Walking Wilshire

Wilshire

When I moved to Los Angeles over a decade ago, the only Wilshire I knew was the one I’d drive to get to Santa Monica: traveling through Beverly Hills’ tourist-trodden retail and Westwood’s Condo Canyon until it dead-ended at the Pacific Ocean. But in the intervening years, as I began to bus, bike and walk more, I slowly got introduced to the eastern half of Wilshire. Home some of the city’s densest and most diverse neighborhoods, plus some pretty exciting and innovative transit projects (hello, BRT lanes!), this end of Wilshire has quickly become one of my favorite places in the city to explore. It’s also one of the most interesting streets, history-wise, as the “Millionaire Socialist” Henry Gaylord Wilshire originally donated the land to the city with the stipulation that it be the first LA street designed exclusively for cars.

On a sunny April day (National Walking Day, in fact), I walked the first half of Wilshire, from its start in downtown to Fairfax Avenue, to see what this six-mile stretch of street could tell us about what kind of city we live in today. I recorded sound at 59 stops along the way (including interviewing 10 local residents), and took dozens of photos in an attempt to capture an “audio snapshot” of the boulevard. I also mapped all the photos and linked all the interviews to their photos and locations, so you should be able to get more information about any place I recorded or photographed.

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I then composed a poem (download here, text below, with links to more audio) that summarized my feelings in rhyme. My story is part of a series of downloadable podcasts curated by the great Edward Lifson as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents to celebrate CicLAvia’s Iconic Wilshire Boulevard event, where those very same six miles of streets will be open for walking, biking and architecture-gawking on Sunday, June 23.

I sadly, will not be in town for this CicLAvia, so I hope to have turned my adventure into a kind of walking guide so you can experience all the weird and wonderful Wilshire I discovered along the way. If you are planning on walking CicLAvia, Los Angeles Walks will be leading a WalkLAvia from Wilshire and Grand starting at 9:00 a.m. UPDATE: Here are details for 2014′s WalkLAvia. And of course this information does not expire after CicLAvia, it can be used anytime, and I’d love to hear what else you stumble upon out there. Enjoy!

Walking Wilshire (A Poem)

Most know its string of glitzy addresses ending in a Pacific Ocean view
But Wilshire Boulevard offers some of the most diverse glimpses of L.A. life, too

Slicing through the basin, it creates a cross-section of the population
And as the first major east-west arterial it delivered new ideas about transportation

“Cars only!” was the idea of Henry Gaylord Wilshire, the Millionaire Socialist
So I walked Wilshire’s eastern half to see if his century-old vision still exists

I began at One Wilshire, which traffics gigabytes instead of papers
Here data flows like the office workers who scurry between skyscrapers

A few blocks later is the construction site of the 70-story Wilshire Grand
Soon to be the tallest west of Chicago (but don’t tell San Fran)

Over the 110 freeway the landscape rises and splays
I stopped at La Parrilla for margaritas under Charlie Chaplin’s gaze

The storefronts explode with Mexican pop music and travel ads for Guatemala
It’s a shower of colorful hand-painted signs and swap meets selling empanadas

The streets swell with busy bus stops and heavy pedestrian activity
These are some of the densest neighborhoods you’ll find in all the city

It’s about here that Wilshire gets about as green as it will get
Curving between the lakes and the skate parks of MacArthur and Lafayette

On a hill is the Park Plaza Hotel where they’re filming right now I bet ya
Across the street the Cement Building waits like a Modernist-era extra

So many stately apartment buildings, their tops frosted with neon
I spy The Park Wilshire, The Royale Wilshire, The Talmadge, The Bryson

And the grandest dame of Wilshire, the ornate Art Deco Bullocks
An elegant facade among Koreatown’s march of white boxes

Under April Greiman’s bowl of rice, the Red Line’s a melting pot
One corner’s pedestrians speak only Spanish, the other side’s do not

The Gaylord Hotel and its friendly staff are the mid-point of my journey
Named for the man, its lobby is filled with ephemera about his life and L.A. history

Next door, salty regulars are drinking at noon at the H.M.S. Bounty
And a 30-year veteran tells me how the neighborhood’s gotten lousy

Across the way stood the great Ambassador Hotel until it was collapsed flat
All that’s left of the Brown Derby is a sad strip mall stucco hat

Down the street a peek inside St. Basil’s is a religious encounter
Edward Durell Stone’s Colonnade has the boulevard’s best fountain

The Wiltern’s another stunner, wearing teal blue terra-cotta lace
Out front a misfit streetsign proclaims Wilshire in another typeface

While Koreatown is a busy place with crowded crosswalks and Metro stations
Stepping into Hancock Park, the boulevard undergoes a transformation

It’s pretty but just too quiet, its sidewalks and benches bare
The Ebell Building holds court as a women’s club from another era

Still, there are gems, like a star for Jesus in sparkly terrazzo
And the Post-War House by Welton Becket, once a vision of tomorrow

Soon the department store Art Deco of the Miracle Mile appears
I meet an elevator operator who’s watched its ups and downs for 37 years

The tar seeping beneath my feet creates foreboding pavement ruptures
Nearby, acronyms like LACMA hint at the area’s hotbed of culture

I end, rather symbolically, at the Petersen’s cathedral to the car
And across the way, a parade of vintage streetlamps glowing like 202 stars

But this is also the place where the subway is headed
The Purple Line will pop up here, its presence firmly embedded

And after this month this boulevard will never be seen the same,
With a quarter million cyclists and walkers, the streets will be reclaimed

Henry Gaylord, in his wisdom, may have paved the way,
But now Wilshire is at the crossroads of a quickly changing L.A.

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