December 6, 2021

LA Revelations 2: Wilshire Stories

To understand Los Angeles, it helps to understand Wilshire Boulevard.

 

The boulevard is a 25-km east-west arterial that transects west LA, a section of which was ‘donated’ to the city in 1895 by real-estate developer (and outspoken socialist) Henry Gaylord Wilshire on the condition that there be no rail lines and no trucks.  Wilshire consequently was one of the earliest examples of how commercial districts would shift from being streetcar-centric to avenues of motordom.

This art-deco masterpiece – Bullocks Wilshire – was a store that headed out of downtown to a site near Wilshire and Vermont in 1929 to be closer to its affluent suburban customers and their newly purchased automobiles.

Though it faces Wilshire with this landmark tower, most customers were expected to enter through a porte-cochere from the rear parking lot:

After the war, that parking lot would probably have been built out front – but, more likely, not built at all as retail continued its commute out to ever more car-dependent suburbs.  Inner Wilshire had begun its long decline along with the neighbourhoods west of downtown.  But today, another transformation is underway, as more investment anticipates the completion of a major subway extension of the Red Line (now renamed the D Line).

Wilshire connects some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods, commercial complexes and major institutions in LA, like Hancock Park, Century City and UCLA.  Around 2024, it will be a string of Metro stops, from downtown to a major hospital complex, each with a distinct identity and huge anchors of ridership.

Wilshire – the boulevard built on motordom – will, in a lovely historical irony, potentially be one of the most successful transit corridors in America.  And that’s despite every attempt to stop it from happening: voter rejection of funding authorizations, homeowner battles from Hancock Park, federal legislation, school-board lawsuits, construction screw-ups … and a general sense that transit just doesn’t work in LA.

 

But of course it does: Los Angeles despite its image, has an average density that’s greater than New York.  However, let’s acknowledge an American reality: urban transit in the US, with a few exceptions, is class- and race-divided.

That was immediately apparent to this Vancouverite who did without a car for a week in the city and used the bus and train system for almost all trips.  Thanks to transit apps and Google maps (and the fact that the bus system has been free since the start of the pandemic), I had no problem getting around.  But most times, whether on a bus or train, I was the only one who looked like me – white and male.  The system, especially the bus network, may be one of the largest in the country and is indispensable for essential service workers, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, but it’s often stuck in the traffic of those who can’t imagine using it.

 

It may take the Olympics before some LA residents will use transit for the first time, since, like in Vancouver 2010, driving to a venue just won’t be an option.  For others it may take some time to figure out that the Wilshire line is a superior choice for even local trips, say from Westwood to La Cienega.  As for the cultural shift that changes the social status of transit, that’s maybe the greatest challenge of all.  But I have a suggestion to help it happen.

Given the LA cliche that every waiter is working on a screenplay, here’s my scenario for a series where a disparate collection of Angelenos who live and work along the Wilshire corridor find their lives intersect in dramatic, comedic and coincidental ways:  A Korean immigrant trying to find herself and love in a strange yet familiar culture, a Hancock Park matron and heritage warrior who led the fight against the Red Line, a Jewish film historian dismayed by the Academy Museum, an architect/developer who has hubristic plans for La Cienega, a Rodeo Drive designer with, um, personal issues, a Century City lawyer who knows too much, a UCLA student whose father was active in the 1992 Insurrection in Koreatown, a veteran from the Afghan war whose life and body are being reconstructed.

What brings them altogether?  The D Line of course, where every station has a story, stories of darkness and sunshine in a city the world hadn’t seen before, a city where everyone uses transit – a series that could never have been done in Los Angeles until the city and its people shared the same spaces on an underground train.

You’re welcome, Netflix.

 

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Comments

  1. So true. Some years ago my family and I were staying at the Fairmont Miramar, at the foot of Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, just above the beach. On our way out the door we asked the concierge where the nearest bus stop was. He said “I have a car for you whenever you want.” We said we wanted to go by bus to see the city from a different point of view. He gave us a sort of pleading look and said “I have a whole string of Mercedes right outside the door,” pointing to the taxi stand. We said “it’s ok, we’ll find the bus.” The bus stopped right outside the hotel gates but if he knew it, he didn’t let on. Miramar guests don’t ride the bus.

    It was an eventful ride all up through Brentwood and Westwood to Hollywood and Rodeo Drive and as people got off the bus, one by one, not a single person looked like they might be going home. They seemed to be the “help”, going off to work up long driveways, eventually leaving us all alone on the bus — alone except for the video advertisements, endlessly cycling: immigration lawyers, bail bonds and Quinceañera dress shops. It was one of our most interesting days in the city.

  2. A great report from LA (Vancouver’s doppelganger in so many ways), and a terrific idea for a Netflix series! Thanks Gord.

    Covid permitting, we will be down there next month and I had already planned to revisit the Wilshire corridor.

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