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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

December 18, 1988|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

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.

Distinct Communities

"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.

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