CityDig: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of Miracle Mile

This 1929 map shows a thriving shopping destination on land that was once sprawling oil fields
Gillespie’s Guide and Atlas of Los Angeles, Gillsespie Guide Company, 1929
Gillespie’s Guide and Atlas of Los Angeles, Gillsespie Guide Company, 1929

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An impatient Angeleno driving west on Wilshire (and stopping at every stoplight) would hardly describe the journey as miraculous, yet there is a reason why a portion of that grand boulevard is called Miracle Mile. Once, the section of Wilshire to the west of Western was just an unpaved wagon road surrounded by barley fields, bean fields, and the occasional herd of grazing cows or sheep. Even before it was lined with fields, the road was a Tongva Indian trail that led members of the tribe from Yangna to the La Brea area, where they gathered pitch. Gaspar de Portolá passed through what would become the mile, as did Father Serra.

As the 20th Century dawned, the land was still rather dormant—that is, until oil was discovered around the La Brea tar pits. The flatlands were soon liberally dotted with derricks pumping the crude out of ground that would someday be paved with retail gold. A. W. Ross, though, saw Hollywood booming to the north and Beverly Hills blooming to the west, and he had a different vision. He figured this straight shot of road between the old metropolis and the blue Pacific could become a shopping destination, away from the crowds of downtown streets like Broadway and Spring. So for $54,000 he bought 18 acres between La Brea and Fairfax. Naysayers mocked his plan as sheer folly. In their eyes, Wilshire was  just a remote byway through unseemly oil fields with no streetcar access. Ross, however, foresaw a new way of shopping enabled by automobiles and all that open space. He imagined a broad, well-lit boulevard, large parking areas, and impressive edifices—and that’s what he built. Wilshire Boulevard was even the first street out west to use timed streetlights and dedicated left-turn lanes to aid the flow of traffic.

By 1928 the automotive age was in full swing. With more and more of Detroit’s mass-produced products rolling into L.A., Ross’s out-of-the-way shopping destination no longer seemed so remote. Business took off, and the unlikely commercial strip was dubbed “the Miracle Mile” by Ross’ pal Foster Stewart. Reyner Banham would later call the stretch “the linear downtown,” and Wilshire set the standard for the future development of the city. In 1929, the year this map was made, a grand Desmond’s department store opened in Mid-Wilshire with plenty of easy parking. It was followed by Silverwoods, Coulters, the famed Bullock’s Wilshire (which opened weeks before the great stock market crash), and the glorious May Company in 1939. Other landmark buildings like the El Rey Theater, the Wilshire Center Building, the Dominguez-Wilshire Building, Ralphs grocery, and Mutual of Omaha gave the street a distinctive atmosphere. Suddenly, the retail epicenter had shifted from downtown to Miracle Mile, where it flourished well into the 1950s when suburban shopping centers began singing their siren songs. Many large churches and synagogues even moved from downtown out onto Wilshire in the 1920s, and the street soon became known as the “home of million dollar churches.” In its heyday, the Mile of Many Nicknames was also called “the Fifth Avenue of the West,” “Glamour Boulevard,” and “America’s Champs-Élysées.”

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, the miracle of the mile faded, and many of the retail establishments closed, leaving empty storefronts behind. The revolutionary traffic system of the once-great street became clogged, and parking became more and more difficult. But over time, Miracle Mile has been reborn. Fine publishing houses moved in, and museum row developed around LACMA, with the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Craft and Folk Art Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum all flourishing today.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.