You know one when you see one. Some streets just seem better than others--safer and more inviting, constantly interesting and just plain cool.
Cool streets--Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or Colorado Boulevard in Old Town Pasadena--become places where people of different ages and races leave their cars to walk and linger over lattes or window-shop.
What makes an urban gathering place work in privacy-crazed Southern California is equal parts planning and social alchemy, subject to the same fickle sense of fashion that dictated the return of bell-bottoms and hip boots. What works once will not always work again, and picking which streets will take off is akin to predicting the stock market.
But a careful look at successful spots provides hints to which districts might one day earn the ultimate badge of L.A. cool--having a television series named after them, a la "Melrose Place."
The downtowns of Burbank and Glendale, Leimert Park in Los Angeles, Pine Avenue in Long Beach, and the Broadway historic district Downtown all have potential to evolve into the kinds of places people want to be. Once-hip stretches of Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley might recapture their former allure, as might Westwood Village, whose fall from hip in the late 1980s demonstrated how frail and transitory cool can be.
Experts agree that places that work share key elements, such as a walkable sense of scale, a feeling of safety, ease of access and parking, and interesting entertainment.
Movie theaters or playhouses help, as do a mix of shops from coffee bars and restaurants to funky clothes stores and record dens. Brand-name chains can draw people, but also may force out the independent storekeepers who give a street its style. On Melrose Avenue the arrival of chain stores altered the culture, some would say crucially.
"The problem with most streets in Los Angeles County is that they carry traffic and occasionally water," said John Schwarze of the county's regional planning department. "They don't have anything that would make a person want to get out and abandon their car."
So what are our favorite candidates for the next cool district?
Long the butt of Johnny Carson's jokes, "beautiful downtown Burbank" is no longer an oxymoron. Media City Mall, an indoor shopping center, has become the centerpiece of a thriving district along San Fernando Road.
Care was taken to connect the mall to the neighborhood that surrounds it. Brick-accented sidewalks, benches and shade trees lure walkers and the street itself is narrow, forcing traffic to slow down.
Fancy new movie theaters a block from the mall give the street life even when the stores are closed. Name-brand draws like Blockbuster Music and Market City Caffe were courted aggressively to join the used-book stores and family-run clothing stores.
In Glendale, night life is emerging along a formerly ragged stretch of Brand Boulevard and Maryland Avenue. Cafes and movie theaters have sprouted, and the Alex Theatre has reopened for traveling shows and concerts.
Strollers browse shops on Maryland, designed more as a cozy alley than a full-blown street. That sense of enclosure is critical, making pedestrians feel more intimate, the environment friendlier and more manageable.
Santa Monica architect Chester Widom compares successful public spaces to good parties. "A party needs to be crowded," said Widom, president of the American Institute of Architects. "When you're at a cocktail party, you don't want to be out in the open."
In Long Beach, a renaissance along Pine Avenue is focused around a 16-screen theater complex. Crate & Barrel and a Z Gallerie are moving in, keeping moviegoers around to stroll.
The neighborhood around Leimert Park in the Crenshaw district is also promising. Just north of the tiny park, a row of shops, art studios and jazz clubs along Degnan Street creates a walking-friendly atmosphere.
The buildings are one or two stories, just tall enough to create a sense of place without overwhelming pedestrians. Many galleries along Degnan--including actress Marla Gibbs' studio--are nationally known.
On a much larger scale, there are some who say a bustling night life may return to Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. Already one of the busiest commercial streets in Southern California, its discount \o7 zapaterias \f7 and blaring ranchero music cater to Latino shoppers. Ornate movie palaces--most of which are dark, but many of which remain intact--line the street.
With the restoration of historic structures such as the turn-of-the-century Bradbury Building and the Million Dollar Theatre at the corner of 3rd Street, and the revival of the Angel's Flight funicular, Broadway could emerge as the connective tissue between the apartment and hotel towers of Bunker Hill and the rest of Downtown.
Because there are so few outdoor districts where people gather, the trick is to keep a successful street from being destroyed by its own popularity. People naturally tire of the same shops, the same menus.