Exploring L.A.'s Asphalt Soul


In theory, Western Avenue is a commuter's zip-line. Slicing through the city, 28 miles of it, from the hem of Griffith Park to the northern cliffs of San Pedro, crossing every major boulevard, ducking under and over three freeways and Pacific Coast Highway, Western would seem the answer to myriad driving needs.

It is an answer. Just not the best answer if speed is any part of the question.

Which you will realize some afternoon after you've made that left onto Western off Wilshire in the vain hope that you can just zip up to Sunset in, like, five minutes.

As you creep past the windows of the discount stores, bricked with Colgate and Coco Blasts, as you peer through the welter of signs hawking food and clothing and furniture in more languages than a UNICEF Christmas card, as you roll up your windows in paltry defense against the cacophony of world beats bulging from storefronts and nearby cars, as you do all the things that Western Avenue requires of you, many questions will fill your adrenaline-bathed brain, one of which invariably is: What is with this street anyway?

L.A., baby. That is what is with this street. Almost 100 years and eight Thomas Guide pages' worth. Because Western is not so much an avenue as it is an interior passage through the disparate landscapes of this city. A concourse of commerce, of identity, of history.

A trip along Western serves up a distillation of the city--Hollywood, Sunset and Melrose; Florence, Normandie and Adams; Artesia, Gardena and PCH--a compilation of L.A.'s greatest hits. One of the city's longest thoroughfares, rivaled only by Sunset in demographic and topographic diversity.

There is nothing about Los Feliz Boulevard that foreshadows this destiny. Having risen from humble roots in Glendale, Los Feliz slides comfortably west past Griffith Park before swinging south. There, just north of Franklin, Los Feliz briefly surveys the spiky urban floor, glittering with metal and glass, as it stretches to the smoldering horizon.

And Western takes it from there.

Wasn't Completely Paved Until 1958

Officially opened in 1925 as a dirt road connecting Hollywood with San Pedro, Western's name dates it further, back to the time of the Pueblo, when a road that now bifurcates Los Angeles would be considered West.

It wasn't completely paved until 1958, and it is still a naked street, despite its almost continuous clutter of storefronts, sheltered only occasionally by shrubs and flowers surrounding a McDonald's or a Burger King. In the absence of city-imposed beautification, it is the essence of each community that stains Western with shifting, chameleon colors.

Western has, as yet, spawned no restoration committee, sparked no gentrification project. But at its intersection with Hollywood Boulevard--long considered one of the worst in the city--the new Red Line stop with its mosaic round walls seems to herald a benefit from Hollywood's enforced renaissance.

The building on the southwest corner, with its once-scandalous friezes of movie makers in classical Greek drapes, has a new paint job, and the takeout joint on the northwest corner is now festively red all the way to its hot-dogged top. Pure Hollywood, as is the Pussycat Theater, a block south, which steadfastly flaunts its faded psychedelic facade amid the more respectable faces of a Howard Johnson and OSH.

Between Sunset and Fountain, a mortuary squats next to the calculated modern cheer of a shelter for runaways, alternative ends for those lured by the city's dreams--and consumed. Strip malls with signs in English and Spanish offer services to fulfill every human need--tax attorneys, manicurists, optometrists, sub shops, fashion shops--you could live out your life on just these few miles of Western alone.

At the pedestrian-choked corner at Sunset, it would seem people do.

Just north of Melrose, the last hill-cooled breeze falls short. The sun seems to work harder on Western, and the wide, pale surface of concrete radiates heat like a griddle.

The names of passing streets promise shade--Maplewood, Rosewood, Oakwood--but are made appropriate only by the ranks of furniture stores that run between Melrose and 3rd. Mattresses, kitchen chairs, bookcases fill the pickup trucks that line the curbs, slowing traffic to a refugee crawl.

Here is melting-pot central with signs in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Armenian and Korean. From one end to another, Western is an asphalt polyglot, shot through with metal and the whoosh of constant travel, a place that could be anywhere, a place that could only be here.

Other cities enfold myriad international communities, but surely only Los Angeles, with its insistence on vehicular accessibility, would create such a long and straight automotive canal along the doorsteps of the rich and poor, the new and native, and the vast majority in between.

Passing by Art Deco Landmarks

At 3rd, the oft-photographed gold and black Art Deco building on the northwest corner has entered its latest incarnation as a Korean shoe store, but its glamour is indisputable. On Wilshire, another Art Deco landmark, the Wiltern Theater, stands like an Ozian sentry, willfully ignoring the large Ralphs that sprawls in its shadow.

South of Venice, Western spreads out a bit, with big supermarkets and strip malls settling back on either side. A mural of Monica Lewinsky at a nearby bus stop stands beneath a sign for the upcoming Santa Monica Freeway. The cars below the overpass run with a sound like water between banks of trees and shrubs that powder the air with the smell of sage and eucalyptus--L.A. pastoral.

A few blocks south of the 10 Freeway is the Miracle Center Apostolic Church, the first of innumerable churches large and small that mark Western as it moves through South-Central. From bungalows and storefronts as well as buildings with bell towers and stained glass, solace and sanctuary are offered from Adams to Century.

Traffic is thinner along these few miles, many stores are boarded up, many more gated and barred. But there are some of the most vividly named, and painted, enterprises in the city: the Snooty Fox Motor Inn, the Windblown Hair Salon.

There are lovely pockets of green: Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Jesse Owens County Park. At 108th, Western leaves Los Angeles city and immediately becomes more residential, flat-topped bungalows amid well-watered lawns. These, not the Westside mansions or skyline high-rises, are quintessential L.A.

At El Segundo, Western rises slightly; the hills of Rancho Palos Verdes come into view.

You Can Find Anything You Want on Western

As you enter Gardena ("An All-American City"), the buildings become more industrial and corporate--larger, a bit anonymous, although the Doughnut King at Marine still raises high one giant doughnut, and on 162nd across from a Japanese market, the local VFW building offers Bingo every Wednesday night.

The appearance of tile companies and nurseries makes it ever clearer that anything you want, you can find on Western. At Gardena, a trio of tidy trailer parks beneath towering power lines near a blue-ginghamed Weber's Bread outlet evoke Iowa and Kansas, reminders of the area's Midwestern roots.

Rosecrans, Compton, Artesia, Carson--names familiar to many Angelenos only from traffic reports--roll by, made part of the larger city by a shared weather system and this insistent street.

At Artesia, Western assumes the eastern border of Torrance, separating it from a four-block-wide slice of Los Angeles. At 182nd, Harbor Gateway is announced, and ducking under the 405 Freeway, it is noticeably cooler. Although 10 miles away from the sea, the street seems flatter, the buildings lower, the entire landscape spread out like a beach towel toward the water. The light--moister now--has lost the white haze of the city; edges are sharper, colors clearer, property values higher.

Leads All the Way to the Water

The Western that edges urban-suburban Torrance is difficult to reconcile with the thoroughfare from the northern side of the 405. Car dealerships, corporate parks, shopping centers, housing developments, everything is in English. The goods and the services are the same, but the packaging is pricier.

Western is officially Highway 213 now, and it makes its first amazingly real curve, up a long hill from which the smoky industrial caldron of San Pedro is visible, disappearing now as the road curves again, down through the breezy greenery of the southern border of Rancho Palos Verdes.

At last, blue water is visible at 25th as Western descends between the bulging shoulders of summer-tawny hills. Then, at the end of things is the sea--at the cliffs above Royal Palm State Beach, Western becomes Paseo del Mar.

Up the coast, sprawling red-roofed houses crest the cliffs of Rancho Palos Verdes. A hundred yards south is White Point Park. There in the lovely clean playground, women in straw hats push towheaded children on swings, while on the beach below a group of Buddhist monks picks its way over the rocks for the perfect picnic spot.

Western Avenue--L.A. from head to toe.

Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at mary.mcnamara@latimes.com.

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