The view from the 12th-floor penthouse of the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel is one the finest in Los Angeles. It is also as romantic as the couple who once inhabited the celebrity suite: Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Below the darkly wooded octagonal dome of the second-storey bedroom, the Los Angeles basin stretches out in a 360-degree panorama. The Hollywood Hills are to the north, the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles to the south, downtown skyscrapers soar to the east, and to the west, 16 km past Beverly Hills, lie the beaches of Santa Monica. But the romance stops abruptly at street level.
The hotel’s neighborhood is a semislum. The crime rate in Hollywood’s core is estimated to be four times that of Los Angeles; 21 per cent of the population lives in poverty; nearly half of the residents are foreign-born, and the average family income is $20,000.
The sleek shops and cafés of Hollywood’s glittering past have been replaced by a depressing landscape of abandoned buildings, rundown homes and stores selling cheap and shoddy goods. The streets, littered with trash, are peopled by bored teenagers and transients, drunks, drug addicts—and the homeless. To tourists who arrive
expecting to see an opulent Hollywood shimmering with stars, it is often a bitter disappointment.
Glamor: In an effort to improve conditions, the City of Los Angeles has joined with businessmen and other civic groups in a billion-dollar redevelopment program to bring glamor back to Hollywood.
Already new construction is under way, and the crime rate is dropping. In 1982, the area recorded 558 incidents—ranging from homicide to theft of wallets—related to prostitution alone. Last year that number fell to 148. Some activists claim that the key to reform is ridding the district of its low-life inhabitants; but nearly all observers say that ways must be found to bring wealthy consumers back into the commercial areas, and to satisfy tourists’ curiosity about the area’s role in cinematic legend.
The core of Hollywood—flat land nestled below the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains—was conceived as a conventional subdivision. Its first developer laid out an orderly grid system in 1887, for residential areas. Then, in 1911, the Nestor Film Company of Bayonne, N.J., opened a movie studio at the corner of Sunset and Gower Streets, and the transformation of Hollywood into the world’s movie capital began. A land of citrus groves and scattered farms became home to dozens of film studios and all the accompanying paraphernalia: costum-
ers, nightclubs, shops and lavish residences.
Elegance: Hollywood’s glamor accumulated over the next three decades like layers of sequins and silk. An insatiable public watched the stars dine at the Brown Derby, attend film premières atGrauman’s Chinese Theatre— and plant their foot and handprints in damp concrete on the sidewalk in front. Big bands and dancers performed at the fashionable Montmartre Café, and by the 1930s the Academy Awards ceremonies gave gawking crowds a taste of formal elegance.
The decline of Hollywood was slow— and painful. After the Second World War, movie stars began migrating north to the hillside communities of the San Fernando Valley to preserve their privacy. Among them was Bing Crosby, who even wrote a song about his emigration. Others moved west, to the burgeoning neighborhoods of Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. Meanwhile, the birth of network television and the decline in moviegoing audiences, coupled with the rise of on-location shooting, undercut the local film industry, precipitating the decline of other businesses as well. By the late 1960s the finer shops and boutiques had vacated Hollywood Boulevard. Finally, the 1972 departure of the Columbia studios to Burbank, across the mountains, left Paramount the only major production house in the area.
Still, Hollywood historian Bruce Torrence says that he remembers the 1950s as a time when Hollywood was the place to go—especially for teenagers. “If you wanted to cruise, show off a new car, that’s where you went,” he says. But by the late 1960s pornographic movie houses
and junk stores had moved in and street people joined cruising teenagers as the neighborhood’s new population. Hollywood lawyer Marshall Caskey, who moved from Kansas to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, recalls friends taking him to Hollywood to look at “the weirdos.” Said Caskey: “It was just at the end of the hippies phase, with lots of flower children and head shops.”
Cesspool: The drug and sex shops heralded the arrival of prostitutes, pimps and other criminal elements. By the early 1980s, says Bob Taylor, captain of the Hollywood police division, the boulevard and neighboring streets had become “a real cesspool in terms of prostitution and narcotics.” Another concern arose from the growing numbers of teenagers running away to Hollywood in search of stardom. Larry Shaw, director of youth counselling at the Hollywood YMCA, said, “The kids think all they need to do is wait on a street corner and they’ll be discovered.” They often were discovered—by pimps in Cadillacs pretending to be talent agents, who would then photograph the teenagers in compromising situations or introduce them to drugs.
A Saturday morning stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, the fabled heart of the district, is a disspiriting exercise. The streets are a takeout world of pizzas, tacos and fried chicken. Within a single kilometre stand dozens of abandoned stores. The few that survive
sell an assortment of cheap souvenirs, T-shirts and plastic shoes, and seldom open before noon. One notable exception: Frederick’s of Hollywood, renowned purveyor of befeathered lingerie, at 6608 Hollywood Blvd.
Sleek: Despite its seediness, the soul of Hollywood somehow remains alive. Elements of the entertainment business have toughed it out and stayed. Hidden behind high walls and even barbed wire, radio and TV stations, record and video production companies, movie studios, prop and costume houses and live theatre continue to thrive—giving hope to rebuilders. Inside the TV studios, teams turn out weekly episodes of Cheers and Family Ties. A few excellent bookstores remain, specializing in the movie industry and selling posters and still photographs. The original movie palaces still host opening nights.
Now, new buildings are rapidly appearing. Mercedes Benz Hollywood, Inc. has a sleek, blue-toned complex just a couple of blocks south of Hollywood Boulevard. A modern municipal library, designed by Torontoborn Frank Gehry, has recently opened. New apartment buildings are under construction both north and south of Hollywood Boulevard, and some prominent production companies, including Fries Entertainment Inc., have recently moved back. Said Bill Welsh, president of the local Chamber of Commerce: “Hollywood’s biggest problem is with construction: it has stood still for 50 years. We are now building the Hollywood of the 21st century.” Glories: Last year the newly refurbished Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel opened the doors on a $55-million restoration of its Spanish grandeur. Developers are now planning to build a major hotel, office, entertainment and retail complex across the street. The Roosevelt’s Cinegrill and the Vine Street Bar and Grill are
drawing capacity crowds, and business at local theatres is also up.
Hollywood city councilman Michael Woo has visions of building a Hollywood Exposition—a giant exhibit area
recreating the glories of Hollywood for visitors from around the world. “I want to take the best of New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco,” said Woo, “and blend them in with the theatres and the old bookstores. It should attract people to live out their fantasies and encourage innovation.” Woo’s plans may never come to fruition, of course: the fabled city’s streets are littered with generations of shattered dreams. But the power of Hollywood to inspire dreamers clearly remains undimmed.
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