Wilshire Left, Front and Center
“Do you want to meet somewhere Wilshire-y?” asks Los Angeles native Kevin Roderick. Lately the homegrown Valley boy is coining his adjectives from the subject of “Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles,” a coffee table book due next month from Angel City Press that was written by Roderick and based on research by urban anthropologist J. Eric Lynxwiler. A former Times editor who has written for Los Angeles magazine and L.A. Architect and authored an earlier volume on the San Fernando Valley, Roderick also maintains a website on the Valley, www.americassuburb.com, along with www.laobserved.com, a daily blog chronicling the machinations of L.A.'s media, politics and writing milieus. We got Wilshire-y at one of the boulevard’s classic old-school restaurant-bars, the H.M.S. Bounty, a gilded throwback to ‘50s-era cool situated between Normandie and Vermont, across the street from the remnants of the Ambassador Hotel and adjacent to the Gaylord Apartments, which according to Roderick was one of the city’s first townhome apartment buildings during the 1920s.
Why call Wilshire L.A.'s “unofficial Main Street of dreams” rather than Sunset or Mulholland?
Wilshire is bigger, wider. It had a more important role in L.A.'s history. Sunset has a little more glamour associated with spots of it, but it wasn’t built all the way end to end at one time. It wasn’t the street you could see L.A.'s history developing on. When Wilshire started, it was this little pocket downtown, almost a pueblo. Wilshire is the avenue that let L.A. grow into a modern city.
The Wilshire Boulevard story has a theme of elegance fallen on tough times. The Ambassador Hotel is being razed as we speak.
It’s not as important as it used to be. The Manhattan-ization of Los Angeles, if it was going to happen at all--which it isn’t--was [going to be] on Wilshire Boulevard. [Wilshire’s] importance is diluted by Westwood Village, Sherman Oaks and Century City, another little mini-downtown.
Wilshire was once a destination for L.A.'s elites. What does its changing ethnic, religious and class makeup say about the city?
Wilshire was once talked about as the home of the million-dollar churches. Congregations downtown relocated to be part of the new Los Angeles, mostly in the 1920s. They built these extravagant, beautiful, majestic churches. For a long time, those churches had the largest memberships anywhere in the city. Wilshire had a down period in the 1960s and into the ‘70s and ‘80s. The people who went to those churches moved to places like Newport Beach, the Palos Verdes Peninsula and San Marino. Now those churches aren’t as busy on Sundays as they used to be, but they’re very multi-ethnic. Immanuel Presbyterian has services for an Ethiopian congregation, a Spanish-speaking congregation and a Korean congregation. That’s the future of this part of the Wilshire district. In that sense, Wilshire is a long, thin downtown.
It seems to be Wilshire’s east side that has struggled, while Wilshire west stayed swanky.
Wilshire technically doesn’t go to the Eastside, if you think of the Eastside as east of downtown, which I do. Wilshire was supposed to go to the Eastside, to cut through downtown, go over the river and connect to Whittier Boulevard, but it never happened for various reasons. So Wilshire is very much a Westside phenomenon in that sense. Wilshire is the reason we even talk about there being a “Westside.” The term grew up with Wilshire Boulevard at the turn of the 20th century. Wilshire passes through the most expensive shopping districts in Southern California. Rodeo Drive dead-ends there. The big shopping stores left that are not in malls are on Wilshire. Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus. Wilshire has a role in demarcating wealth and class in the areas it moves through. Close to town, the neighborhoods on both sides tend to be poor, but in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, Wilshire is a tropic of affluence. If you live north of Wilshire in Beverly Hills, your property is worth more than south of Wilshire. That’s true again when you get out to Santa Monica.
Many architectural gems remain along Wilshire. Are suburbanites experiencing a nostalgic re-appreciation of L.A.'s urban ambience?
You are seeing that, and it’s interesting because it’s a rebound. [On Wilshire] there are historic pictures up in the shops, in the [Regent] Beverly Wilshire Hotel, in the Starbucks in Westwood Village. Marie Callender’s is full of those kinds of pictures. And people are wanting to come live on Wilshire.
You mentioned Wilshire as the biggest, widest L.A. boulevard. What is Wilshire’s role in the city’s automobile culture?
If you think of Los Angeles as the city of drivers and driving, L.A. learned how to be an automobile-age city on Wilshire Boulevard. Until Wilshire, everybody was riding streetcars and living near streetcars and going downtown to work. Wilshire comes along, and they discover, well, we can live far away from downtown and never go there. We can go to places like the Miracle Mile and do our shopping, or Beverly Hills or the Wilshire Center area. The vaunted streetcar system was great for what it did, but it was slow. As soon as people could find an alternative, they did.
In the late ‘20s, The Times and the Wilshire Boulevard Assn. had somebody stand at the corner of Wilshire and Western and count the cars going by. They decided [it] was the busiest intersection in the country, busier than anywhere on Fifth Avenue in New York or in Chicago. That’s about when they dubbed Wilshire the “Fifth Avenue of the West.” At the time, there were no lane lines painted on the blacktop, [so] it was anarchy when you’d get to one of these big intersections. They had to invent lane lines to keep people in line. L.A.'s first synchronized traffic signals were on Wilshire Boulevard. It was where Los Angeles learned how to be a driving city. It had the biggest number of drive-in restaurants in the ‘30s. There used to be more than 100 gas stations. Today there are fewer than a half-dozen.
How would you rate the likelihood of a Wilshire subway all the way to the ocean?
If you’re going to build a subway to the Westside, Wilshire is the logical place. Look at the corner of Wilshire and Westwood. That’s the most ambitious intersection in the city today. There are 10 lanes. That area would be ideally served by a subway from downtown. But I’m doubtful that there’s the money to do that kind of thing. The neighborhoods that have gotten the subway thus far along Wilshire have not seen a marked resurgence in economic health. The other thing is that it’s not entirely clear that subways reduce traffic. It’s possible they increase traffic because more building, more density follows subway paths. Nobody really wants to go to the beach at the end of Wilshire, either. I’m pro-subway, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Is there a stretch of Wilshire you’re partial to?
My favorite is the Veterans Affairs land between Westwood and Brentwood. It’s one of the most historical spots in the city. It was settled in 1888 as a home for disabled soldiers from the Civil War and grew as sort of an island there. The oldest building on Wilshire is a chapel on the Veterans land. I loved driving around this 387-acre campus and thinking about what was there before. The National Cemetery is across Sepulveda Boulevard. There are 85,000 people buried there. There’s people buried there who qualified by fighting in Korea in 1871 and being at the Boxer Rebellion in China.
Do you have personal history with Wilshire?
Well, the book was not my idea. It was an urban anthropologist named Eric Lynxwiler who conducted a lot of the research. He is a Wilshire hand, lives in the Miracle Mile and always knew this was a story he wanted to be part of telling. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley and knew Wilshire as this destination when we wanted to do some serious shopping, to go to Bullocks Wilshire, go to the big restaurants like Perino’s and the Brown Derby and Lindy’s, for birthdays. The place where I spent the most time was the Ambassador Hotel. It was the place if you wanted that old hotel feel.
Do you think there’s a new awareness of L.A. discernible in the recent profusion of books, architectural tours and photographic documentation on the city?
Los Angeles is a hot subject right now in the publishing world. It’s a subject that people want to read about and want to see in pictures. There’s a deep appetite for knowing more about the city. It is a relatively new city, but it has a 200-year-old history. People are surprised by that.