The panorama I could see from the bus stop, on the other hand, practically screamed "L.A." I watched cars race by on a nearby elevated section of the 60 Freeway. Behind that were the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. Across Atlantic stood a Pep Boy's outlet occupying a white, vaguely Art Deco building with a tall, mast-like sign marking the corner. A few doors south was Yummy Teriyaki, a cylindrical building that takes its design cues — including angular strips of metal — from the hard-edged L.A. School architecture of the 1980s.
Selling teriyaki in a Latino neighborhood inside a Frank Gehry knockoff? Only in Southern California.
A few feet away, Jessica Rodriguez, 18, and her friend Marcos Garcia, 15, were waiting to cross the street to get to the Gold Line station. They were both wearing Tom's shoes, snug untucked Oxford shirts and skinny jeans.
Each was holding an iPhone, and they obligingly removed their ear buds to answer a few questions. They told me they'd taken the bus north along Atlantic from Bell, where they live, and hopped off in front of Pep Boy's. They were planning to take the Gold Line west to Boyle Heights.
The train, Rodriguez said, is faster than the bus, and safer.
When I asked her how they got to Boyle Heights before the light-rail line was built, she looked puzzled.
"What do you mean?" she asked. It was as if she could barely remember life without that option.
"Oh, OK. Two Metro buses. All the way through HP," Rodriguez said, referring to Huntington Park.
Her generation — the so-called millennials — is more receptive to public transit than their parents, research shows.
That may be due in part to their nearly umbilical attachment to smartphones, which make it easier than ever to plan a trip on public transit. Phones can tell you when the next bus is coming, the best place to transfer and where to get a good cup of coffee once you've arrived. And you don't have to put them down while riding a train, as you do when you're driving a car.
On another afternoon, I drove the length of Atlantic with Douglas Suisman, an architect and urban-design consultant who works in Santa Monica. His concise and shamefully underappreciated 1989 study of the history and design of the boulevards — "Los Angeles Boulevard: Eight X-Rays of the Body Public" — remains the most important take on this gigantic subject.
Suisman was writing at a time of deep pessimism about Los Angeles civic life, and he lamented efforts by architects and developers "to bypass a public realm which most suburbanites are presumed to fear." The view was even darker in Mike Davis' hugely influential 1990 "City of Quartz," which cataloged "the destruction of accessible public space" in Southern California and labeled L.A. a "fortress city."
But the fortress is showing some cracks. During our drive, Suisman noted how technology and new kinds of mobility are making a mark along Atlantic.
In Long Beach, especially, signs of a boulevard reconnecting with the public realm — and providing fresh reasons for people to climb out of their cars — were impossible to miss. The city of 460,000 has adopted a new motto: "The Most Bicycle Friendly City in America." It has spent $20 million on bike lanes and other cycling programs.
In the Bixby Knolls neighborhood, just north of the 405 Freeway, a new initiative allows residents to walk or bike to the Trader Joe's market on Atlantic and have their groceries delivered free — by couriers who are also on bikes. Further south, Suisman noted the electronic tickers above several bus stops, powered by solar panels and announcing when the next few buses would arrive.
"That's getting up there to San Francisco and Portland levels of sophistication," he said admiringly.
A few weeks later, on one of my final walks along the boulevard, I stepped inside Bagatelle Records, two blocks from where Long Beach's first protected bike lane, running along Broadway, crosses Atlantic. The owner, a bearded and garrulous bear of a man named Steven Mintz, was standing at the rear of the narrow, dimly lit store.
"I'm seeing more people down here riding bikes," Mintz said. "It's amazing how this generation of youngsters, a lot of them don't want to drive. When we were young, we wanted our licenses as soon as we could get them. But my own son, he doesn't want to drive."
I asked why not.
"I think it's an embrace of the green thing," Mintz said. "I'm strictly a carnivore, but my son is a vegetarian. I'm a driver and he's not. I'm saying, 'Are you my son?'"
In a number of ways, the changes remaking Southern California's boulevards build on ideas pioneered elsewhere — not just in Portland and San Francisco but in New York, Europe and Latin America.
Yet there is no place in the country where they have greater significance or potential than in Southern California, which has been the center of American car culture for nearly a century. However tricky it promises to be politically, transforming L.A.'s major streets holds the promise of profoundly reshaping the city's basic character.