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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: Los Angeles 2

The first of three excursions. This one takes us west along Wilshire and Sunset and looks at shopping and housing.

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The former Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard was designed by Myron Hunt and opened in 1921 on the site of a former dairy farm. Marking the city's rapid expansion westward, the hotel eventually fell into conscious neglect and closed in 1989. There was talk of a Trump purchase, but the Los Angeles Unified School District eventually bought the site for $100 million, with plans to open a high school either in the remodeled hotel or in a new structure to be built on the site.

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In September 2004, the superintendent of schools announced that most of the building would be destroyed but that the facade would be saved and that the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, restored to its original, Moorish style, would become the school auditorium. Predictably, his announcement did not settle the matter: some groups continued to press for the buildings complete demolition; others, for saving more or all of it. In the event, complete demolition began in September, 2005. An ethereal echo was heard a few months later. It was called "Last Looks: The Ambassador Hotel," and it was a photo exhibition at the City Hall. The new school opened in 2010 as the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. Price tag: $578 million.

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Fairfax and Sunset: a Southern California Avenue of the Giants.

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The model artfully tugs at his suspenders--as if he needs them.

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Lights, camera, action: Rodeo Drive.

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Chateau Boutique.

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Shopping Becomes the City: Tiffany, Porsche, Versace, Bulgari, etc., all at the corner of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire. The private street is "Via Rodeo."

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A window on the 1950s: the shopping center at the southeast corner of 3rd and Fairfax.

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Across the street: The Grove, as new as the freshly transplanted palms.

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On the other side of that fortress wall there's an open mall. This is a Rick Caruso project, reportedly with a million dollars' worth of nursery plants--and a 3,500-car garage. It's in the background, pretending to be a hospital.

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More Grove: like Disneyland's Main Street, it evokes 1900 America all the way down to the new streetcar tracks.

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Adjacent to The Grove: the Holocaust Memorial in Pan Pacific Park. Was the barbed wire a macabre reminder of concentration camps? Seems unlikely, but were sharp points on steel bars inadequate?

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Highland and Hollywood, the day before the Oscars. The corridor connecting the street to the Kodak Theater was lined by shops--Louis Vuitton, Swarovski, and so on.

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An interior courtyard, headlining Dumbo in Babylon. Despite the eleborate decor, the mall was sold by its builder at a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Need some air? Try Robert Irwin's Central Garden at the Getty Museum in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains.

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From the museum.

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It's early, and the creek hasn't been turned on yet.

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"All systems go."

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Creek's end: the azalea maze.

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Detailing along the walk to the maze. Think you can buy this kind of stuff at Home Depot?

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Context.

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The museum, designed by Richard Meier, rises over the garden but doesn't smell nearly as good.

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Like an ocean liner sailing into Westwood.

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We've forgotten the people! Tut, tut. In the flatlands north of Wilshire, this house at 800 North Mansfield sold in 2002 for $550,000.

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Hollywood has plenty of people who can't afford such prices. For them, apartments will do--in this case off Hollywood Boulevard west of La Brea. By the way, three quarters of the kids at Hollywood High qualify for free lunches.

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Kids with money go to private schools. If that makes you uncomfortable, you'd better get over it. Meanwhile, there are plenty of houses that still evoke that glorious life-in-the-sunshine that made Southern California a magnet.

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Ugly duckling? Not quite: you're looking at one of 58 nearly identical homes in the Ain Tract, along Meier Street about three miles inland from Venice Beach. The homes were designed by Gregory Ain and built by Advance Development, which sold the first of them in 1948 for $11,800. The rest sold very slowly, however, and both builder and developer not only lost money but abandoned plans for a second phase. Tastes change, however, and these homes now command a premium of 15-20% over nearby, conventional homes. That translates in this heady environment to prices exceeding $500,000 and even $600,000 for homes of 1,050 square feet. You can't even enlarge the homes, because the tract has been designated a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, the first in L.A. to protect post-war houses.

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The people who live here love the layout and swear that the homes feel bigger than much larger ones. The two blocks at the heart of the tract were laid out with a rear alley, leaving the street running through a green sheath.

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The alley in question.

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The most interesting thing about these homes, which on the face of it are crushingly identical, is that landscaping has given them much more individuality than their conventional neighbors have. Here, a front yard with fountain.

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Closer.

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Here, vegetation gone rampant.

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Here, a serious gardener.

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Closer.

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Entrance.

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Across the street: conventional homes on what Reyner Banham once called The Plains of Id.

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What hath money wrought? An upscale Beverly Hills driveway.

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The same place: seclusion at Hollywood and Hillcrest comes at a price. The assessor valued the parcel in 2002 at about $10 million (taxes were about $100,000). In 1956, the assessed valuation was $26,000.

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West to the sea and Venice, seen here long after its canals had been restored in 1994. Venice of America was a speculative undertaking by a sharp-pencilled dealmaker of the day, Abbot Kinney. Incorporated in 1911, the city joined Los Angeles in 1925. Two years later most of the canals were filled to create roads (the Grand Canal is now a traffic circle), but six canals at the relatively undeveloped southern end of the project were saved, not out of some enlightened esthetic but because the few residents who lived there couldn't afford the dirt and the dump trucks.

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Redevelopment was proposed--and resisted--in 1957, but in 1965 over 500 buildings along the beach were demolished. New commercial developments followed, while the community was divided between renters who wanted to keep the place cheap and property owners who had other ideas. You can see who won. An 800-square-foot bungalow is worth $400,000.

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From the beach.

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Just to the south, Marina del Rey. The streets are fantastic: Palawan, Panay, Marquesas, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Bali, and Mindanao. The development dates to 1965, more than 75 years after the Santa Fe railroad tried reclaiming the swamp at the mouth of Ballona Creek. Now some 6,000 small boats dock in basins that interfinger with condo-laden artificial peninsulas.

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Wedged between LAX and the Palos Verde Hills, the cities of Manhattan and Hermosa Beach worship the beach.

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Despite the proximity of the venerable Chevron refinery at El Segundo, the beach is clean and treated like the front yard.

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Couch potatoes are strictly prohibited. These are bike lanes, in case you weren't sure.

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Blonde, brunette, redhead.

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The mall at another of the beach cities: Santa Monica.


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