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Where I Live by Aimee Bender

Light at the end of the day

Dusk comes upon a West Hollywood neighborhood and sets aglow its dwellings, each rooted in its humble past.

September 14, 2006|Aimee Bender

THE BEST TIME TO WALK around my West Hollywood neighborhood is at dusk, that magic hour of clear, soft light that Los Angeles is known for. Lawrence Weschler talks about it in a wonderful New Yorker essay on L.A. light that was anthologized in "Writing Los Angeles." He describes how he watched the O.J. car chase on TV in New York and cried -- not because of O.J., and the desperate scene unfolding -- but because of the light he saw on the freeway through the pixels in his TV: that particular clear, clean luminosity of Southern California.

Here, in my neighborhood, an hour or so before dark, the trees are stark and brisk silhouettes against the high desert sky. Everything looks a little purple and dreamy: There's an opaque glow to the light on the hills, and the Spanish-style houses and apartments that line the residential streets only add to the romance. As the sunlight fades, lights go on inside the duplex or fourplex apartment buildings, illuminating living rooms often painted in deep colors: burgundy, matte olive green, smooth gray. Or, a tiny diagonal trio of windows decorates an apartment building's second floor, each one framed in wrought iron, lit up from the inside by a hanging metal hall light. The jewels of Kilkea, of Orlando, of Willoughby, of Edinburgh.

Having grown up on the more ranchy-styled Westside, I always wanted to live on one of those streets, and in the last eight years, I've lived in three Spanish-style apartment complexes within the La Cienega-La Brea-Fountain-Beverly box. I love living in these buildings, but even better sometimes than living in one is living close enough to walk by many. Like gemstones or glittery jewelry, they look best all in a bunch. Here, the houses and apartments are most charming to me because of how they all interact with one another. Next to the brick-red painted building with the black shutters and the fountain is a pale pink building, coated in bougainvillea, which in turn is next to the white plaster duplex with the winding red staircase and carefully arranged Spanish tile. One with a garden of native plants, those black rose succulents and rounded green jade plants; another with night-blooming jasmine releasing its scent at sunset; a third displaying a cluster of agapanthus, green robot stems opening up into periwinkle blue petals.

The houses person-sized, the apartments person-sized: appealing but not big -- two-bedroom houses, or duplexes with small backyards. Something feels in proportion on these blocks. Up above, in the Hollywood Hills, everything goes on steroids. Voluminous space. Enormous windows. Ceilings made for giants. A million rooms. Down here, most of the houses feel connected to the neighborhood at large. The prices are immodest, yes, but the houses themselves have a modesty to their shape and size.

At the turn of the century, architects in Southern California modeled many of these places after the style of the missions, which had been opened along the coast in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Early Spanish settlements and Mexican immigration also made their mark on the look of the buildings. Here in West Hollywood, movie people took up residence in these bungalows in the 1920s. The stars settled in Hancock Park and Beverly Hills, and the nonstars -- the smaller actors, the crews, the many who worked behind the scenes -- often lived here.

YEARS later, the neighborhood sparked to life again as a center for gay male culture, but it took time for the houses and apartments to respond to the new vitality on Santa Monica Boulevard. I remember taking the bus out to Melrose to go thrift store shopping in the early '80s, and some of the side streets looked fairly depressed. Dry lawns. Rusting bars on windows. Thin trees.

Now, homeowners seem to have gone on a refinancing spree, smoothing out the mottled textured finish on the outsides of their stucco houses, opting instead for a smooth claylike look. There's something of a richness in the exterior plaster of these buildings -- not just rich as in moneyed, but rich as in caloric, or creamy -- a thick, smooth, buttery sturdiness to the texture of the walls. And inside: the tiled bathrooms, often in Easter egg pastels, the crown molding in the living rooms, the hardwood floors, the thick plaster walls, cool in summer, warm in winter. The arched entryways, the elegant separate dining rooms. A nook carved out of the hallway, making a built-in display case, and an old gothic fixture, still hanging.

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