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The Eye by Barbara King

In a rare moment, the city finds its feet

Give us a reason to walk and a whole new world opens up.

June 05, 2003|Barbara King

All DAY SATURDAY the air felt too close, attaching itself to my body and obscuring my vision. The brain synapses wouldn't fire. The metabolism couldn't find its gas pedal. Nothing was moving, not even the clock. I languished in a thick vapor of nowhereness.

There was nothing for it but to go downtown to the office, force a little creativity on myself. And there I sat in the afternoon balminess staring at the computer. It stared right back.

OK, just get organized, I implored myself yet again. There's always that. And so I began going through the precariously stacked hill of press releases on my desk, hoping for relief from the early summer doldrums, the soupy heat that had come too soon. I needed the feeling of having done something productive even if it was something a smartish monkey could do.

By 6:45 I had gotten only a quarter of the way through all that paper and had not yet found salvation. And then, just as I was about to pack it in and call it a wasted day, I came upon a notice of an event that had vaguely registered in my mind but had gotten sucked into the vortex of too many details. The Avenues of Art & Design Walk on Melrose Avenue and Robertson and Beverly boulevards in West Hollywood. It had started more than two hours earlier, but if I hurried I could make the last hour and a half.

A crisp breeze had lowered the temperature agreeably and cleared the yellow haze. I pulled into the first parking garage I saw on Robertson and began to walk. I still didn't know exactly what this was all about, except that about 70 high-end businesses were keeping their doors open until 9 p.m.

As soon as I hit the pavement, I could sense a pulse in the atmosphere that quickened my own. Within two blocks, I knew why. Galleries and showrooms and boutiques, scores of them, had all their lights turned up to a festive brightness. Bouquets of colored balloons on long strings undulated like hula dancers in a rapturous frenzy. Music came from over here, from over there: a rumba, a lone wooden flute. And -- wonder of all wonders -- people were walking. Hundreds of them, in a lovely circumscribed area. Actually out walking. Rubbing shoulders. Talking to strangers on the street. Bumping into one another. Not going one place in particular but anywhere, everywhere, just being part of the street action.

Los Angeles is an environment that begs to be shared. The weather is perfect, the people more interesting than they're ever given credit for. L.A., wrote British author Jan Morris, is "a haven to whose doors people have come from all over the world. It is a fraternity of refugees."

We, the fraternity, need to connect. When I drive around, I look at all these great houses here, modest to magnified in scope, and I think balefully of the people hidden away inside them and of how much I'd like to know who they are, what they have to say.

I moved here a little less than two years ago, and one morning I set out toward Beverly Hills, a couple of miles from my apartment. Except for a dog-walker and a nurse pushing an elderly man in a wheelchair, I passed no other humans on foot for the first half-hour or so. By the time I reached Canon Drive, I was already feeling like a freak of nature. There was the unsettling sensation that people were looking at me and thinking: "What is she doing out in the open?" I didn't walk that way again. I haven't walked many ways at all, in fact, except with my dogs, my two best excuses for being outside a car for more than half a block.

Here in L.A., there is virtually no gathering of crowds unless there's an award attached to it. Or a beach nearby. That makes for little spontaneity in human interaction. Here, we have to arrange our human contact. We get in the car, spend two or three hours with a specified group, get back in the car, go home. L.A. is a city, and yet I still keep waiting for the city to happen. That is to say, for the people, for a visceral sense of community.

When you don't walk, you have no real sense of neighborhood and therefore no real sense of loyalty for the place you live: This is my street, this is my town.

For the first time since I've lived here, I had that exhilarating lift-off that comes from being out in foot traffic and exercising not only the muscles but all the senses. My curiosity was aroused, and so was my imagination and also my boldness. I weaved my way through a pack of people listening to the exultant Spanish music of Bandidos de Amor outside Glass Garage Fine Art Gallery, where a provocative show by surrealist painter Jorge Santos was on exhibit. Somehow I ended up in the storeroom-kitchen chatting with the owner Evan Lurie, who grew up in Italy; his business partner Warwick Sims; the actress-bartenders ("call us wine goddesses") Alison King and Sara Paul; Bandidos leader Yussi, who is from Switzerland (go figure); Portuguese native Santos; and, finally, Alexander Stettinski, of German-Swiss origin.

Two years ago, the European-born Stettinski took over as executive director of the Avenues of Art & Design, a collaborative group of more than 300 tony businesses in West Hollywood. Along he came, with his melting charm, his matinee idol looks and his Teutonic meticulousness, and he galvanized the whole district. He had two goals: Brand the district -- give it the public identity it deserved as a premier design destination -- and get Angelenos to park their cars and walk around and mingle. They did, some 7,000 strong, last Saturday night.

"It covered the full spectrum of life," Alison King said as she threw out the last empty bottle of wine. "You had the stores, you had the art, you had the entertainment, you had the children, you had the beautiful people -- you had everything."

Barbara King is editor of the Home Section.

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