between hillside and basin development.
“It’s kind of a natural pass, and a natural pass has a tendency to stay with us century after century,” Kreditor said.
The one-time pass has stayed, developing as part of a string of communities with distinct personalities that divide the boulevard into halves as the road heads from east to west.
The first half runs from Sunset and Spring Street near Chinatown to the western end of the Sunset Strip. It is almost entirely commercial. The median household income along this half of Sunset in 1986--the last year for which the numbers were figured--was usually under $20,000; many of the residents there were Asians and Latinos who worked in blue-collar or service jobs, according to 1980 census-based projections by Claritas, an Alexandria, Va., marketing firm.
Sunset’s other half begins at Beverly Hills and winds through Brentwood and Pacific Palisades to Pacific Coast Highway. This half is almost totally residential. The median household earnings reached $88,267 in Bel-Air and $82,100 in Pacific Palisades. In 1986, more than 90% of the residents were Anglo and at least 84% worked in white-collar positions, Claritas reports.
Sunset starts at Macy and Spring streets at Chinatown’s southern tip; the ethnic variety at this corner suggests, early on, the boulevard’s diversity. Here, there’s a parking lot for El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, the Far East National Bank and a mini-mall occupied by Asian businesses.
But climb three miles of rolling hills and the ethnic diversity on Sunset grows more. Just past the Board of Education building and a senior citizens apartment complex rises a business sign for “WAH WING SANG/Gutierrez & Weber Mortuary.”
Just beyond the white, crisp-looking Evans Community Adult School, Sunset crosses the Pasadena Freeway, and just past the tall Metropolitan Water District of Southern California building the boulevard changes in appearance.
Suddenly, insurance buildings mingle with homes, and bars sit beside apartments; the architectural styles do not blend and the area--which has the lowest income and education levels anywhere on the boulevard--lacks even the unifying feel of a business district.
“It is a boulevard strip, which does not look like a community,” Kurt Meyer, an architect and former chairman of the board of the Community Redevelopment Agency, observed not long ago as he drove through the area. “The stores are only one deep. They are lined up along the boulevard because there is cheap land where they can survive. What they want is exposure to the passing automobiles.”
Claritas reports that in the area, where the 1986 median household income was $12,562, almost 62% of the workers held blue-collar or service jobs.
Sunset changes again and acquires a new feeling of community, just about two miles from its start where it runs through the area known as Echo Park.
The Echo Park shopping area starts at Sunset and Elysian Park Avenue, just below Dodger Stadium. It continues for a mile to Glendale Boulevard near the white-silver dome and circular facade of the Angelus Temple, built by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in 1923.
But the center of the shopping area is three blocks, starting at Laveta Terrace and ending at Leymoyne Street, where stores extend along side streets, helping to provide a sense of community that is lacking at the start of the boulevard downtown, Meyer said.
“There is a higher concentration of buildings,” he said. “Some will go as high as three or four stories. Many of the businesses sell clothing and other products one needs for daily living as well as items which would appeal only to motorists.”
Kindled Commercial Revival
The shopping area is dominated by small businesses, with the exception being the imposing, 45,000-square-foot Pioneer supermarket and parking lot, which takes up almost a city block on the north side of the street between Echo Park Avenue and Logan Street. The grocery sprang up in 1984 after owner Leonard Leum, a one-time assistant manager who eventually bought the three Pioneer stores, tore down his cramped 60-year-old market.
The new market has kindled a commercial revival, with several merchants opening stores nearby, betting that they could survive in an area where the median household income in 1986 was a modest $16,847.
Many of the new merchants are Asians who are wooing the growing Asian community in Echo Park. Merchants say the hot store in the area is the A Grocery Warehouse. Half of this you-can-get-anything-you-want store has shelves lined with biscuits from Thailand, noodles from the Philippines, curried gravy from Singapore, honey from Guadalajara, enchilada sauce made in Ventura and Ruffles potato chips. Its other half offers fresh fish, meat and produce.
On a recent weekday afternoon, long lines of Asians and Latinos conversed in their own languages while waiting to get to the registers; Mandarin and Cantonese music played from the speaker system. Toan Cao Phan paused in the bustle to explain how he and his wife--a decade after arriving in the United States from Vietnam, moved from New York to Los Angeles and opened and sold a factory. They then decided to open the market.
Phan estimated that “79% of our customers come from the neighborhood. Before, they went to Chinatown. Now we have free parking and they say this is more convenient.”
The market’s vigorous trade reflects the changes that have swept Echo Park, which won cinematic fame in a movie starring Tom Hulse and Susan Dey, and has been home to Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Mexican immigrants and, of late, Asians.
According to U.S. Census projections, the number of Asians in the area reached 19.9% in 1986. At Logan Elementary School at 1711 Montana St., the Asian enrollment in 1987 was reported at 32.3%, an increase of 20% over the last decade.
“My guess is that they are an overflow from the surge of refugees into the country in the late 1970s who wanted to live and work in Chinatown,” said Deborah Ching, deputy executive director of the Chinatown Service Center.
Though a few early motion picture studios were located on the boulevard in Echo Park, it was up the road, in Hollywood, where Sunset forged its links to the movie industry.
“Most of Hollywood’s movie studios were constructed on Sunset,” Kennelley and Hankey wrote.
One of the first companies was Mutual Studios, which built at Sunset and Hollywood boulevards. D.W. Griffith filmed the classic “Intolerance” at the Griffith-Fine Arts studio next door. Lasky Studios went up on the boulevard. So did 20th Century-Fox, which located at Sunset and Western Avenue, where Tom Mix, Will Rogers and Shirley Temple worked.
Sunset Columbia produced mysteries and Westerns at its Gower Street lot; Warner Brothers built a studio at Bronson Avenue, now occupied by radio station KMPC and television station KTLA (Channel 5). Charlie Chaplin made most of his great pictures at Chaplin Studios at Sunset and La Brea Avenue.
Hospitals Near Vermont
Today, only one movie studio--Sunset Gower--remains directly on Sunset; the loss of the other studios has seriously diminished the boulevard’s glamour in Hollywood.
Without the studios, Sunset looks like just any other commercial center. Hospitals and medical buildings rise at Vermont Avenue; a media center, consisting of KMPC, KTLA and television station KTTV (Channel 11), is just west of the Hollywood Freeway. Not far down the road are the Sunset Gower Studios and radio station CBS.
Near Vine Street are five, relatively recent office towers that city planners regard as forerunners to a potential new commercial area.
This area of Sunset between Vermont and Vine, though not as heavily Asian or Latino as neighborhoods farther east, does have one of Los Angeles’ major concentrations of Armenian immigrants. There are an estimated 30,000 Armenians in the area, estimates Osheen Keshishian, editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper, “The Armenian Observer.”
Like Hollywood, the Sunset Strip--on Sunset starting just west of Crescent Heights Boulevard--has an exotic past. But unlike much of Hollywood, the 1.7-mile Strip has kept its glamorous image because many stars still frolic there.
Few movies were made on the Strip but many of the stars lived there. Many also traveled the Strip from their homes in Beverly Hills to the studios in Hollywood.
The Garden of Allah Hotel, which is just a few feet west of the Strip’s start, opened in 1927. It soon became home for Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart, John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier, Ronald Colman, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow and Jackie Gleason. The Sunset Tower, about a mile up the street, became home to John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.
Those celebrities and their friends made Sunset one of the most star-crossed streets in the world. And when Hollywood’s biggest names shopped or played, merchants like Roy Kavin at Greenblatt’s Deli were there to serve them.
Kavin, whose store is at Laurel Avenue a few doors east of the Strip, remembers a blonde who visited regularly in the 1950s. She liked to eat corned beef on rye and attracted no particular attention from the older gentlemen who worked behind the counter and called her “sweetie.”
“It was only when she began coming in with Joe DiMaggio that they put two and two together and figured out that she was Marilyn Monroe,” Kavin said. “ Him they recognized.”
In 1940, Kavin recalled, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald collapsed and died in writer Sheilah Graham’s apartment shortly after eating a Hershey bar that she had bought at Greenblatt’s. The story is recounted by Graham in her book, “The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
Today, the stars still use the Strip as their playground, often cavorting under their own likenesses on sprawling billboards promoting their latest movies, plays and records. On one recent day, for example, Jeff Daniels, who starred in the movie “Something Wild,” bought a stack of compact discs at Tower Records, to the glee of fans. Just the week before, manager Deborah Pollay noted, the store was visited by Tom Selleck and Victoria Principal. At a tiny boutique nearby, a clerk reported selling bikinis to actress Heather Locklear.
To avoid gawking fans, many stars join private clubs. Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore and producer Aaron Spelling belong to the St. James’s Club, which opened after a $40-million restoration of historic Sunset Towers. For an initial fee of $750 and $750 annually, members can use a private health club and restaurant and have access to St. James’s Clubs in London, Paris and Antigua. Members or guests staying in the club choose from 74 rooms or suites, two of which rent for $1,000 a night and 10 of which go for $450; others start at $180.
The $1,000 suites offer “ambiance, mood, a large private bar, a Jacuzzi, a terrace where you can take your morning coffee, and a large enough living room for a cocktail party for 50 people,” said H. Ross Justice, club general manager, who noted the loft bedroom also has a remote-control switch that opens the drapes to reveal a panoramic view of the Los Angeles basin.
Justice said the 15-story Art Deco club, built between 1929 and 1931, is trying to attract eastern entertainment executives. “Our major marketing thrust is probably in the New York area,” he said. “They are probably entertainment related and have business in West Hollywood.”
The St. James’s Club is one of four places within a few blocks where executives may stay. Others include the Mondrian, the Hyatt and the Chateau Marmont, built in 1927, where comedian John Belushi died of a drug overdose in 1982.
Though full-time residents in the area have a relatively modest median annual income of $24,603, the Strip area is filled with pricey boutiques and restaurants.
Some of the Strip’s most exclusive such businesses are in the Sunset Plaza, where a half-dozen outdoor restaurants have added in recent years to the upscale atmosphere of the collection of one- and two-story, awning-bedecked buildings with white- and off-white fronts. “It’s becoming the al fresco dining area for Los Angeles,” said Dan Hoye, director of education for the Los Angeles Conservancy. " . . . It’s wonderful to see people strolling on the sidewalk and dining in the sunshine instead of locked inside a tiny restaurant.”
“Sidewalk cafes should be in Southern California,” said Francis J. Montgomery, 76, president of the firm that manages the plaza for 20 family members who own the property. “It’s a perfect place for them. The weather is perfect, and people like to be seen.”
For rock ‘n’ rollers and other young people with the urge to see and be seen, the Strip also has the well-known nearby spots, such as Whiskey-a-Go-Go, The Roxy and Gazzarri’s.
Then, at Doheny Drive, five towers--which, like the office complexes at Hollywood and Vine, also include shops and restaurants--rise abruptly from the street.
Sunset’s most dramatic change occurs, of course, when the street rolls into Beverly Hills, where commercial buildings disappear, giving way to huge, gleaming estates with sprawling lawns.
Sunset acquires a touch of class as it acquires a wide, grassy median. Suddenly, there also no longer are billboards flanking the road. Instead, there are trees, high hedges and walls designed to ensure the privacy, which is a hallmark of Beverly Hills neighborhoods.
To preserve a certain orderliness, residents from Beverly Hills onward to Pacific Palisades long have fought to keep commercial development off Sunset, noted Ray Montgomery, a Brentwood real estate broker for 30 years.
“This has always been a fine residential community,” agreed Kurt Anker of the Brentwood Homeowner’s Assn. “We’re doing our best to maintain it as a community of single-family residences. That’s what (the association) is all about.”
Five Shopping Centers
The anti-commercial efforts have been largely successful. Activists have let builders put up only five shopping centers between Beverly Hills and the ocean. There is one in Brentwood at Sunset and Barrington Avenue; there are four in Pacific Palisades, dispersed at Swarthmore Avenue, Marquez Avenue and the Pacific Coast Highway; the newest center went up recently at Palisades Street just east of of the highway.
What does all this mean for most people? Well, it’s not fortuitous for motorists. If they run out of gas on Sunset between Beverly Hills and Brentwood, they’re out of luck; there are no stations in between.
That Sunset is a residential street in Beverly Hills dates to decisive action taken by the community half a century ago. “Back in 1937, the town voted to make everything north of Santa Monica Boulevard (an area including Sunset) an R-1 residential zone,” said Fred Cunningham, a city spokesman. “Now, anything has to go to a vote in a city election before it can be changed.”
The only exception to this rule: the world-famous Beverly Hills Hotel; it is exempt because it was built in 1912. The Mission Revival-style building with a pink and green color scheme was built to attract home buyers to the city. It met that goal and began luring wealthy hotel guests, too.
Kennedys Stayed There
Kenneth Leffers, a bellman at the hotel since 1944, said he has met some of the world’s richest, most famous people. “Maybe some (of) the stars aren’t the most interesting guests. (But) we not only have stars of entertainment but the business world, too. We get as many from the political world.
“For instance, all the Kennedys used to stay here. We have so many doors and it’s a low building, so it’s hard to guard someone, and John Kennedy had to go elsewhere (after he became President).
“We had former president Sukarno of Indonesia I don’t know how many times and the Shah of Iran. . . . Princess Margaret and all her retinue, Madam Chiang Kai-shek, former Queen Juliana of Holland were here. The Fords, the heads of General Motors, too.”
The hotel is equally popular with entertainers, the Polo Lounge restaurant off the lobby, especially so. On a recent morning, singer Kenny Rogers ate breakfast there. So did Judith Light, star of the ABC comedy “Who’s the Boss.”
If there’s any doubt about it, statistics tell the story of the economic clout of those who live in the Sunset area in Beverly Hills. Homes on or near the Boulevard often sell in the $2-million to $8-million range, said Jack Hupp, a longtime area real estate agent.
The median family income is $25,046, according to the local Chamber of Commerce, but the “median family income north of Santa Monica Boulvard, is at least three or four times greater than the predominantly renter-occupied areas south of Santa Monica Boulevard, which have an average income of $18,607 annually.”
Because of such wealth, area residents--93.6% of whom are white and 84.5% of whom hold white-collar jobs if they do work--are subjects of intense public interest. And at least one affluent homeowner has a whimsical view of all that. The first Sunset home west of Beverly Hills, in the Holmby Hills section of West Los Angeles, has put up a display of lifelike sculptures outside the gated estate: Two naked boys try to scale a corner of the fence as two painters in bib overalls roll a coat of paint on the wall nearby; a homeless man also is shown sleeping on a bench, a newspaper covering his face, while a tourist couple with binoculars stand on tiptoes to get a better look at the mansion.
The large homes in Holmby Hills, an area in which 91% of the residents are whites, are something to behold. So is the community’s average, annual household income: $88,267.
“The density of wealth is incredible,” said Meyer, formerly of the Community Redevelopment Agency. “Most people who have this type of wealth have acres and acres. These are big houses costing lots of money on relatively small parcels of land.”
Just west of Holmby Hills, Sunset passes the gates of Bel-Air Estates and UCLA before it crosses the San Diego Freeway and winds into Brentwood.
There, the Sunset homeowners--like their neighbors in Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills--are fighting to preserve the residential feel along the byway.
Brentwood, which is 93.3% white and has a median household income of $39,681, has a small-town charm worth preserving, longtime residents say.
“You know what’s unique about Brentwood?” asks pharmacist Harold Lassoff, who has owned the Brent-Air Pharmacy in Brentwood Village for 37 years. “We’re part of Los Angeles, but we don’t live the Los Angeles life.
Nostalgic for Old Times
“We live the Brentwood life and we utilize Sunset to take us to other parts of Los Angeles. . . . Brentwood is walking along the street and talking to your neighbors and shopping within your community and knowing your merchants.”
He and other longtime residents are nostalgic for the Brentwood of another era. “Kids used to ride their horses to the drugstore,” 61-year-old Lassoff recalls. “Right around the corner on Barrington was some guy who raised goats. We used to keep a shovel at the back door for kids to shovel up after the horses.”
But now, he said, it would be tough to ride horses in the area, because of the heavy auto traffic: “On any summer afternoon, there’s a line of traffic three-quarters to two miles long west from the 405 (San Diego) Freeway returning from the beach. Every year, when the Junior League has (its) golf tournament in the Palisades, there is a solid line of cars from the San Diego Freeway back about four miles to the Palisades.”
Lassoff, who heads the parking and traffic committee of the local Chamber of Commerce, has a theory about where most of the traffic comes from: “With the sudden growth of office buildings in the West Los Angeles, Wilshire and San Vicente corridors, there are approximately 3,000 cars an afternoon coming through Bundy and Barrington onto Sunset and then onto the San Diego Freeway.”
Isn’t there some way that all those cars could be kept out of Brentwood so it could be kept a more peaceful place? Lassoff and other Brentwood residents wonder.
Up the road in Pacific Palisades, where Sunset eventually meets the ocean, developer Sina Akhtarzad has built a two-story, 10,000-square-foot building for offices and businesses. The adobe-style, peach-colored structure at Sunset and Monument Street in the town’s three-block commercial area generally has won area residents’ praise, except for just one part: Its clock tower rises three feet above the town’s 30-foot height limit for the business district.
Akhtarzad said he spent $10 million on the building and the tower, which he asserted, both were approved by a local review board, whose members did not realize that Palisades building height rules also would apply to the tower.
But as soon as it went up, down came the public outcry, much of it insisting that the real issue was not the tower itself as much as preserving the general principle of the building height rules.
Akhtarzad expressed a willingness to take the structure down if he had to. “I have three businesses in that town. I’ve worked for the community for eight years,” he said. “If they decide that’s what they want I’m more than willing to go along.”
Still, he sought an exception for his tower and won in hearings before Pacific Palisades and Los Angeles city agencies. But the struggle may not be over. The Pacific Palisades Residents Assn. is considering an appeal.
The idea for a design review board developed after residents fiercely resisted the idea of going along with 1981 plans to raze the Spanish colonial-style Santa Monica Land and Water Co., the town’s oldest commercial building. Angry residents not only saved the building but set up the review board and standards for future development.
Like their neighbors in Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Brentwood, Palisades residents want to preserve their town’s ambiance with its clean air and view of the Santa Monica Mountains. They are adamant about limiting commercial development, maintaining the main shopping village with its low-rise buildings, and protecting such spots as the small, centrally located, triangular grassy area--the Village Green.
“I think people came here because they wanted to be away from smog, they wanted to be away from noise and they wanted to be away from flamboyant building projects that overwhelm communities,” said Alex Man, for a decade a member of the Pacific Palisades Residents Assn.
Palisades residents--94% of whom are white, 87% of whom hold white-collar jobs and 74% of whom hold college degrees--have the economic clout to get their way in many matters, according to McGraw Hill research, which puts the community’s median annual household income at $82,100 and reports the average household income at an even more startling $136,400.
Surprisingly, though money is clearly present in the Palisades and Brentwood, there are not all that many stores. In the Palisades, this is due, in part, to the difficulties of getting to the hard-to-reach town. But Meyer also argued it’s because the existing, local shopping areas provide all that residents need.
“That is the particular charm of those areas,” he said. " . . . The relatively small-town feeling you have in those communities is what residents like, and growth would tend to destroy it. It’s part of the exclusivity of wealth.”