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THREE ON THE TOWN

MINIMIZED BY A MINI-MALL : Yet Another Distinctive Cityscape Is Brought Up to Date--but Loses Its Noirish Date, but Loses Its Noirish Appeal

March 20, 1994|Jonathan Gold

One of my favorite parts of Los Angeles used to be that sunken scrap of flatland near Temple and Virgil where half a dozen major streets come together in a maddening welter of honking horns, where the best way to reach your destination may be to close your eyes and point your car in a direction 90 degrees from where you think you want to go. Before it was cemented over in the '20s, the area was something like marshland, and by the '40s some people were already waxing nostalgic for the days when you could fish for crawdads off streetcar bridges. Until the developers showed up a few years ago, the general area may have been one of the bits of central Los Angeles least changed since the days of Nathaniel West and Raymond Chandler, a romantic, swampy noir ish sort of place, all anonymous repair shops and sleepy Art Deco facades, veterinarians and florists, even when the street choked with automobiles and baked in radiant asphalt heat.

The mega-intersection, which some people call the Bermuda Triangle because so many get lost in it, is a natural demarcation between Downtown and Midtown, Hollywood and the Wilshire district, neighborhoods that are predominantly Spanish-speaking and neighborhoods also fluent in Tagalog, Korean and Japanese. Some cities build public squares in busy places like these, or at least old-fashioned traffic circles around a statue of a horse-mounted general or something: an obelisk, a fountain, a plaque honoring Pio Pico. In the triangle, a gas station was about as close to a monument as they got, and even that was razed a couple of years ago in favor of a semi-permanent hillock of dirt.

The triangle was full of attractions: an auto repair place where the mechanics were at least as intent on telling you what was wrong with Castro as what might ail your brake drums; a Mexican beer bar--its sign advertised "Beautiful Babys"--that featured pool tables and Tecate (and, presumably, child care); a (still functioning) garage called the Car-O-Practor with a facade that once looked stippled with sequins. One restaurant served delicate French-Japanese lunches at prices that rivaled the Sizzler's until county inspectors discovered the lack of a health permit and closed the place down.

Before Mexican Village burned in the riots, that restaurant was packed with garishly painted Aztec-style statuary and couples who danced to a cool, though cut-rate, live salsa band. The place may have served some of the blandest Mexican food in the city of Los Angeles, but that never kept people away. Next door, a taco stand still looks like a set from a colorized '30s South-of-the-Border farce.

Above it all, a squadron of yellow neon mice, part of the sign for a local pest-control company, is visible for miles, as much a part of the landscape as the Coca-Cola sign used to be on Hollywood Boulevard.

Progress marches on: Mexican Village looks almost rebuilt this week, and the owners seem to be restoring some of the statues, too. But though the new mini-malls have brought the standard wonders of entry-level capitalism that mini-malls tend to do--a few splendid South American cafes, doughnut stands, travel agencies, Kentucky Fried Chicken--the neighborhood seems somehow to be losing its special mood, to be slouching into the convenience-store, one-world sameness that makes some commercial strips in Ecuador or New Hampshire look as though they were on the outskirts of San Bernardino. There may not be a building in this area that would make any architect's short list of things worth preserving, but I already miss the character of the place, and it's not even half gone yet.

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