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Exploring L.A.'s Asphalt Soul

July 26, 1999|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In theory, Western Avenue is a commuter's zip-line. Slicing through the city, 28 miles of it, from the hem of Griffith Park to the northern cliffs of San Pedro, crossing every major boulevard, ducking under and over three freeways and Pacific Coast Highway, Western would seem the answer to myriad driving needs.

It is an answer. Just not the best answer if speed is any part of the question.

Which you will realize some afternoon after you've made that left onto Western off Wilshire in the vain hope that you can just zip up to Sunset in, like, five minutes.

As you creep past the windows of the discount stores, bricked with Colgate and Coco Blasts, as you peer through the welter of signs hawking food and clothing and furniture in more languages than a UNICEF Christmas card, as you roll up your windows in paltry defense against the cacophony of world beats bulging from storefronts and nearby cars, as you do all the things that Western Avenue requires of you, many questions will fill your adrenaline-bathed brain, one of which invariably is: What is with this street anyway?

L.A., baby. That is what is with this street. Almost 100 years and eight Thomas Guide pages' worth. Because Western is not so much an avenue as it is an interior passage through the disparate landscapes of this city. A concourse of commerce, of identity, of history.

A trip along Western serves up a distillation of the city--Hollywood, Sunset and Melrose; Florence, Normandie and Adams; Artesia, Gardena and PCH--a compilation of L.A.'s greatest hits. One of the city's longest thoroughfares, rivaled only by Sunset in demographic and topographic diversity.

There is nothing about Los Feliz Boulevard that foreshadows this destiny. Having risen from humble roots in Glendale, Los Feliz slides comfortably west past Griffith Park before swinging south. There, just north of Franklin, Los Feliz briefly surveys the spiky urban floor, glittering with metal and glass, as it stretches to the smoldering horizon.

And Western takes it from there.

Wasn't Completely Paved Until 1958

Officially opened in 1925 as a dirt road connecting Hollywood with San Pedro, Western's name dates it further, back to the time of the Pueblo, when a road that now bifurcates Los Angeles would be considered West.

It wasn't completely paved until 1958, and it is still a naked street, despite its almost continuous clutter of storefronts, sheltered only occasionally by shrubs and flowers surrounding a McDonald's or a Burger King. In the absence of city-imposed beautification, it is the essence of each community that stains Western with shifting, chameleon colors.

Western has, as yet, spawned no restoration committee, sparked no gentrification project. But at its intersection with Hollywood Boulevard--long considered one of the worst in the city--the new Red Line stop with its mosaic round walls seems to herald a benefit from Hollywood's enforced renaissance.

The building on the southwest corner, with its once-scandalous friezes of movie makers in classical Greek drapes, has a new paint job, and the takeout joint on the northwest corner is now festively red all the way to its hot-dogged top. Pure Hollywood, as is the Pussycat Theater, a block south, which steadfastly flaunts its faded psychedelic facade amid the more respectable faces of a Howard Johnson and OSH.

Between Sunset and Fountain, a mortuary squats next to the calculated modern cheer of a shelter for runaways, alternative ends for those lured by the city's dreams--and consumed. Strip malls with signs in English and Spanish offer services to fulfill every human need--tax attorneys, manicurists, optometrists, sub shops, fashion shops--you could live out your life on just these few miles of Western alone.

At the pedestrian-choked corner at Sunset, it would seem people do.

Just north of Melrose, the last hill-cooled breeze falls short. The sun seems to work harder on Western, and the wide, pale surface of concrete radiates heat like a griddle.

The names of passing streets promise shade--Maplewood, Rosewood, Oakwood--but are made appropriate only by the ranks of furniture stores that run between Melrose and 3rd. Mattresses, kitchen chairs, bookcases fill the pickup trucks that line the curbs, slowing traffic to a refugee crawl.

Here is melting-pot central with signs in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Armenian and Korean. From one end to another, Western is an asphalt polyglot, shot through with metal and the whoosh of constant travel, a place that could be anywhere, a place that could only be here.

Other cities enfold myriad international communities, but surely only Los Angeles, with its insistence on vehicular accessibility, would create such a long and straight automotive canal along the doorsteps of the rich and poor, the new and native, and the vast majority in between.

Passing by Art Deco Landmarks

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