Walking Away from Our Sunset

A Sunset Boulevard sign, in Los Angeles, Calif...
A Sunset Boulevard sign, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In another of his installments on walking L.A.’s more storied avenues, L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne offers the perspective on Los Angeles’ future he gained by walking Sunset Boulevard the other way – i.e., from the beach to East L.A.

Hawthorne offers us echoes of familiar critiques Los Angeles, noting the disappearing sidewalks and three-story-tall hedges that line the winding street on the West side; the disappearance of Hollywood the industry from Hollywood the place; and the general sense of decay that pervades the Boulevard and its environs from the Beach to downtown.

But the columnist really hits his stride when he suggests that in the once-Jewish now-Latino shtetl of Boyle Heights we find hope for the future of Southern California. In the area along what is now known as Caesar Chavez Boulevard, Hawthorne suggests he has found the answer to Los Angeles’ unspoken challenges in a neighborhood unified by culture where the automobile is relegated to long trips and people actually walk places. He offers a similar treatment to Sunset Triangle Plaza, a block-long street cordoned off to traffic and re-landscaped for pedestrians as an experiment in neighborhood planning. Such experiences are an enticing vision, but one is left with the feeling that the future of Los Angeles is somehow wrapped up in making it more like New York City.

Whether you agree with that approach or not, Hawthorne does a great service by offering us more than a pedestrian’s travelogue, having the temerity to leap off the front page of our Sunday paper, rip our sunglasses off, and demand that we go looking for the seeds of L.A.’s next germination.

Yet I finished the article feeling like Hawthorne had more to say – or that maybe I wanted him to have more to say. Indeed, my most serious critique of the article was that it should have been about three times as long. I’ve driven the length of Sunset myself a hundred times, and the omissions leap out. Music merits barely a mention, but the Los Angeles music industry is probably more vibrant even than New York’s and Sunset is thrumming with that rhythm. (New York’s music scene and its importance to the art and the business has been in a long decline, capped by the 2008 closing of CBGBs.) Digital entertainment and advertising shops, most of them small but incredibly creative, are starting to cluster in the area. Healthcare gets a passing mention, without a suggestion that the future of Southern California – given its salubrious climate, superb research and teaching hospitals, and America’s aging Baby Boomers – may be wrapped up in the addressing needs of the aging. And as important as car-less transportation is to Hawthorne’s point, the slow-motion revolution radiating out from the Union Station/Gateway Plaza complex deserves at least a mention.

I suspect the problem was space, as it is with most dead-tree journalism. I have to believe Hawthorne wants to say much more. All of us who love California are in search of her future, and few people have the training and the gift of communication that Hawthorne has to be able to offer us some vision of what that future should our could look like. Hopefully Hawthorne is already thinking about a book on this subject: I would imagine he has much more to offer us on this theme than what the editors of the Times allowed him.

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