Exploring the “central beating heart” of LA

Last updated:December 22, 2021

“I can’t help but think about what life should be like for these residents in the middle of Los Angeles when everything is really only 20 minutes away.”

A stroller takes to the street and discovers modest and surprising surprises while walking through a city that is reinventing itself on every corner.

I have never lived in the heart of Los Angeles before. Even figuring out where that is can be difficult when downtown growth as a residential area continues unabated and the temptation of the East Side threatens to upset the city’s equilibrium anew. Still, Mid-Hollywood, bounded by Santa Monica Boulevard to the north, Highland Avenue to the east, La Brea Avenue to the west and Melrose Avenue to the south, forms a perfect place of Angeleno-centrality and creates unexpected beauty and hectic development and industrial gravel all in a few blocks.

A touch of green greets passers-by on Santa Monica Boulevard. Photo by Lincoln Wheeler.

Today’s stroll stays within those limits, with one exception, which is over Highland in Santa Monica and one block east towards Regen Projects, a once-up-and-coming gallery whose artists are largely on the blue-chip list, including what was once Black Flag cover artist Raymond Pettibon. Stop by December 23rd to see Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographs hanging unframed on the wall as if they were mounted in a very upscale dormitory. Tillmans is a German artist whose eyesight first caught Generation X in their ecstatic club youth. Here he shows boundless curiosity, concentrating one moment on a flower still life and visiting a construction site the next, which gives us the image of a metal grille encrusted in wet concrete.

What I loved most was a separate gallery dedicated to the photographer’s videos, including empty dance clubs flooded by mirror ball lights and the 24 hour cycle of a Los Angeles street that all unfolded in about 2 minutes.

When leaving Regen Projects, you may be tempted by the pink facade of Trejo’s Coffee & Donuts on the northeast corner of Santa Monica and Highland. It was a donut shop long before Trejo’s took over and was a safe place for transgender youngsters, as depicted in the 2015 movie “Tangerine”.

Hollywood story

Go one block west from here and start slaloming the streets of this neighborhood, down to Melrose, cut one block west, and then back towards Santa Monica. The blocks that stretch from Santa Monica to Willoughby Avenue are mostly industrial at first glance. The Art Deco era lives on in a number of these buildings, as evidenced by the decorative metal grille that surrounds an entrance and in a brightly colored fountain that is now planted with some large-leaved tropical plants. Brick warehouses hide under extensive vines that shine in autumnal colors in the oblique light of the late afternoon sun.

You’d think these facilities stretch on and on, but just as you pass through Willoughby you come across the Hollywood bungalows that Jim Morrison sang about in LA Woman. You’re a welcome sight here reminiscent of Hollywood history, whether it’s a crisply plastered Spanish Revival, a seasonally painted house with a pitched roof in pumpkin colors, or a classic, low bungalow that stands out from the rest light pink door. They vie for their survival against the constant revelations of modernist houses that stand next to them, all of which seem to have emerged from a similar construction kit. Regardless of the home, I can’t help but think about what life must be like for these residents in the middle of Los Angeles when everything is really only 20 minutes away.

Architectural styles compete for attention among Hollywood warehouses, studio lots, and modern homes. Photos by Lincoln Wheeler.

Brunch for Hollywood’s elite

The last street you will reach before our self-imposed western border is Sycamore Avenue, where you will see a prime example of rapid development. The area has become something of a magnet for Hollywood creatives in their spare time. The acclaimed San Francisco-based Tartine Bakery has opened a location here in the second part of its attempt to establish itself in Los Angeles after the pre-pandemic shutdown of the hugely ambitious space in downtown The Row. Right next door – vying for coffee hunger with Tartine – is Sightglass Coffee, which is more of a gourmet marketplace than a simple caffeine outpost. A little further on, you’ll find Just One Eye, which challenges you to have enough poise to walk through its doors and browse the avant-garde fashions inside. Across the street is Gigi’s, which has managed to become a pandemic-era hotspot for Hollywood’s young elite. You may find some relief when you see their employees clear tables on the sidewalk before dinner, perhaps to save your favorite show from being shut down. There’s a place called Super Vinyl down near the corner. For a moment I expected snuggly overalls that hug your body to suffocate, but no, it’s a record store stocked with freshly squeezed and shrink-wrapped products, whether it’s a recipient of the best new music or a jazz classic in its hundredth New edition.

A cement plant is a lighthouse for the industry in Hollywood. Photo by Lincoln Wheeler.

Progress is advancing

What abruptly halts this celebration of the new just a block away is a true industrial symbol that is still going about its trade and going on as long as there is light in the sky. Cement trucks with swollen bellies stand in line for their ration from the factory, which stands there and looks like a star on the run from a mug photo. How is it that this precious land wasn’t created by a dollar-eyed developer? Or do they realize that they will not be able to realize their vision when the store for the building blocks is closed? Either way, it stays there, as it has been there for as long as I can remember, away from the rapid changes in the environment that surrounds it. Unlike me, Tartine doesn’t need the poppy seed tea cake.

When you return to where you started and walk east on Romaine Street, you will discover an ugly structure, not only in its appearance but also in its ability to conjure up memories of your car disappearing somewhere in Hollywood and again behind its chain-link gates shows up. This is where your car goes ashamed when your parking meter has expired and a tow truck has taken it away. For those of you who have never visited Hollywood Tow, consider yourself unusually lucky and make a sacrifice to the park gods, which is to feed a series of quarters into your fellow citizens’ expired counters. This, too, cannot save you from humiliation. It’s a place to remind you that sometimes a Hollywood ending is tragedy. Maybe it’s better just to walk tonight.

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