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Boulevard of Dreams : To know L.A. you need to know Wilshire, its uniquely Angeleno mix of grandeur and sheer trashiness. All 16 miles of it.

August 31, 1995|LEON WHITESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One hundred years ago, when the eccentric socialist millionaire Henry Gaylord Wilshire gave his name to the beginnings of the boulevard that has become Los Angeles' main urban thoroughfare, he envisaged a grand avenue that would confirm the young city's ambition to become the capital of the West.

"With the increasing comfort and speed of transportation, California is fast becoming a winter playground of the leisure class of Americans," he declared. "I have no doubt that . . . Southern California will be the most thickly settled part of the American continent."

A century later, Wilshire's vision has been confirmed by the prime status of his street among L.A.'s many competing boulevards. Today his grand avenue is the living mirror of contemporary Los Angeles in all its manifestations.

To know Los Angeles you need to know Wilshire Boulevard. You need to know its uniquely Angeleno mix of architectural grandeur and sheer trashiness, its often ignored civic landmarks and treasured pop-historical details, its positive identity and absent presence. Above all, you have to grasp its air of simultaneously succeeding and failing, just like Los Angeles itself. What better time to reconsider it than during its centennial year?

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 17, 1995 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 7 View Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Building's History--A story in the Oct. 27 Life & Style contained incomplete information about the history of the Derby nightclub in Los Feliz. The building originally opened in 1929 as Willard's restaurant and became associated with filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille only after Willard's closed in 1940.

In the opinion of some urbanists, the boulevard's most crucial overall failure is its lack of continuity along its 16-mile length.

"I think that today Wilshire is more a kind of urban clothesline than a real grand avenue--a line with good and bad, elegant and trashy elements hanging from it," said Ron Altoon, an architect who's been involved in several efforts to preserve and develop the street's architectural heritage. It has its extraordinary moments, Altoon emphasized, but the links between its various sections are often weak.

"As a whole, Wilshire just doesn't hang together now," agreed architect Scott Johnson, whose office faces the old May Co. building at Fairfax. "And some of the newer buildings--such as the Wilshire Courtyard complex down the road--follow an inappropriate suburban model in their design, detracting from the street's urban continuity."

Johnson blames a mixture of social change and economic decline for the absence of any real visual cohesion along Wilshire. "The income levels of the newer immigrants that have settled along eastern and central Wilshire are low, and so the economic engine for regeneration just isn't functioning there right now," he said. "It's a sad fact that Mid-Wilshire now has the highest commercial vacancy rate of any comparable part of the city."

On the other hand, Johnson said, the boulevard has scored some vital successes. He points to the burgeoning Museum District he can see from his office window, including the expanded L.A. County Museum of Art, the recently renovated Craft and Folk Art Museum, the Page Museum beside the La Brea Tar Pits and the Petersen Automobile Museum. The once-abandoned 1939 May Co. store across the way, now owned by LACMA, will become the new premises for the Otis Art Institute next year.

At the same time, Otis' planned move from its current location on the edge of MacArthur Park underscores the continuing westward shift of the city's cultural and commercial heartland.

Santa Monica's popular Third Street Promenade is a prime symbol of this westward migration. The promenade's busy but tranquil urban scene contrasts with the tense, crime-ridden street life of the mainly Latino districts bordering MacArthur Park at the eastern end of Wilshire.

Thus, the Westside's old links with Downtown and Wilshire's historic core have been further loosened, increasing the boulevard's resemblance to a disjointed urban clothesline.

*

Because it so graphically renders the city's condition, Wilshire Boulevard is a wide-screen movie of our urban life. It's a film fusing past and present, a cinematic panorama seen through the windshield of a car traveling from Downtown to the Pacific.

The action begins at the eastern end of Wilshire, where it springs from Downtown's Grand Avenue. This section of the boulevard was originally named Orange Street. Wilshire slips unobtrusively above the Harbor Freeway and cuts through one of L.A.'s oldest districts.

The area, once known as Crown Hill, was a proud place during the 1880s' land boom. Many fine houses were built here, including the 1889 Lewis House on nearby Miramar Street, designed by Joseph Cather Newsom.

Today, however, this district is one of the most densely populated, high-crime sections of Los Angeles. Drug dealers and fake-document sellers haunt the alleys at the edges of bustling sidewalks where street vendors peddle their wares.

This stretch of Wilshire was the last piece to be formally added to its story. In 1934 a road was cut through Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, linking the districts to the east and west. At the dedication of the causeway that runs beside the water, Mayor Frank Shaw declared that Wilshire was now "California's most famous thoroughfare."

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