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From the Pueblo to the Sea

September 12, 2012

Those of you who arrive in Los Angeles for the 2013 AAG Annual Meeting next April 9th- 13th will want to get to know the lay of the land—all 468 square miles of it. But since this is impossible in a place as big as L.A., let me offer you my suggestion for a trusted path through the city.

Beginning less than a mile north of the conference headquarters, Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the best choice for exploring the City of Angels via one of its many historically significant, culturally diverse, and topographically distinctive routes. Set against L.A.’s grid of streets and freeways, Sunset carves out a 24-mile journey from the pueblo to the sea where a handful of stops will allow you to experience at least some of what the city has to offer.

First Stop: the Pueblo

Sunset begins as Cesar Chavez Avenue crosses over the nation’s first expressway, built along the Arroyo Seco—a mostly dry watershed and tributary to the L.A. River. Right around this point, just west of Chinatown and two blocks north of the Disney Concert Hall, Gabrielino Indians and Mexican nationalists had competed with the Pobladoresi and incoming Italian and Chinese merchants over the identity of L.A.’s original placitaii. Today the view from this original center of LA offers a glimpse of the men’s federal lock-up facility featured on the cover of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz and the reflective facades atop Bunker Hill that have come to symbolize Edward W. Soja’s postmodern metropolis.iii

In 1901 the City Council officially recognized this portion of Sunset Boulevard as one of its primary crosstown routes. Soon after, the city’s own chain gang of indentured convicts got to work widening the road that had been used as a rail route since the 1880s. Once the public street cars were decommissioned by the 1960s, this became the entrance to a car-crowded company town where urbanization was as much precipitated by the growing film industry as by real estate speculation.

Second Stop: Hipster Haven

After a century of neighborhood change and redevelopment—including the contested construction of Dodger Stadium in Chávez Ravine—the Echo Park district retains some of the old L.A. aesthetic of Victorian homes and steep public staircases ascending chaparral cover hills. What was once dubbed “Red Hills” for its population of radicals, artists, and bohemians, including Charlie Chaplin, this area remains one of L.A.’s hippest areas. Trendy cafés, juice bars, and restaurants featuring locally harvested produce coexist along side papuseriasiv run by Salvadorian immigrants and taco stands run by fifth generation Chicanos.v

The geographic and cultural centerpiece of this stretch of Sunset Boulevard has become a series of 30-foot-high retaining walls built by the Works Project Administration in 1940. Built to shore-up the sandstone hillside that crumbled down onto Sunset every 5-7 years with each El Nino weather event, the walls have since the 1970s been used as a platform for expression by muralists, graffiti writers, and graffiti-muralists who have long called the neighborhood home.

Today the huge graffiti-mural Los Angeles: untitled by Eye One and Cache signals your arrival to the neighboring district of Silver Lake: home to a Saturday farmer’s market and the new Sunset Triangle Plaza—the city’s first street-to pedestrian- plaza conversion.

Third Stop: Hooray for Hollywood

After enjoying your tacos in Echo Park and soy latté in Silver Lake, the Hollywood Sign atop Mt. Lee comes into focus. As local historian Leo Brady puts it, you can judge a place’s worth by how often it gets destroyed in disaster films.vi The next stretch of Sunset has welcomed space aliens and meteors, as well as earthquakes and tornadoes, for over 50 years.

You will pass miles of Art Deco film studios and hidden sound stages before arriving at Vine where you can watch a real red carpet première take place as you leave Ameba Records with a handful of used vinyl. Since the Hollywood Walk of Fame is just a block north of Sunset, you may be led away from your route by a seemingly endless path of celebrity names set in the concrete at your feet.

Don’t get too full or tired out, the next few miles of Sunset is packed with sushi joints, night clubs, and music venues with lines longer than most movie openings.

Fourth Stop: the Strip

Sunset Boulevard becomes the famed “Sunset Strip” as it gradually ascends the base of the Hollywood Hills and passes through the City of West Hollywood. It is here that casting agencies and celebrity sightings are as common as sidewalk cafés and monumental billboards.

Whatever your style, you will find a club or pub that suits you—from the Château Marmot and the Standard at the east end of the strip, to the Viper Room, The Whisky, and the Rainbow at the west end. Book Soup is right in between for those of you who enjoy reading in solitude amid the social cacophony outside. If you do leave the Strip early enough, you have plenty of time for more sightseeing as you slalom along the twists and turns of Sunset as you head farther west.

Fifth Stop: Winding Westward

The next several miles of Sunset are more of a high-speed dash than a leisurely drive, but there are plenty of opportunities for pulling over.

As you pass the Beverly Hills Hotel with its pink art deco facade and meticulously manicured lawns, you will arrive in what was once Hollywood’s suburban fringe. It is here that film industry elite built mansions and expatriate wartime intellectuals owned homes during the 1940s. If you want specific directions to the doorsteps of famous people you can buy a “Map to the Stars’ Homes” from vendors stationed along the way.

Before Sunset jogs along the Santa Monica Mountains and through the Sepulveda Pass, it becomes two narrow lanes as it skirts the northern edge of the UCLA campus, moving past the high gates of Bel-Air, beneath The Getty Center perched high above the ever-crowded 405 Freeway, through Brentwood and Palisades, before bringing you to your final stop.

Last Stop: the Sea

You will have a perfect view of the sunset as Sunset Boulevard ends at Pacific Coast Highway just a few miles north of the Santa Monica Pier. If playing arcade games or riding the Ferris Wheel on the pier is too much to face after a day of sightseeing, you can lay out on the wide-open beaches with a view of Catalina Island.

Since your day will have been spent getting in and out of a car or on and off of the #2 bus, which runs the entire length of Sunset, you might return to the conference via one of the main routes that transect the city—or, to really earn your Angeleno credentials, take the 10 Freeway and sit in traffic like the rest of us.  

-- Stefano Bloch
California State University, Northridge stefano.bloch@csun.edu

 Stefano Bloch recently completed his dissertation, The Changing Face of Wall Space: Griffin-murals in the context of neighborhood change in Los Angeles, at the University of Minnesota.

iSpanish for “settler,” the Pobladores of Los Angeles where the first 44 inhabitants of the original pueblo in 1781.
iiSpanish for “central place” or “small plaza.”
iiiDavis, M. 1990. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles. Verso. Soja, E.W. 1989. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. Verso.
ivA papuseria serves papusas, a traditional Salvadorian dish of beans and cheese incased in a thick handmade corn tortilla and served with mild red sauce and chopped cabbage salad.
vAmerican of Mexican decent.
viBraudy, L. 2011. The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon. Yale Press.

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