Luring Lights Back to Wilshire : Neon signs once crowned the grand boulevard. Now they stand shabby and forlorn. A fix-up campaign promises to relight some of the glamour.
I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it, it smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights, 15 stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.
--Raymond Chandler, “The Little Sister” (1949)
Too exhausted to speak and draped in gray layers of rags and plastic, a homeless man slumps within the jagged shadow of a slender palm tree at the corner of Wilshire and Alexandria. At the hint of motion--be it phantom wind or harried passer-by--he flashes a brief message committed in pencil on cardboard: Hit Bottom. His is but one of many signs of the times along Wilshire Boulevard.
Elegantly scripted neon signs used to announce this once-regal corridor--a tangle of steel, glass and luminous gases jutting out amid the palms. Now, pockets of Wilshire’s eastern reaches--beyond the Miracle Mile--look just as displaced or bewildered as Hit Bottom--frozen in their shambles, confounded by the disrepair it’s quietly fallen into.
Known as 5th Avenue West, this old stretch of boulevard at one time hosted dignitaries and blushing starlets, millionaires and loose cannons of the underworld. For years, it was the fetching centerpiece of long, aimless Sunday drives. Now it looks not forlorn, but astonished--underdressed for the occasion, caught within the balance of two conflicting dreams of and for Los Angeles.
The Ambassador Hotel’s overrun lawn, thinning in places, the boards that shield the ornate entrances and old display windows at Bullock’s/I. Magnin and the Sheraton Town-House unceremoniously announce an era’s end.
A few years back, reminiscing couples saying goodby to these old haunts swooped down during final hours for a last supper in the Royal Ambassador restaurant, or a round of tall drinks at dusk amid the manicured flora at the Palm Bar.
Only months ago, the ladies who lunch bid farewell to the fifth-floor fashion show, finger sandwiches and cologned maitre d’ Mr. Lara at Bullock’s tea room.
Amid the decay, this end of the boulevard--a distant cousin to the path that cuts through Beverly Hills, Westwood and Brentwood to the sea--attempts hold on to its dignity. Civic organizations, residents and businesspeople are attempting to summon the grandeur out of mothballs, not with an eye for change, but toward reinstating what has been forgotten or lost.
By year’s end, the city’s Cultural Affairs Department has grand plans to relight more than a dozen of the neon signs that fan out along, and are adjacent to, the Wilshire corridor from Bixel to Lucerne. In a neighborhood choked with crime and overcrowding, and now troubled by drugs and gangs, the plan symbolizes much more than burned-out lights atop faded-glory buildings.
Adolfo V. Nodal, department general manager and a MacArthur Park area resident, believes the project will not only reinstate pride in Los Angeles’ glamorous past, but is also a reverent way to dramatically herald what is yet to come.
Or, better still, what is yet to return.
As a city of the future, Los Angeles hasn’t been accustomed to acknowledging, let alone celebrating, what has weathered years in the sun. As is the case with so much else here, the push to be and remain young is paramount.
Signs of age, be they spidery cracks in a foundation or the first shadows of lines in a face, equal a grim harbinger, the first resonant death knell.
The remedy is not simply refurbishing, but dramatic reconfiguration. So many of L.A.’s architectural memories have been razed, replaced with monolithic effigies without cracks or imperfections. Remnants are few and far between. And for those vanished, one finds few plaques to solemnly acknowledge their existence.
Ben Dimsdale doesn’t need artificial reminders; his world is a living museum, his memories close by and under glass.
The 85-year-old owner of the Windsor Apartments on West 7th Street--in the shadow of the Ambassador--is surrounded by his history: shiny plaques and framed city commendations and fawning restaurant reviews clipped from various long-defunct magazines and newspapers. His office walls wear them like badges.
In 1927, Dimsdale set his suitcases down in Hollywood just in time, he says, for President Calvin Coolidge to turn on the first electric streetlights along Wilshire Boulevard. Originally from Sioux City, Iowa, Dimsdale came to test his luck with the American Dream. He didn’t fare too poorly. A bellhop’s job at the Roosevelt Hotel launched a hotel service career that later snowballed into life among the glitterati as an restaurateur.
Dimsdale operated the dark and cozy Windsor Restaurant for 41 years until 1990.
“It looked like a good location so we came in. In those days the Ambassador was kind of a hub,” he recalls. “It was the finest hotel and we got the finest people, and the Cocoanut Grove had the best entertainment--like Lena Horne and (Harry) Belafonte. I can remember when Merv Griffin was singer with the band there.”
Dimsdale eventually operated two more restaurants--The Secret Harbor and Dale’s--within three blocks of the Windsor. Dimsdale remembers the Windsor’s accolades and the constant parade of notables: “All the governors of the state would come by here for lunch and dinner. President Nixon. Lots of attorneys. Michael Landon used to come in once a week. We had complete table service--silver, linen. For lunch we used to turn down deuces. We were too busy; we just couldn’t take them.”
Until 1979. That’s when the 1,470-room Westin-Bonaventure Hotel debuted downtown. Then large companies such as IBM, Getty and Texaco departed Wilshire. “When those people left,” Dimsdale says with an expansive shrug and sniff, “that was the bulk of our clientele.”
When city Cultural Affairs officials approached Dimsdale last year about refurbishing his ruby-red rooftop sign, he was surprised at their enthusiasm, and curious about Nodal, the man behind the plan.
“They wanted us to keep the signs on and kind of revive this area and make it look bright, (to) let people know that we’re here,” he says. Yet, he wonders about the long-range prospects: “The worst blow of all was to have the Town-House and Bullock’s closing up. That was terrible. Everyone had respect for the (Bullock’s) building.”
John G. Bullock’s Wilshire store was built in 1930, as a paean to automobile culture. It boasted a spacious parking lot complete with a dramatic circular driveway and jacketed, jogging valets.
Car dealer Earle C. Anthony preceded Bullock and gifted the corridor with a flashy crowning glory. In 1922, Anthony returned from Paris with curious souvenirs: two orange-and-blue neon signs. He propped the nation’s first neon signs atop his Packard dealership at Wilshire and La Brea.
Trend-hungry then as now, other Angelenos followed suit and a galaxy of neon--from austere to gaudy to elegant--sprung from the tops of hotels, apartment buildings, retail stores and theaters.
Until World War II.
In 1945, L.A. Mayor Fletcher Brown ordered a blackout. The part of the city that surrounded Civil Defense headquarters, in what is now MacArthur Park, was shimmering in neon like a sitting target.
After the war, many neon signs, bypassed by L.A.’s quick-paced fashion, never came back on.
Al Nodal is trying a seance with the past.
The once-slick hotel community he has designs on will cost an estimated $250,000 to relight. He hopes the bulk of the funds to replace broken tubes, transformers and sign supports will come from local businesses and area residents, but he has cast a wide net, including solicitations in New York during a business trip there.
With $75,000 raised thus far, and the relighting set for New Year’s Eve, Nodal and staff are looking for gifts from foundations as well as rallying support around an “adopt-a-sign” program. Though Department of Water and Power personnel began climbing on roofs to assess the signs in mid-May, Nodal admits it will be difficult to rustle up the money.
“We hope,” says Cultural Affairs development director Catherine Rice, “to change the attitudes about L.A. being a terrible, horrible ugly place.”
Elitist attitudes about the city’s cultural depth aren’t the only things the Westlake-MacArthur Park area bumps against. The neighborhood that frequently served as moody backdrop for Raymond Chandler’s surly Philip Marlowe, or provided the striking, parting glance at the end of the film “The Grifters” is very often overshadowed by day-to-day concerns of urban safety.
Many Angelenos use the term “a rough neighborhood” to dismiss the stretch of Wilshire from MacArthur Park to Western. Randy Sprout, a Hollywood-based real-estate broker with Century 21, recently unleashed a series of horror tales about car thefts and hold-ups that he says can be, if one is not careful, all part of a day’s work here: “Agents won’t show property if they think that their cars might be stolen or worse. MacArthur Park is creating white flight like crazy.”
In earlier decades, families moved to the area for the once-prestigious Third Street schools and for the impressive Hancock Park, or adjacent, address. “There is a whole society of people who thought they would grow old and retire there. Now those older people who live in those old retirement hotels feel like prisoners in their own homes. The criminal element has destroyed the neighborhood.”
The crime, says Sprout, “expands from that armpit, MacArthur Park, and it spreads west. It’s what pulls down places like Bullock’s Wilshire and the Sheraton.” And the neighborhood’s reputation wreaks havoc on property values, he says: “Since the riots, we’re giving them away. We’re a solid 35% off the market price--with no bottom in sight.”
Rampart Division police say it is difficult to compare year-to-date crime figures because of the 1992 riots. Still, street crimes such as burglary, robbery and grand theft have decreased in the first four months of 1993 along the Alvarado corridor adjacent to the park.
Waynna Kato, assistant dean of student services at the Otis School of Art and Design, is part of one group trying to make area streets safer.
“We’re looking at ways to reclaim the park,” says Kato, who is involved in the Otis Community Action Council--a composite of businesspeople, residents, Otis staff and students.
But she is also distressed about the media persistently painting the area with a broad, dismal brush. “We’re trying to make it a better place to work and live,” Kato says.
With its quaint yet architecturally stunning residences, the area has attracted the kind of mix that fuels rote melting-pot discussions about Los Angeles: Relocating families looking for inexpensive center-city residences with access to bus lines; long-time senior residents; Asians and Central Americans; students and bohemians in search of impressively funky, yet urgently affordable digs; local anachronisms who would give their eye-teeth for a fixer-upper festooned with period sconces or intricate moldings, buildings whose history one can muse about.
Various civic organizations are pumping new life into this end of Wilshire: Miracle Mile Chamber of Commerce, Miracle Mile Civic Coalition, Wilshire Chamber of Commerce and Wilshire Stakeholders.
Lyn Cohen, Civic Coalition founder, has plans for the mile-long segment bounded by Fairfax and La Brea. Established in 1986, the private and public partnership has evolved as a dynamic community catalyst regenerating interest in the mid-city.
Cohen, who reversed the process and turned an asphalt parking lot into a neighborhood park--Wilshire Green--is spearheading another beautification project that will dramatically reshape the Wilshire Boulevard median along Miracle Mile, which has been ignored for 30 years. Flowering trees, shrubs and ground cover will add a wash of color and life to concrete. The project will cost $800,000, with the city committing $200,000 for irrigation and the county pledging $100,000.
“As you know we’re in the middle of a recession and that makes it difficult,” Cohen says of the coalition’s need to raise the remaining $500,000. “But if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.”
A little farther east, the Wilshire Center Streetscape project plans to capitalize on the much talked-about second wind the Red Line subway may provide. If $2 million can be secured, revitalization between Wilton and Hoover is set to begin immediately: more than 5,000 trees along the main corridor and in adjacent neighborhoods, a newly landscaped median, refurbished street lighting, street furniture, signage, banners and crosswalks.
Its completion would coincide with the first trains beneath the boulevard in 1994.
“Ready to see some neon?” Al Nodal asks.
Embarking on an impromptu afternoon tour of this forlorn neon kingdom, he predicts the colors the tubes will glow when finally lit: The Park Wilshire, green; the Wilshire Royale and the Bryson, yellow.
“Not that new neon,” he stresses, “but that old, really great neon. You know what I mean?”
Some signs are missing final consonants. Others, such as the Hotel Barbizon, somehow lost full syllables. The Gaylord, partially lit, looks like an abstract configuration, while the Bryson and the Ancelle are shrouded in darkness like ghosts.
Nodal sees beauty in all these venerable visages, but realizes the difficulty in convincing others.
“It’s very hard for people to visualize,” says Nodal. “They just think it’s a bunch of old signs on top of a bunch of old buildings. They don’t see the magic until it really happens.”
He encountered similar obstacles in the mid-’80s when he successfully mounted a centennial project to relight the signs surrounding MacArthur Park. During that project, Nodal prepared a detailed grid of the area. “I was searching for ways to capture the city’s imagination,” he recalls. “Other cities do it; we need to learn how.
“We’re always fighting bricks-and-mortar issues. Running out in the middle of the night to save some building or another from demolition. These buildings . . . are part of the fabric of the neighborhood.”
Out of retirement, some once-tony apartment high-rises near the main corridor have undergone quiet metamorphoses.
The Hotel Chancellor on 7th Street underwent a 1987 renovation that not only re-exposed the carefully appointed high ceilings, but also gave the living spaces a second life as off-campus student housing.
Aggressively targeting local language schools as well as Los Angeles Community College, the Chancellor rents its 114 units primarily to students from Indonesia, Morocco and Sri Lanka, but also caters to single professionals and senior citizens.
Other hotels have not fared so well despite extensive and expensive rehabilitations.
As he rambles around the shell of his 200-room property, John Garibian, owner of the Wilshire Royale Hotel, admits he has come close to throwing up his hands, and wonders how he’ll fill his rooms.
An Armenian immigrant from Jerusalem, Garibian came to Los Angeles in 1972, chasing a dream born during his afternoon movie ritual: Technicolor-lovely L.A. But he has been confronted with reality of paradise disintegrating into a drug-peddling hub.
A jeweler by trade, Garibian invested his life’s savings into the Royale, spending almost $3 million bringing property up to code. He opened to a lively business in 1988 with close to 90% occupancy.
Since then, it has been a different story. Tourism plummeted during the Persian Gulf War, he sighs, and the Rodney King beating and last year’s televised violence crippled business: “People were afraid to come. (Los Angeles) got exaggerated as a combat zone.”
Now Garibian waits for a sense of peace and order to buoy tourism. And for the L.A. Convention Center to open.
“It’s going to make L.A.,” he says in a tone less certain than hopeful. “We want to be so busy.”
Al Nodal readily admits the Wilshire neighborhood needs more than a trail of fancy, near-antique neon lights. And he is familiar with the charge that creative projects are mere cosmetic enhancement.
He’s hoping the neon illuminates a larger issue. “The neighborhood is so needy,” he explains. “(It’s) been sucked away, sucked dry. We hope to create a situation where people can visualize what needs to be done below.”
The fanfare, the high-flown plans remind Ben Dimsdale of a time when such excitement was the rule, not the exception. He senses a second chance, and sees the beginnings of a little Century City in Wilshire’s future. “I don’t think they’ll do it right away,” he says, “but down the road I think its gonna happen.”
Dimsdale, however, doesn’t want to be in the spotlight.
“I tell you, at my age I think I would like to have a condo on Wilshire Boulevard. A nice condo where everything is at your fingertips. . . .
“Oh yeah,” he adds, almost as if a second thought, “with a good view of Wilshire Boulevard.”