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East Side, West Side : The Tug of War Between L.A.'s Rival Realities Is Polarizing the City. But Some Angelenos Are Breaking Down the Barriers.

January 23, 1994|JILL STEWART | Contributing editor Jill Stewart's last piece for this magazine was on the Los Angeles mayor's race

Meanwhile, the Westside, as defined by Pacific Bell, the Air Quality Management District, Los Angeles Times Poll and the Los Angeles Police Department, roughly begins at La Cienega Boulevard. But given the cachet of such Westside-esque phenomena as Michel Richard's glamorous Citrus restaurant and trendy Diamond Foam & Fabric--both good bets for spotting movie stars--La Brea Avenue seems to be the new demarcation zone.

Nancy Silverton, co-owner, with her husband, Mark Peel, of hip Campanile restaurant, chose La Brea six years ago because it wasn't on the Westside, and she wanted something "more diverse and eclectic." But now, with New York designer Anna Sui (sort of Addams Family retro wear) just up the block, and chichi gallery owners breathing down Campanile's neck on Beverly Boulevard, the Westside has encircled Silverton and Peel.

They are philosophical about the transformation. Peel notes, with a hint of pride, that nearby stores "are not chains or quick investments like what has happened to Melrose but are individual efforts that create a sense of permanence and commitment."

If one draws an imaginary line up La Brea, through the Hollywood Hills, curving west at the Ventura Freeway to follow the coastline, one finds that Encino, Studio City and Sherman Oaks, so-called "Valley" communities, are, in attitude, spirit and proximity, on the Westside. They are far more linked to Beverly Hills and Brentwood today than they are to such rumpled cousins as Van Nuys or North Hollywood. Some realtors, who Roos and others believe play a divisive role in parceling up the city, shriek happily if a home is "south of Ventura."

Historian Kevin Starr says cities can't help but develop "sides." The Upper East Side in New York, the South Side of Chicago, undersides everywhere. L.A. started to evolve into an east-west city, he maintains, in the early 1900s, after the Wilshire brothers envisioned a westward push along the ancient path that once linked the Indian village of Yang Na, on the Los Angeles River, to the coast. Developer A.W. Ross bought up huge parcels of the Wilshire brothers' holdings and realized their dream, finally completing the boulevard's trek to the sea in 1934. Los Angeles marched westward. Sheep-grazing land gave rise to what is now the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel in 1926 and Bullock's Wilshire in 1929. In dusty bean fields, the State of California opened UCLA in 1929. "Suddenly," says Starr, "automobiles allowed the beautiful people to zip out to their newly built Santa Monica beach cottages. And after World War II, Westchester and huge tracts were built, something like 9,000 homes in one year. Voila! You had the Westside."

Starr and other urban thinkers have a more complex view of the divisions within the city, describing L.A. as a series of mega-villages scattered over a vast terrain whose residents will trade--and bicker--among themselves much like those in old European city states. Pride and competition are always in play in big cities. Writing in his 1941 novel "Mildred Pierce," hard-boiled author James M. Cain gave an early nod to this view when Mildred's snobbish Pasadena boyfriend told her she'd make a fine wife "if you didn't live in Glendale."

Many Angelenos are learning to sample from the stew. Gai Gherardi, co-owner of Melrose Avenue's L.A. Eyeworks, knows a traditional Iranian family who "watched 2,500 drag queens" in West Hollywood's Halloween Parade and, to her delight, loved it. In Echo Park, performance artist Eric Trules sets a tape recorder on his windowsill to capture his white, black, Asian and Latino neighbors "screaming in the middle of the night, in the most colorful language imaginable"--dialogue he hopes to weave into a book.

But others, like Michael Nava, a mystery writer and senior attorney with the State Court of Appeal, marvel that the city is not "in a constant state of civil unrest." Nava grew up in a struggling, working-class family and says he feels a powerful kinship "when I see a brown face," yet he chose to live on the Westside, because, he says, "life is a lot easier there. I know firsthand there's no romance in poverty." He says his dual experience, particularly his several years on the Westside, has convinced him that Los Angeles is a city deeply hewn by class and race. "Westsiders know their affluence is paid for by the suffering of other people, and there is a deep sense of guilt and apprehension." Echoing some Latinos, Nava dreams of a Los Angeles dominated by Latino culture and Latino leaders. "The future," he says, "is Gloria Molina's."

But economist Kotkin, a resident of Laurel Canyon, sees a dreary future down that path. "If the Westside and the Valley don't maintain themselves, L.A. will become the dream of (KCET commentator) Ruben Martinez and L.A. school board member Leticia Quezada, who want a huge Mexico City North, a dream I don't share." The real issue is not east versus west, "it's whether people stay or head to the wine country."

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