A while back the new Hollywood was being shown off to a reporter by a city council deputy. Everybody, it seemed, had heard the story: The long-neglected entertainment district was rising from the dead. Crime was down, a street-lighting project had made the area attractive to businesses, a 90,000-square-foot shopping mall on Sunset Boulevard was planned near new restaurants, and housing was being rehabilitated. Investors were picking up properties and turning them around as fast as they could. Where Dirty Sally’s massage parlor had once lured tired shoppers, now the shiny S.P.K. boutique blinked out at passersby Mother’s Fun Place had been replaced by Jerry’s Tropical Fish. The reporter stopped briefly to speak with an investor. “I’m getting more and more business every day,” said Hungarian immigrant Adelberto Bunyik inside his new used-TV store. “Business is growing.”
On the sidewalk, the deputy spelled out the city’s revamped approach to Hollywood. “The local community and businesses,” Dan Woodridge told his companion from the Los Angeles Times on that day in 1977, “are saying to the junkies, pimps, and hookers, ‘We don’t want you. Go to the movies here and have a good time, but we live here and we want it to be a safe place.’ We think we’ve turned that corner.”
So it is today, three decades later. The junkies and pimps may not get invited to The Chronicles of Narnia, but any journalist who’s covered Hollywood and its long series of unrealized comebacks knows the dance between the media and politicians and boosters. A “walk” would be suggested, an interview with an upbeat local arranged, a visit to a construction site planned. Invariably, someone would mention a corner being turned. No more. What has changed most over the past decade—besides the fact that when no one was looking Hollywood became the greatest civic comeback in Los Angeles history—is that a corner turned has become a point tipped.
“Have you read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point?” I was asked inside the 101 Coffee Shop by Josh Kamensky, director of communications for L.A. City Council president Eric Garcetti. “I believe we are definitely at the tipping point that Malcolm Gladwell writes of,” Kerry Morrison, director of the Hollywood Entertainment District, told me. “I think,” said John Given of C.I.M., a real estate company that owns the Hollywood & Highland complex, “that we should start looking beyond The Tipping Point.”
The Tipping Point is a book about ideas and trends: the manner in which they grab ahold of people’s imagination, why they spread, how they last. Hollywood may be the best idea L.A. ever came up with, but because it languished so long as a wasteland and inferno—a home for bong craftsmen and secondhand wig merchants—its return makes the people who worked to save it anxious. Nineteen million visitors a year now come to Hollywood. More than 60 nightclubs, bars, and restaurants operate on or adjacent to Hollywood Boulevard, and more than 3,000 apartments and condos—selling fast for as much as $1 million apiece—will appear over the next few years within a one-square-mile grid. The only story more amazing than the Kodak Theater becoming the new home to the Oscars is Vine Street becoming the new home to a Bed Bath & Beyond. Even Adelberto Bunyik’s used-TV store has been replaced by a handsome medical plaza.
In the early 1970s, 65 massage parlors made up Hollywood’s business community. As late as 1992, more than 50 people were killed there in a single year. Runaways, dope dealers, street mimes, Pretty Woman—it was hell. But where the Holiday Inn had fled, the unheralded is occurring: a W Hotel rising over Hollywood Boulevard. How to account for that? With explanations, tipping points, offered as fast as story pitches in a development meeting. The subway saved Hollywood. Nightlife saved Hollywood. Hollywood & Highland saved Hollywood. Scientology saved Hollywood.
Each theory makes sense (well, almost), each clashes with its competing versions, each has its antecedent. Hollywood, we have been told, was poised for a return in 1970 (a new mass transit plan), 1977 (Bunyik’s used-TV store), 1984 (a 23-story Ramada Inn that failed to appear), and 1998 (Hollywood & Highland’s ground breaking). If you’re superstitious, you need a good explanation to reassure yourself that Hollywood is here to stay. Without it, the whole shebang could slide backward like Norman Bates’s car into the swamp, a lurid Hades where one goes to score crack cocaine, a great erotic massage, a murder weapon, a psychedelic Afro wig.
1. The Women Saved Hollywood
In which a group of the fairer sex gather for martinis and open our story
Inside Musso & Frank Grill on a recent Thursday evening, one explanation for Hollywood’s comeback was seated at table 31. Gathered around chicken potpies and icy martinis were nine women between the ages of 40 and 60 who have run the chamber of commerce (Julie Kleinick), the Community Redevelopment Agency (Helmi Hisserich), the Hollywood Entertainment District (Kerry Morrison), the L.A. Free Clinic (Abbe Land); women who have organized business improvement districts (Mary Lou Dudas), who have organized against slumlords (Roxana Tynan), who have organized the rehabilitation of historic buildings (Christi Van Cleve). Eight women plus one mentor, state assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, who as a councilwoman in the 1990s more or less brought them together. She was their Yoda.
I had heard about the Martini Dinner, a quarterly salon that began at Boardner’s bar eight years ago at the suggestion of Karen Diehl, a PR executive. The Martini Dinner is perhaps the most talented group of women ever to work on municipal restoration in Los Angeles. “I think if you rewound the tape and put men in our positions,” Morrison told me, “the city would have come out differently” Hollywood, the most famous town in the world, has no City Hall, no mayor, no local government, no dog catcher. It has a genial, aging booster named Johnny Grant, who is the symbolic head of the chamber of commerce but whose vested power doesn’t extend beyond the Walk of Fame. For reasons no one can explain, Hollywood also has its women, who swooped in during the ’90s and adopted the city like it was a lost child. “We’ve basically participated in an ideal to turn this place around,” says Hisserich, “instead of extracting equity or profit from it. Sometimes I think, ‘To hell with the mothering stuff,’ but it is amazing we have so many women in one place in positions of leadership.”
A Lilith Fair shrunk down to lilliputian size and mellowed with gin—for weeks I looked forward to the Martini Dinner. “Women are less competitive and more sharing of information than men,” one member informed me. “Women are more nurturing, more comfortable in a group,” said another. No man, I repeatedly was warned, had ever been allowed at the table. What would happen there? No testosterone. No macho head trips. Just pure accepting waves of estrogenic harmony.
“Oh, Helmi, we’re not going to have the union discussion today, are we?”
Julie Kleinick was glaring at Hisserich, who looked like she’d been head slapped with a haddock. A free-market debate was running like wildfire across the table, dividing the Martini Dinner into camps; Kleinick, holding the free-market flag, was in Hisserich’s face. So much for harmonious waves. Already tonight we’d seen brawls over the value of methadone clinics, disagreements over the imminent yupster invasion, free-for-alls over dog parks versus homeless shelters. And it was only 8:15 p.m.
Hollywood is at a moment when, blessed by development, it faces unanticipated problems, enigmatic problems, more problems than it’s ever had before. Five years ago the problem was simple: You couldn’t pay someone to live at Hollywood and Vine. Now office space is disappearing into a black hole of runaway condo development, possibly threatening jobs—good union jobs, Hisserich worried. Next in the condo pipeline might be the Capitol Records building, where EMI is located.
Hisserich pushed on, her voice rising. “EMI’s identity, is here in Hollywood,” she said. “If they leave, if the building goes condo, it’s a signal for other entertainment firms to leave.”
Kleinick was quiet. In Hollywood, she thought, it’s always a fire drill when it comes to city planning. Morrison, who’d had just about enough, decided to join in. “I have to say, Helmi, that that’s the first time I’ve heard that argument. Internet downloading is the economic change EMI is worried about, not a few buildings like Capitol Records going residential.”
Hisserich shot a look at Kleinick and Morrison, then drew a line in the sand. “It’s not going to happen,” she growled.
The table as one fell into silence.
2. Hollywood & Highland Saved Hollywood
A modest proposal in which a $615 million, five-story mega-mall brings optimism to all
If you visit Kerry Morrison’s office on Vine Street and know what to ask for, she will bring out one of the more fascinating works of 21st-century cartography: the Hollywood Entertainment District Public Urination Map. A foam core board representing 36 square blocks, the urination map plots every emergency pee break and casual midday piss witnessed by the district’s security guards. (Actually, the map’s name is a misnomer; there’s defecation all over it, too.) Each incident of alfresco relief, and there are hundreds of them, is noted by a pushpin. Clumps of multicolored pins dot the map—prime alleyways and deserted parking lots. At the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga, adjacent to the Greyhound bus station, a virtual Birnam Wood of urea rises off the foam.
Hollywood is a magnet for the young and the newly homeless. Eighteen drop-in centers and outreach facilities service the street population. “If you are in a tragic family situation in Duluth or Des Moines,” says Morrison, “you don’t run away to Palos Verdes or Glendale. You buy a one-way ticket to Hollywood.” Kids with nowhere to go and no one to turn to have been stepping off the bus into Hollywood since the 1960s. By the mid-’90s an entire business community had sprung up serving the runaways’ every teenage desire: head shops, tattoo parlors, knife counters, liquor stores, pizza joints, adult-book businesses. With cocaine and heroin dealers picking up the slack, it was pure Valhalla—a Main Street for those about to go ape shit or just vanish from the face of the planet.
It was around the mid-’90s that a commercial real estate developer named David Malmuth began asking his friends, “When was the last time you went to Hollywood Boulevard? Who did you take there?” Today Malmuth is a member of the Grand Avenue Commit tee. He is fond of expensive suits, and because he looks like he belongs to a circle of friends who prefer to shop on the Champs Elysees, you can imagine the replies he got. Working for Disney, Malmuth had overseen the 1995 renovation of Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Theater, a project that led the makeover of Times Square. Meanwhile, as Hollywood foundered, Pasadena resuscitated its Old Town, Santa Monica restored the 3rd Street Promenade, and Beverly Hills built parking structures to shore up its Golden Triangle. By 1995, about all Hollywood Boulevard had going for it to spur revival was the Hollywood Galaxy, and that was in foreclosure.
Yet an interesting string of events landed Malmuth on the corner of Hollywood and Highland. As far back as 1970, the City of Los Angeles had plans to build rail stations at Vine and at Highland. In 1992, as the MTA was finishing its blueprints for the Red Line, a proposed deal for a shopping center at Hollywood and Highland fell apart, leaving a large assemblage of land in play.
The MTA bought the parcel. “We had five acres,” says C.I.M.’s John Given, who worked then for the agency, “but it was a decade when you could not get a single significant retailer to look at Hollywood. I thought, ‘Maybe if we could just get a Ferris wheel in there, we’d be ahead of the curve.’”
Given had an office mate who was friends with Malmuth, and the three would get together to brainstorm. “David was thinking,” says Given, “‘If New York, why not here?’” Disney, Malmuth’s employer, already had the El Capitan Theater across the street. But after years of being bogged down in Long Beach with a similar development proposal that went nowhere, Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, had no interest in another risky project.
Malmuth left Disney and eventually persuaded TrizecHahn, a Toronto developer, to take on the Hollywood & Highland project. “The trick of Hollywood & Highland,” says Jackie Goldberg, who spent a half decade working with Malmuth, “was that someone had to say, ‘I believe in this area so much, I’m going to put a shitload of money into it.’” Today there is a Gap on Hollywood Boulevard, a Virgin Megastore, a Sephora. An H&M is coming and, perhaps strangest of all, a Whole Foods. Yet until Hollywood & Highland appeared, the Hollywood grid, at least as the national retail chains saw it, resembled the foam-core map stored in Kerry Morrison’s office.
3. Jackie Goldberg Saved Hollywood
A full accounting of one progressive hero’s journey into a slough of despond
The weekend after Jackie Goldberg took the seat of L.A.’s 13th Council District, she went out of town. It was July of 1993. When she returned, she found that the Brown Derby restaurant on Vine had been demolished in her absence. “I had asked city hall,” says Goldberg, “‘One thing I don’t want you to do is demolish any historic buildings until we’ve had a chance to look at them. No demolition permits.’ They gave them the go-ahead anyway on my first weekend. It was horrifying.”
Hollywood’s business owners, were they speaking to Goldberg, could have told her as much would happen. But they weren’t. Most had opposed a gay liberal Democrat with a Free Speech diploma from Berkeley riding into Gower Gulch to save them. They’d already been working at that themselves for some time, and it was a real Gong Show. Mr. Blackwell was paid to publicly announce the “Ten Worst-Dressed Buildings,” a ploy intended to shame property owners into tidying their storefronts. Hollywood didn’t rebound. The chamber of commerce asked merchants to sign pledge cards guaranteeing their sidewalks would be swept; an attempt was made to hand out $500 tickets citing dilapidated awnings and weathered paint. Hollywood didn’t rebound. The Hollywood Revitalization Committee was formed, then the Hollywood Economic Alliance, the Commercial Area Revitalization Effort, the Hollywood Cleanup Committee. Hollywood didn’t rebound, though the boulevard, unsettled by subway construction, did open up and fall a good 60 feet toward perdition.
“The reason those efforts failed,” says Goldberg, “is that people assumed they could save the boulevard in isolation. Our view was, you had to first deal with the slum housing and the drug dealers be fore you could ask business to come in here.” Goldberg brought an army of young community organizers and let them loose on the neighborhoods north and south of the boulevard.
“They were instilling classic progressive organizing strategies,” says John Given. “Jackie was brilliant. Every community meeting before she arrived had been a disaster. It was part of the dissociation of Hollywood then. The communities around it had pulled back, the studios had isolated themselves, and you were left with too many people with too much time on their hands. Because she had the credentials and was committed, Jackie dismissed them all. She just said, ‘Forget it.’”
It’s hard to find something in Hollywood that Goldberg is not credited with: better housing, safer neighborhoods, more parks, an organized business community, a restored economy. “I always thought of Jackie as being like Nixon going to China,” says Roxana Tynan, who was Goldberg’s economic deputy. “I don’t think there was a single property owner who supported her. I know not one would talk to me. But she was up front, totally transparent, and she wasn’t afraid of conflict.”
For a progressive, Goldberg’s strangest legacy is the annual winter appearance of Jack Nicholson and Joan Rivers outside Ryan Seacrest’s window. “The Kodak Theater was a big step for the Academy to take,” says Tynan. “They wanted to ensure they were not getting stuck in a project overwhelmed by T-shirt shops and tattoo parlors.” The city was putting up $30 million to build the Kodak and another $60 million to build a garage beneath it. For her money, Goldberg wanted the Academy to sign a 20-year agreement guaranteeing the Oscars on Hollywood Boulevard. The Academy was less than interested; it wanted a short-term lease of a few years. The negotiations dragged.
“Finally,” says Tynan, “we were in a meeting with the Academy’s president, Robert Rehme. Jackie said we couldn’t make a $90 million investment without a long-term agreement. They wouldn’t budge, and a good negotiator has to know when to walk.”
“I stood up,” Goldberg remembers, “and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry. I understand your concerns. But I can’t commit all this public money for a handful of years. This is a dream of mine, but it’s not going to happen. I’m very sorry.”
“I was like, ‘Jackie! Sit down!’” Tynan remembers. “I was trying to restrain myself from grabbing her. I thought I was having a heart attack. But—she’d stood up, she’d taken the step back, and she was turning to leave the room for good.”
The Academy signed.
4. The Movies Saved Hollywood
A brief observation on the inconstancy of picture houses
Before Jimmy Kimmel and The Gap came to Hollywood, it was not uncommon to see disoriented tourists jumping from their rental cars and running into the T-shirt shops to ask, “Where is Hollywood Boulevard?” Hollywood, they knew, was where movies were made. Something in addition to knife counters and lingerie shops should announce that. The tourists, of course, might as well have gone to Burbank or North Hollywood or West L.A., where Warner Bros., Universal, and 20th Century Fox have existed since the 1920s. Besides Paramount on Melrose Avenue, it has been decades since the big studios made movies in Hollywood.
Hollywood Boulevard is where the movies were watched—a half mile of palaces like the Fox, the Pantages, the Vogue, the Paramount, the Loews, the Egyptian, and the Chinese. The studios, relocated to the Valley and the Westside, retained their identity by staging premieres of their product up and down Hollywood’s neon way. In the 1950s, films could play there for as long as a year; sometimes they played nowhere else. By the late ’60s, however, theaters were opening across L.A.’s suburbs. Families no longer went to the boulevard for a movie; they went to the mall. The palaces folded or went triple-X, and massage parlors filled the area. In this respect, it was the movies that destroyed Hollywood.
When Disney opened the El Capitan in 1991, of all the original palaces only the Chinese remained successful. The El Capitan was the first example in recent memory of a national corporation arriving on the boulevard and making a profit. “If you try to trace Hollywood back to a catalytic development,” says Kerry Morrison, “it is the El Capitan. It preceded Hollywood & Highland by several years, and it showed that a beautiful historic building would draw people to the boulevard.”
Emboldened by the El Capitan’s success, the CRA bought the Egyptian Theater in 1993 as a home for the American Cinematheque. The Northridge earthquake struck a year later, making FEMA money and insurance funds available to begin the theater’s restoration. In Jackie Goldberg’s office the Egyptian was viewed as bait, a lure to attract the American Film Institute into the ArcLight project that was rising around the Cinerama Dome. AFI, in turn, was bait for something much larger. “The Egyptian and the ArcLight,” says Hisserich, “are the two significant developments that brought the entertainment industry back into Hollywood.” If the city could woo the Industry, even if only for a movie and popcorn, then maybe it could get the Oscars—and an annual broadcast that could sell Hollywood Boulevard to the world as the Rose Parade sells Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard.
“We spent a lot of money to get AFI in here—too much money,” says Jackie Goldberg. “But we thought if we could get AFI, then maybe we could draw in the Academy. And our goal was always to get the Academy in Hollywood.”
5. The People Saved Hollywood
A heinous occurrence followed by a farewell and late apology to the citizenry
On a winter night in 1994, inside an abandoned Hollywood building that was home to as many as 50 squatters, a young man named Robert Lee Bryant is said to have made a few remarks in support of white supremacy. No one that evening was apparently swayed by Mr. Bryant’s line of reasoning. Led on by two 20-year-olds named Edward “Scarface” Fernandez and James “Snoop” Snook, a group of runaways chased Bryant, dropped a brick on his head, burned him with cigarettes and lighters and candles, broke several bones in his body, urinated on him, beat him with metal poles and wooden clubs, choked him, and finally killed him. Hollywood is one of the most racially complex areas of the city: Separate neighborhoods are made up of Thai, Armenians, Central Americans, Russians, Orthodox Jews, Mexicans, and the affluent, mostly white population in the hills. Looking back, Bryant may have picked the wrong part of town to go to bat for the Aryan Nation. But he would have appreciated the irony of his murder’s official designation, which police labeled a hate crime.
Malfeasance in Hollywood in the 1990s—as perpetuated by runaways, organized gangs, homeless addicts, drug dealers, car thieves, and rapists—was on the whole not motivated by ideals like racial harmony It was strictly business for the 18th Street Gang, which kept the boulevard off limits much of the year. “They controlled the area,” says Mike Downing, who was the LAPD captain of Hollywood between 1999 and 2005. “They trucked in illegal immigrants to sell dope, they were responsible for 60 percent of the homicides. Homeless addicts took responsibility for the street robberies, car burglaries, and thefts.” In 1991, out of 16 L.A. police precincts, Hollywood experienced the sharpest rise in violent crime. The following year 52 homicides were reported. Neighborhood Watch groups like the Hawks and the Sentinels were formed to protect locals, but runaways had no protection from themselves. Among its many crimes, Snook and Fernandez’s gang was also thought to be responsible for raping and sodomizing a homeless woman who had the mental capacity of an eight-year-old, after which they employed knives to carve satanic symbols into her back.
In 1996, Jackie Goldberg sat down with a group of Hollywood Boulevard property owners and asked them to create a business improvement district, committing $600,000 to crime prevention and cleanup for a street on which they were already throwing away money. Six years earlier, when the chamber of commerce had attempted to organize a crime-watch group, more than 80 merchants had gathered to inform the chamber that there was no chance they were going to take responsibility for the boulevard. Goldberg’s odds for success were slim.
The Holiday Inn said no. The Church of Scientology said no. The Galaxy couldn’t say no—it was in foreclosure—but Citicorp, which held the paper on the bankrupt theater, stepped up to the plate. Eventually, a six-block Hollywood Entertainment District was formed by 40 property owners (it would grow to 240 members along 18 blocks). The district’s first order of business was to hire a security company that could begin enacting citizen’s arrests. In 90 days, crime within the district dropped 60 percent. During the next two years, more than 2,200 arrests were made.
The boulevard, however, was bullet proof compared with the neighborhoods north and south of it. “Yucca Street at Las Palmas was an open-air drug bazaar,” says Roxana Tynan, “and housing was run by straightforward Dickensian slumlords.” Ninety percent of Hollywood’s flatlands are occupied by renters, but Goldberg’s office only heard complaints from the other Io percent—hysterical complaints. “There were people calling in,” says Goldberg, “to complain that if we developed Hollywood, the sun would be blocked out at certain times of the day.” In L.A. politics it’s the squeaky NIMBY wheel that gets the grease. “Our goal,” says Tynan, “was to teach the renters to squeak.”
Immigrant families in four slum buildings were organized, and two lawsuits were brought. Two of the four buildings eventually were purchased by the Community Housing Corporation and refurbished into affordable housing. The Regency Liquor store at the corner of Yucca and Las Palmas, which had allegedly been moving as much cocaine out of its parking lot as it was Chivas, also was bought by Goldberg’s office, which then had it razed. One day the Yucca Corridor’s residents came up with an idea to divert drug traffic by installing metal poles at intersections. Commuters were exiting the 101 south at Highland, making drug buys on Yucca, then hopping back onto the freeway at Hollywood Boulevard. The drug market dried up. So far this year, just three people have been murdered in Hollywood.
The poles are still there. The families, however, like the drug dealers before them, are on their way out. “As Hollywood changes, gentrification becomes an issue,” says the CRA’s Helmi Hisserich. “The market in Hollywood today is a housing-driven market.” The more that developers flock to Hollywood, the more attractive old apartment buildings become. “A lot of the people who organized to get rid of the gangs and clean up the neighborhoods,” says Hisserich, “are now getting pushed out to Lancaster.”
6. Nightlife Saved Hollywood
A proof of the infallibility of good cocktail service as it relates to urban renewal
The club’s name was the Rhythm Lounge. It sat behind a stark facade on east Melrose, across the way from a towing yard, down the block from a little Mexican joint where Governor Jerry Brown liked to take Linda Ronstadt for brown rice burritos. A smooth unknown named Ice-T worked as the Rhythm Lounge’s MC, what passed for the house band were two urchins named Flea and Anthony Kiedis (a year later they would begin calling themselves the Red Hot Chili Peppers), and the brashest customer at the bar was an in-your-face blond named Madonna. It was 1981, and if you didn’t know the club’s address, you might have sworn you were drinking in SoHo.
It may not be true that Hollywood as we know it emerged from the Rhythm Lounge’s doorway. But a fantasy of L.A. did—the fantasy in which Los Angeles becomes New York. Also hanging out in the club in 1981 was an anti-painting art student from Manhattan named Jon Sidel, who wore his hair long like a surfer’s and had a winning smile. Settling in to attend UCLA, Sidel quickly found himself underwhelmed by L.A.’s nightlife. He missed Max’s Kansas City. He missed CBGB. He missed New York’s East Side, where rich kids, new wave kids, no wave kids, gay kids, artists, and b-boys mixed together in the same rough-and-tumble barrooms.
In 1989, Sidel and his business partner, Sean MacPherson, created a rock and roll bar—Hollywood’s first—across from the defunct Rhythm Lounge. MacPherson says he thought of Small’s K.O. as the embodiment of a “John Fante rock and roll lifestyle,” but Sidel still had New York in mind. “I always wanted to open places like that Stones song,” Sidel once said, “where everyone gets in and my punk friends sit down next to rich people.”
More than 30 bars and restaurants have come out of the partnership between MacPherson, Sidel, and the people who worked for them, places like Swingers, the Good Luck Bar, the 101 Coffee Shop, A.O.C., Fred 62, and Jones. Chris Breed, who opened Hollywood’s White Lotus and the Sunset Room, admired the duo’s nightclubs. So did Craig Trager, who opened Daddy’s and the Well in Hollywood, and Ivan Kane, who opened Deep and Forty Deuce.
To speed the paths of men like these the city flooded Hollywood with liquor licenses. The Hollywood Entertainment District, sitting between Selma and Yucca and La Brea and Cower, alone supports 88 permits. “There is a lot of evidence,” says Kerry Morrison, “that nightlife leads the way in rejuvenating a neighborhood, because the kind of people that will invest and patronize nightclubs and bars like the edgy feel of rundown places.” The benefit that follows is capital influx—millions of dollars of investments in building renovations, in signage and lighting. ‘And then the sheer population that comes in at night,” says Morrison, “makes the area safer because you now have street traffic and pedestrians.”
Drawn in part to its nightlife, as many as 7,000 people will move into the Hollywood core in the next few years. “Just think,” says Elizabeth Peterson, a professional club expediter who has helped open more than 100 bars and restaurants, “you will send your clothes down to the dry cleaner, go across the street to dinner, then walk down the block for a movie.” It’s an alien concept in L.A.: high-density urban living with amenities for the middle class. But the homeless will still be in Hollywood, and so will the runaways burning themselves up on methedrine, and after midnight, the 25,000 half-soused kids noisily finding their way back to their Mazdas. Since condos are selling for the price of a three-bedroom home in South Pasadena, two arguments are circulating through town these days. One says that L.A. is becoming more like New York, and people will pay to experience social complexity.
But those who can afford the high six figures for a one-bedroom condo, goes the opposing argument, need to get up in the morning. They’re also fond of forming community action coalitions. “Once we get enough residents in here sick of the nightclubs and unhappy with the noise,” says Tricia LaBelle, owner of Boardner’s bar, “we’re going to have 2,500 people marching down Hollywood Boulevard complaining that they can’t sleep. You get enough people upset here and it’s going to put everyone out of business.” Anxiety like that may be why the Hollywood Entertainment District has begun rethinking its message. “Our planning consultant,” says Morrison, “sat down with us and said, ‘You have established a brand image of Hollywood being a 24/7 community;, but at what point do you want people to sleep? You might want to rethink that into being a 19/7 community.’”
Hollywood: A 19/7 Town! It doesn’t exactly make you want to lick tequila off a stranger’s neck. “People in New York live with noise and activity like this,” says Peterson. “People will do it here.” Maybe, though not many New Yorkers are clamoring to move into an open loft over the Coke billboard in Times Square. Manhattan remains a city of fairly quiet side streets and underground transportation. The hot young urban things moving into the Broadway building may quickly discover that instead of spending Sunday nights raging full-on at Mood, they’re actually happier home alone with a tub of Chunky Monkey.
7. Robert Nudelman Saved Hollywood
Wherein the lone cry of the solitary city dweller is finally heard by all
First, a horse story:
Leroy C. Maxwell tumbled into a washout and became trapped in a torrent yesterday for two hours, saving himself by the lusty labor of his lungs in throwing his alarm to distant houses. While he struggled in the water, with his feet weighted by heavy boxes he could not move, the water crawled from his waist to his chin, and beside him, his two horses, drowned, swirled around him, buffeting him and beating him down.
Three times one of the horses came to the surface, neighing each time for help. At the third time, the dying horse saw its master, and made a mighty plunge to struggle nearer. Its hoof grazed Maxwell’s head and then the horse disappeared. The other had been borne down with the wagon pole acting as an anchor.
The accident occurred at Hollywood Boulevard and Cahuenga Avenue.
This incident was published in 1916 in the Los Angeles Times. As a telling, it includes the fictional excesses of early-20th-century American journalism (did the dying equine really take a “mighty plunge” to reach its master?), but as an allegory it holds a couple truths. First, in Hollywood it has long been a struggle—even for horses—to keep your head above water. Second, despite the architecture, the town bears little resemblance to what it once was.
Hollywood was founded by devout Midwesterners seeking to create a Christian utopia ruled by blue laws. It was their luck that they discovered a fertile piece of land that would produce both Caligula and Last Tango in Paris. Poker parlors, hillside brothels, East Coast gangsters on the lam, Prohibition “synagogues” that offered “sacramental” wine by the gallon—Hollywood has long been a heart of vice darkness. For a relatively brief period, the ’30s through the ’50s, the boulevard was center of the universe for discretionary spending and star gawking, the Brentwood Starbucks of its time. Hollywood was a factory town, built around the studios, and its main street was where the talent went to do business. Stores like Lenore’s Hot Shoppe, Griffith’s Sporting Goods, and Knobby Knits drew entire families, who dropped jaw whenever Fatty Arbuckle walked in slugging down a Coke. It didn’t last. Unlike Paris Hilton, Arbuckle had class. His type soon retreated like Laotian tribesmen to the subtropical highlands of Beverly Hills. The great actors were replaced by transgender hookers, then by Scientologists, gangsters, and eventually the Simpson sisters. Hollywood Boulevard’s storied heyday, in retrospect, lasted just a little longer than Melrose Avenue’s hip heyday.
From the 22nd-floor offices of the CRA, you can gaze down on that pileup of history, an alluvial fan of architectural detritus deposited at the mouth of the Cahuenga Pass. Between Vine and La Brea juts one of the largest formations of ’20s and ’30s classical revivalism found in the West: the Equitable Building, the Taft Building, the Guaranty Building, the Security Trust and Savings, and others. There are art deco structures like the Pantages Theater and the Max Factor Building, and Spanish colonial revival buildings like the Avalon Theater and the Hollywood Wax Museum.
“Hollywood is a huge symbolic district,” Helmi Hisserich said on a recent morning as she looked northward from her desk toward the boulevard. “The irony is, the developers who built it didn’t make it to last. A lot of it is poorly constructed and rococo. Let’s make it look Egyptian! Let’s make it look Chinese. Maybe it’s because we don’t attach enough historical importance to downtown, but when it comes to history, Hollywood carries the water for the city.”
And a solitary figure named Robert Nudelman carries the water for Hollywood. Nudelman is the former president of Hollywood Heritage, a preservationist, an obstructionist, a savior, a sorehead, a dreamer, a compulsive, an archivist. He is 50 years old, tall and a little portly, lives alone with no apparent source of income, and has about him the slightly worn air of some of his favorite buildings. It’s safe to say he knows more about Hollywood’s history than any living person. The walls speak to Nudelman. He is a constant bedside companion for whichever block of town is currently dying. On most days you can spot him walking to a planning meeting or a development hearing, clutching his frayed black leather satchel, ready to block the backhoes and bulldozers. He has a savant’s recall and a pointillist’s focus. He cannot see the big picture from Hisserich’s window, he will not subscribe to the long-term vision of current 13th District councilman Eric Garcetti. His first crush was on the Hollywood of Mack Sennett and Clara Bow, and in hindsight, he picked the wrong Lolita. Nudelman says he’s watched as a third of Hollywood’s historic corridor has been demolished since he came to its rescue out of the backwaters of Tucson, Arizona, in 1977. Inside he carries an awful secret. Like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, he may have helped destroy the thing he loves most in attempting to save it.
Nudelman’s story of how he came to protect a piece of Hollywood, only to have the forces he inspired set loose to wreck the town, is just that—one story. There are at least six others. Six hundred others. His could be as fake as any movie script. It’s certainly as poignant as some.
This is Nudelman’s story: “They were tearing the El Capitan Theater down. I remember talking to the CRA, and I said, ‘This theater is on your preservation list, and no one is speaking out to save it.’” Disney’s plan in 1989 had called for splitting what was then the Paramount into two theaters, installing an art deco scheme on their walls, and renaming them the Boulevard Theater. “They said that only 20 percent of its original interior was left,” says Nudelman, “but I wouldn’t agree. We got a guy with mountain-climbing gear to go in there in the space behind the wall, and he found that 90 percent of the original theater was intact.”
Energized, Nudelman called the branch of the Disney company overseeing the remodel. “I talked to someone at Buena Vista,” he says, “and I asked if they were thinking of preservation. They said no. I was the first person to bring it up with them. So I sent some information on theater restoration over. Michael Eisner apparently found out about it and gets on the phone to his staff and asks, ‘What’s going on over there in Hollywood?’ And he was told, there’s this guy that wants the theater saved. That was me. Eisner said, ‘Will it shut him up if we do it?’ They said sure. So they saved the theater.”
The remodeled and renamed El Capitan Theater opened in June of 1991 with the premiere of The Rocketeer. “Eisner came down and saw that it was a huge success,” says Nudelman, “and then made a deal to restore the New Amsterdam in Times Square. David Malmuth, who did that, then came out here to do Hollywood & Highland. Hollywood & Highland brought the Academy Awards back to Hollywood, and everything else followed.”
Nudelman’s rescue of the El Capitan may have placed a dozen other buildings he loves at risk. Gone today are the Garden Court apartments, the TAV Studios, the Brown Derby “Once the economy goes up,” he says, “so does the pressure for demolition that we have now.” In the near future loom battles over the Palladium, CBS Columbia Square, the Earl Carroll Theater, and the old Spaghetti Factory. Nudelman will be at each showdown, wielding his satchel. “Because of one preservation battle,” he says, “all these other things have happened since. You win one and it triggers the rest.”