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On a Clear Day, La Brea Offers Views of a Diversified City


If you ascend La Brea Avenue through Baldwin Hills on a clear day, you can see, for a few moments, much of what Los Angeles is. Just north of Stocker Street, hills rise on either side of the road, green in the winter and spring, brown the rest, and for a mile or so there are no cross streets, no parallel boulevards, no noise but the steady hiss of a street struck suddenly dumb.

Through a break in the hills to the right, downtown stands tall and solid like the keep of a castle, surrounded by a grid of rooftops and treetops, of white and terra cotta checkered with green. Directly ahead is the Hollywood sign, small yet unmistakable against the rucked-up bedclothes of the Hollywood Hills, its clean white echoed by the Griffith Observatory perched a bit down the slope from the "D." Behind you on the left are the flat grays and mauves, the grit and rust of the Chevron oil field and the planes that hang like hummingbirds in final approach to LAX. Beyond them stretches the endless seam between ocean, land and sky.

Cresting the hill, La Brea runs on ahead, a river of glittering gray rushing through the heart of West Los Angeles--Hancock Park to West Hollywood to Hollywood.

It is a mildly famous street, La Brea, owing many name-recognition points to the tar pits of the same name. La Brea is Spanish for "the tar," and the name early settlers gave the asphalt seepage dotting the land around what is now Hancock Park, 4,000 odd acres that in 1822 were deeded to Antonio Rocha as Rancho La Brea. The avenue of the same name, which is several blocks east of the pits, runs through what is roughly the middle of that original land grant.

At its southern end, La Brea begins oddly and abruptly at Inglewood where Hawthorne Boulevard, named for the city that is named for Nathaniel, enters the intersection with Century Boulevard and comes out as La Brea Avenue. Chilly eastern Puritanism meets bubbling hot Spanish tradition.

Within shouting distance of Hollywood Park, La Brea makes its way through Inglewood, built from the barley empire of Daniel Freeman and once touted as the "Chinchilla Capital of the World" because so many residents raised the little critters. Now it is a small, megalopolis-adjacent city like many others--slightly dingy storefronts, a glassy-eyed hospital, a rather impressively modern City Hall.

Heading north, La Brea passes through the grassy silent gap of Baldwin Hills before spilling into a basin lined with auto repair establishments and fast-food joints. After ducking under the Santa Monica Freeway, there is a mile or so of neat, if rundown, apartment buildings and bungalows interspersed with motels that lure customers with promises of color TV and air-conditioning.

Crossing Olympic Boulevard and heading toward Wilshire Boulevard, La Brea shakes loose its residential roots and gets hip with hot-spot eateries such as Campanile, Ca' Brea and, for the less linen-inclined, Pink's, and trendy shops hawking groovy secondhand clothing and furniture--all cheek and jowl with car lots, film-processing labs, synagogues and yeshivas.

On the Sabbath, dark, formal figures of the Orthodox move purposefully down the sidewalk: men in fedoras and fur hats, girls in dresses long at hem and sleeve. Along this corridor, Pig, a barbecue restaurant and a Honey Baked Ham franchise seem just a bit discordant.

North of Beverly Boulevard the street devolves into an endless series of strip malls, their stacks of multiethnic, multilingual signs the signatory totem poles of L.A. Nail salons atop Uzbekistan cuisine beside Arabic liquor stores atop Thai groceries, all tacky and tiny and absolutely urban gorgeous. Mashti Malone's Ice Cream Parlor is worth the trip alone.

Rising again, now toward the Hollywood Hills, La Brea passes prop houses and other satellite industries of nearby studios; the fairy-tale-cottage complex at Romaine Street that once held the Chaplin Studios is now topped with a tuxedo-clad Kermit the Frog, home to Jim Henson Studios.

Past Sunset and Hollywood, La Brea again goes residential, winding its way past Franklin Avenue, now as La Brea Terrace, before coming to an abrupt halt at a dead-end flanked by the gates of two private hillside homes warning against parking, loitering or otherwise hanging around.

Below, the city smokes and windshields glitter, the avenues swoop south, latticed by boulevards running to or from the sea, and palm trees wag their shaggy heads like tribal elders. Below, Angelenos conduct their business, navigating streets like children on a jungle gym. Up and over, down and under, through the tunnel and onto the bridge, we move through our city as we do our lives, eyes on the next thing to be done, on the next light gone green.

But once in a while, we crest, like a river, like a street, and we can see the tapestry unrolled around us. Just for a minute.

Mary McNamara can be reached at

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