There are few parts of the city that elicit such romantic thoughts of their former glory when briefly mentioned. Who am I kidding? It’s mainly just Westwood Village.
In the 1980′s, this WAS the place to be. Trendy restaurants. Movie theaters filled with movie-goers. Sidewalks too filled to walk. Street performers with a giddy audience of locals, not just tourists. I remember growing up in Canada and thinking this was only something could happen in a chase scene during an episode of Chips. Just think of Ponch and Jon chasing through the happiest street festival known to man where even mimes, puppeteers and jugglers are actually appreciated for their craft. That was Westwood.
It remained to be this happy little enclave as the rest of the city was evolving. Somehow, Los Angeles went from the euphoria of hosting the Olympics to being gripped by the fear of gang activity. Sure, a majority of the city wasn’t largely affected by the violence, but after just living through the Night Stalker, everyone was on edge.
Night after night the news was reporting shootings at an epidemic level. The culture was spreading to popular music and films. Your parents would tell you not to wear red or blue for the fear of being misidentified.
Westwood continued on. Was there a gang element? Yes, but the sidewalks were so filled that it seemed like a non-factor. Until it was.
On a typical saturday night of January 1988, shots involving rival gangs were exchanged leading to the fear had by most, that someone not part of that world, someone like me would lose their life by a random act of violence. Police presence was heightened. Ordinances were passed. It didn’t matter. People were too afraid. Westwood now had a stigma and it had no idea how to deal with it.
The rest of the westside saw opportunity, as places such as the 3rd Street Prominade and Century City Plaza provided a new safe home and addressed another issue Westwood couldn’t tackle….parking! Previously, people would put up with the $5-$15 charges because the ends justified the means, but now that the village became untouchable, West LA took it’s car culture elsewhere.
Storefront by storefront, Westwood was slowly emptying out. There would be glimmers of hope, but it was shuffling the deck on the Titanic. Best Buy opened. Circuit City closed. Target opened. Bye bye Best Buy. Restaurants would come and go, but even in a community that was nestled between the largest(and still growing) university in the state and the reemergence of the commercial real estate market on Wilshire, Westwood still had trouble pulling it’s head out of water.
Ask yourself, have you ever seen a McDonald’s go out of business?
Making matters worse, the iconic Fox Westwood Village theater which used to be earth central for every significant movie premiere has seen a big cut in its business with a majority of them moving to the LA Live complex. Factor in a growing homeless problem you can see how big this elephant has grown.
Give credit to Westwood for trying to get back on its feet. A few years ago, the city built a four story parking garage to provide more cheap short-term parking, but with it nestled on Broxton at the hardest place to reach in the village, the time you spend might not justify the money you save. Oh, I forgot to mention that new developments on Glendon and behind Gayley took away as many spots, so it’s a wash.
Westwood also created a business district that focused on making tourist happy by hiring “ambassadors” to provide information, clean the sidewalks and spiff up the place. They even try their best to distract the homeless. Does this make it any better? Yes. But say that word as if you were questioning it.
These foot soldiers are nice to have, but just nominally. At least 95% of the people on the sidewalks are students or professionals located in the area. If anything, Westwood needs to find a way to get tourists there before trying to keep them.
If there’s any silver lining that’s not apparent to anyone let me call out why there is some hope. Transportation. The purple line is slated to bring a subway stop right to its heart. Even though it’s a generation away, it should alleviate the traffic on Wilshire which already mimics the 405.
While there’s no promise of it yet, there’s also early talk of finding a way to link the valley to Westwood through the Sepulveda pass. Wouldn’t that have been money better spend than widening the 405?
The last bit of hope is from an idea that I’m admitingly biased towards. Despite the obstacles, many people still choose to cycle up to campus, be it students or staff. There are bicycle friendly ways to approach the village, but not go through it. The main thoroughfares of Gayley and Westwood Boulevard are painted with sharrows, but street traffic is intimidating enough that it scares away most novice riders.
A lot of talk has been given to protected bike lanes across Los Angeles, but no place in the city would benefit more than Westwood Village. Isn’t the reasoning obvious? Parking is already limited. Businesses are already hard to get to. Expo Rail is coming. Letting more cyclists reach them wouldn’t be a positive?
I credit the community for banding together and ponying up the resources to confront their future. There comes a time though where progress needs to be evaluated and enough time has passed. With the surrounding infrastructure in place, maybe money spent on the business improvement district can actually improve businesses.