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On the Boulevards

Wilshire Boulevard, a Main Street that stands apart

Los Angeles has long tested out its grandest ambitions on the street, where innovation has arisen even as dreams have been dashed.

March 24, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • In Koreatown, Wilshire Boulevard’s prominence as the neighborhood’s central hub is illustrated in the bustling Wilshire Vermont Station, which includes an apartment complex and businesses.
In Koreatown, Wilshire Boulevard’s prominence as the neighborhood’s… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

We think of Wilshire Boulevard as synonymous with Los Angeles — as our Main Street.

But Wilshire has always stood apart from the city it slices through. It is denser and more urbane, its architecture more vertical.

No, rather than act as a perfect symbol of Los Angeles, Wilshire has operated as a proving ground for new ideas about architecture, commerce, transportation and urbanism in Southern California. For nearly a century Wilshire has been L.A.'s boulevard of prototypes, a string of hypotheses 16 miles long.

Photos: On Wilshire Boulevard

It's where we first tried a linear downtown, stretching west toward the ocean, instead of a traditional, consolidated one at the foot of City Hall. It's where L.A. built its first synchronized traffic lights, Art Deco landmarks and clusters of high-end apartment towers.

Most of the major boulevards The Times has examined in this series over the past year had faded in prominence in the post-war, freeway-building era, only to find new momentum more recently. Wilshire, though, never lost its reputation as the place where Los Angeles embraced and tested out the future.

But if Wilshire has been the prow of L.A.'s ship, there have been quite a few icebergs along the way. The street's history is full of dreams dashed in high-profile fashion. It's where plans for a subway to the sea and the tallest building in the world — among many other big-ticket projects — have risen and stalled.

Photos: On Wilshire Boulevard

Wilshire is our boulevard of cold feet and second thoughts, the place where Los Angeles confronts its deep ambivalence about putting a low-rise, car-dominated and essentially suburban past behind it for good.

The result on today's Wilshire is a lurching, piecemeal utopianism that can take you from a world-famous piece of architecture to a weed-choked lot, from a realized ambition to an abandoned one, in the space of a few blocks.

Some of Wilshire's fundamental contradictions can be traced back to the man who gave the boulevard its name. H. Gaylord Wilshire was an entrepreneur and a socialist; he was a publisher, a frequent candidate for public office, a friend to George Bernard Shaw and a promoter of quackish health products.

"I have no doubt that when we have Socialism … Southern California will be the most thickly settled part of the American continent," Wilshire wrote.

That deeply optimistic if politically inconsistent notion was Gaylord Wilshire in a nutshell. Socialism, he believed, would pack Los Angeles with new arrivals — and therefore be exceptionally good for business.

In 1895 Wilshire, with his brother and father, bought a triangle-shaped parcel of land just west of downtown. Shortly after he filed a plan for a new subdivision on the site, with a road he called Wilshire Boulevard running east-west across the middle.

The growth of the boulevard from that modest start was more happenstance than grand plan. To the west, Wilshire was eventually linked with Nevada Avenue in Santa Monica. In 1934, Wilshire was extended east and connected to downtown with a causeway across MacArthur Park.

Wilshire Boulevard is the product of a dream that nobody ever dreamed, not even Gaylord Wilshire himself. It's a world-famous street that came together in fragments.

This fissure between ambition and reality is at the heart of the street's character. There are moments when you are walking or driving down it — in the thicket of apartment towers in Westwood known as Condo Canyon, say — when it seems fully and comfortably urban.

But there are others when its diverse, inchoate nature is plainer to see; there's no other street in Los Angeles that shows so many faces to the public. The low-rise section of Wilshire cutting through Santa Monica has an entirely different feel than the stretch that runs alongside the fairways of Los Angeles Country Club, to say nothing of the downtown skyscrapers marking its eastern end.

Wilshire also lacks many outward signs of car culture. As the boulevard has grown denser, and real estate along it more expensive, automotive businesses have simply been priced out. You can go several miles without seeing any of the gas stations, auto-body shops and drive-ins that were so central to Wilshire's identity in the first half of the 20th century and remain such a fixture on L.A.'s other major streets.

Now, Wilshire is stuck in a kind of limbo. The car culture on Wilshire has faded, but a comprehensive rail system and renewed sense of pedestrian culture have yet to take root.

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