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ON CALIFORNIA

It All Comes Out at the Carwash

June 27, 1989|Robert A. Jones

STUDIO CITY — From time to time, California will spontaneously produce an event that seems to perpetuate the worst myths about life here. You can always tell when this has happened because the people back East will let us know. The episode pops up on the network news, gets sprinkled around the big newspapers. Invariably these stories are told in the way of a joke.

We have one of these events playing itself out right now. In the San Fernando Valley, a group of citizens has nominated a Unocal gas station and carwash for landmark status. The outpouring of affection for these artifacts of the '50s was aroused when a developer announced plans to demolish both, along with a neighboring Tiny Naylor's, and replace them with a mini-mall.

This story plugged into the California myth immediately, and it got the full treatment. Here was another bunch of goofy Angelenos, people who already have to chew their air before they breathe it, flying to the aid of car culture. The press conferences have been packed, and even a West German television crew showed up at the nominated landmark to film the cars going through the suds.

It turns out that the carwash episode does, indeed, tell us something about California. But it has nothing to do with cars and there's little lighthearted about it. This is really a story about a small community pushed to the wall by the California boom. It's about builders and developers who have taken control of the neighborhoods and about the deep anger that's been left in their wake. And it's about revolt.

I know these things because I happen to live in Studio City. The carwash is located at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura boulevards, just about half a mile from my house. I moved here about four years ago at the beginning of the boom. Let me tell you what it is like.

Every day since I moved here I have listened to the engines of progress tear up the hills facing my house. This is a process known as "filling in." Builders find the odd-shaped lots or the very steep lots or the lots without a real street, then build on these lots houses that would have satisfied William Randolph Hearst. The castle-like affairs loom over the old houses like warlords and every month a new one is started. The current house is being built on a lot so steep it required conveyor belts to get the dirt out.

But the real action is down on Ventura Boulevard. This particular stretch of Ventura, unlike some other sections, has remained a neighborly place with shopkeepers who know your name and operate their establishments in their own, occasionally eccentric, fashion. Now they are being steadily bulldozed and replaced with multitiered buildings all painted terra-cotta and turquoise, the rented spaces filled with yogurt stands and one-hour photo finishers.

In Studio City we now have half a dozen of these places, including one with the baffling name of Times Square. At the entrance the owners have stationed a security guard who scrutinizes each car entering the parking lot to make sure the occupants who disembark actually shop at Times Square. A homey touch, and I have been gratified to observe Times Square's slow progress in filling its rental space.

There have been other episodes, such as the 95-foot-tall office building that was constructed in a zone limited to 45-foot buildings, all with the city's blessing. Or the case of the order of nuns who wanted to make $9 million by tearing down their Catholic girls school and building condos.

And then came Ira Smedra. Certainly his timing was bad, not to mention his choice of targets. Smedra announced he was about to tear down the carwash, the Unocal station and Tiny Naylor's so he could throw up one more mini-mall. Somehow, with this project, Smedra pushed Studio City beyond a threshold.

The fact is, that carwash has become something of an institution in Studio City. For 28 years it has functioned as the center of the biggest intersection in town, an outrageously ugly leftover from the days before anyone had dreamed up the first mini-mall. You can see your neighbors there each weekend, and somehow that's reassuring.

And so the carwash became a cause here. To be sure, people of Studio City want to save the carwash, but they also want something more. They want to stand their ground, they want their turf back.

The final outcome is still unknown, but the situation looks good before the city's Cultural Heritage Commission. The carwash may be a landmark yet. If the folks back East find that titillating, so be it. In Studio City it is enough to fight over, and the fight is serious.

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