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Reclaiming a Sense of Place Amid the Urban Sprawl

January 04, 1998|Jim Heimann | Jim Heimann, a teacher at Art Center School of Design, is author of six books on architecture and popular culture, including "Car Hops and Curb Service: A History of the American Drive-In Restaurant."

Just when you think you know your way around the greater Los Angeles area, a native Angeleno tells you about a swell dining spot in Norwalk, how terrific Arcadia's Santa Anita racetrack is the day after Christmas or fabulous antiquing in Orange. Baffled when you try to visualize exactly where these places are in the Southland? Join the rest of the basin in the endless game of trying to figure out where the countless towns, cities and communities begin and end amid the seamless Southern California sprawl.

Southern California's past reveals this identity problem wasn't always so. Before the freeways and the endless development, smaller towns and cities, separated by open spaces, were easy to identify. And a local identity was clear when city portals were girded with neon posts, sculptural pedestals displayed civic nameplates, nearby hills were decorated with the town's initials or arches spanned Main Streets like gaudy ID bracelets.

What these markers did was establish a sense of place for resident and visitor alike. Segue 70 years ahead. Freeways and subdivisions have filled in once rural Southern California. A populace welded to its cars is forced to describe the cityscape in visual shorthand. Many original city identifiers have been lost to progress or swallowed up by sprawl. Rarely can Southland communities be located by some distinctive landmark or entry point. This lack leaves a confused public begging for new solutions to separate and identify an urban monolith of coagulated gray mass.

So the question remains: How can these various cities, as they blend into each other, stand out and present some sort of visual ID beyond a page number in the Thomas Guide?

A quick look up the side of Mt. Lee offers one of the more successful solutions. The Hollywood sign has had an edge on city identity since the 1920s, when an advertisement for a subdivision of Hollywoodland was built above Beachwood Canyon. After the last four letters fell off in the late '40s, the real-estate promotion evolved into one of the most famous city signs anywhere. At one time, throughout the region there were other, three-dimensional signs flanking hillsides: a giant "V" in the Hollywood Hills for the Vine Crest development, "Silverlake" spelled out above its reservoir, even Forest Lawn announced its presence with giant cut-out letters. This was real-estate marketing, pure and simple. Yet not a bad idea, considering how Hollywood has benefited from its vintage sign.

More recently, some interesting ideas have been tried to glue the city back together. The 1984 Olympics made "bannering" a popular way to informally unify the city. Easy to install, many business districts have placed banners along their streets to single out retail areas or announce an event. But these inexpensive and temporary flags have been used to excess. Instead of setting an area apart, banners have become standard city jewelry and a blind spot for most drivers. They are not able to imbue cohesion and substance to a community.

For more satisfactory answers, Angelenos might look south to San Diego for some admirable city and community signposts. East of the city, Lemon Grove maintains a giant concrete lemon that stands, front and center, on the town's main drag. Installed decades ago, it is a reminder of the area's agricultural past. You might chuckle when you first spot it; but, let's face it, it's not easy to forget a giant lemon in the middle of the road. Within San Diego, the Hillcrest district is surrounded by several other communities that sport vintage signs along their principal avenues. Nearby, both University Park and the Northpark areas have handsome versions making direct or subtle references to local history.

In Los Angeles, similar sign pieces could be valued additions to the street-scape. Some still exist on a more modest scale--San Gabriel's neon mission bell, for example, or Fillmore's entry standards. So why not build on what is already here? A community could enhance and dramatize these vestiges of city signage and landmarks, or create new ones.

Whittier Boulevard, with its decorative arch on the west end of its retail cluster, is a good start. So is the Norwalk Square pylon that advertises its shopping center. Both would work better if they emphasized regional and cultural references, becoming neighborhood landmarks rather than mere signs.

What about creating entrance identifiers, similar to those that guard the various bridges that cross the Los Angeles river, at either end of the Sunset Strip, to complement the parade of billboards on West Hollywood's fabled boulevard? Or how about replacing the Tony DeLap sculpture over Wilshire Boulevard--which no one can quite figure out--with a replica of the entry arch over the Santa Monica pier?

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