Two days after I moved to Los Angeles from Cincinnati, I found myself walking down Larchmont Boulevard and thinking that I was still in the Midwest.
For two blocks, this street resembles the kind of neighborhood shopping area that doubles as Main Street and the community gathering place for countless towns and cities across the country. The two blocks between 1st Street and Beverly Boulevard work, first of all, because of their location: They sit in the middle of a wealthy area and are cut off from most major circulation, but lie next to major boulevards. That stretch is also wide, allowing for plenty of on-street parking. Its character as a nice place to walk, shop or gather is aided by the presence of shade trees, rather than merely symbolic palms and by its relaxed mixture of many different elements, none of which has been engineered to fit in with another.
The emergence of Larchmont Boulevard as one of the city’s few real neighborhood walking streets is a historical accident. Its original developer, Julius Labonte, laid it out in 1921 as part of one of the suburban subdivisions that slowly crept west from downtown during the 1920s and ‘30s. The Los Angeles Railway’s Yellow Cars line ran up the middle of the street, and along the sides there were stores and some second-story offices. As the neighborhood grew more prosperous, so did the merchants. The streetcars and telephone poles were removed in the 1950s, making the street quieter, visually as well as in terms of decibels. Since then, change has taken place only gradually, sparing the street any major upheavals.
Larchmont Boulevard is not a perfect specimen of urbanism. A plague of banks (now strictly limited in numbers) has nibbled away at the continuous row of shops, replacing them with blank and bland facades and broad driveways leading to large parking lots. Several years ago, the supermarket was replaced by a postmodern abstraction of the original storefronts, complete with a silly arch over the driveway and a brick facade of ugly color. At the same time, trendy restaurants and cutesy design have taken away some of the hodgepodge charm of the original buildings. They have tried to re-create an imagined past of arches, burnished wood panels, small-paned windows and mansard eaves. Yet enough of the actually gritty original texture without design remains to make the street a place where you can pull up your wagon, walk in the shade, and be treated to a collage of different colors and compositions that change continually.
There are a few almost grand buildings on the street, such as the two-story structure at Number 115. But, on the whole, the buildings are nothing to write home about. What sets them apart is their sheer density and the richness that quality offers. If you compare these two blocks to the isolated houses to the south or the marooned blocks to the north, you quickly see the difference. Some critics even have offered Larchmont Boulevard as a model for the way in which we could create dense community centers in Los Angeles. That vision would pick up on the fact that the best buildings on the street remain in the background while they define the street.
Unfortunately, Larchmont Boulevard serves a rich and fundamentally conservative community. In its otherwise laudable zeal to preserve the qualities of the street, those citizens would probably make it impossible to create anything here that might allow the character of the area to develop into something beyond a quaint Midwestern fragment serving a wealthy clientele in the middle of a disconnected city.