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Boulevard of broken dreams

Few streets in the world are as famous as this one, but we tend to see it through a screen, darkly

Laura Barton | November/December 2013

Six in the morning, Beverly Hills. The air is filled with the aroma of expensive lawns, warming in the pallid sun. Plastic-bound copies of the LA Times lie before wrought iron gates, watched by security cameras, a chatter of birds, a glimpse of pink sky. Stand quite still on the sidewalk here, and the neighbourhood draws into focus. Box hedges, orange trees, the scent of magnolia. The ineluctable neatness of here. 

For several blocks, Sunset Boulevard is home to LA as we know it—millionaires and billionaires, Oscar-winners and entrepreneurs, supermodels and TV shrinks. And over its high fences you catch flickers of affluence: a floodlit basketball court, a sliver of turquoise swimming pool.

But stand a little longer, and you see things that do not fit so neatly. Close to where Sunset meets the curve of Foothill Road, a woman waits at a bus stop. She is nondescript—black coat, white trainers, scarf, short hair, Trader Joe's bag. She speaks softly, as if her voice might ruffle the grass. 

Her name is Petra, and she is a 64-year-old live-in housekeeper. She talks of how she moved to Los Angeles from Peru over two decades ago, and of the longing she still feels for home. Today is Sunday, her day off, so she is going to the Catholic church, two bus rides away in Culver City. The Number 2 bus draws up, and she is swallowed by the soft hiss of the doors. As the bus slides by, the faces in the windows are all Hispanic or black, all weary.

The street resumes its steady composure. A red sports car hums towards the coast, and a woman in white walks in circles in the middle of Arden Drive.

This is a story of belonging and not belonging, of preposterous wealth and immense poverty; of how, in a city where people love to be seen, so many can slip through the cracks unnoticed.

It is also the story of a single street, Sunset Boulevard, a 22-mile vein that goes from the coast to the clutter of downtown, past Sunset Strip, the Church of Scientology and on through Silver Lake. And of how, if you should choose to walk that street, from sunrise to sunset, you will come to see a city unadorned and unmade, a city at odds with itself.

Sunset was once a cattle trail. In the 1780s it ran out of the Pueblo de Los Angeles, west towards the sea. It remained a dirt road until the early 1900s, when it was paved and polished to fit the intentions of a burgeoning city. "The paving of Sunset Boulevard is one of the most important public improvements attempted in Los Angeles," said the Los Angeles Herald in 1909, "and because of this fact has been attended with more than the customary amount of difficulty." The bickering between the rival contractors dragged on for two years, with the Board of Public Works finally awarding the contract to Barber Asphalt, for $181,733.16.

Within a generation, it was given another make-over. In the early 1930s, Sunset Strip—the mile-and-a-half-long stretch that runs through West Hollywood—was paved with thick Portland cement and Warrenite Bitulithic, to match the growth of glamorous casinos and nightclubs along its route.

In the years since, Sunset Boulevard has become shorthand for what Los Angeles represents in the collective imagination. It is the Chateau Marmont and the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, the Hollywood Palladium, Schwab's Drugstore, the Directors' Guild of America and the Hustler store. It evokes extremes, from the spangled American Dream to seedy, untempered excess; the wild and peculiar destination of a country forever looking West.

California is not the draw it once was. Although nearly 740,000 people move there each year, 840,000 leave—many of them heading to Texas and Arizona, where the living is cheaper. Even the Mexicans are going off it, deterred by California's unemployment and an emerging middle class back home. But Los Angeles bucks the trend. In 2010-11, it had 100,000 more people moving in than moving out—along with over 40m tourists, who come for the theme parks and the studio tours, the shopping and the nightlife and the hope that they might just spot a celebrity. Because this is what beckons the newcomers to Los Angeles' hearth: the great, fiery possibility of it all.

At almost the precise point where Beverly Hills turns into Sunset Strip, and a short way back from the edge of the pavement, a man of about 50 sits selling Star Maps. Manuel's last job was sewing in a factory, but a lack of business led to job cuts, and now he spends seven hours a day sitting here in the semi-shade, in which time he hopes to sell "maybe four, five, six" maps.

Manuel is not alone in this enterprise. All along Sunset Boulevard you see the gawpers passing by in open-top buses, the Primetime Hollywood mini-trucks full of tourists, all waiting for their cue to snap pictures of Frank Sinatra's former home, or the Rainbow Bar and Grill, where Joe DiMaggio took Marilyn Monroe for their first date, or the shrub that Lindsay Lohan flattened with her Mercedes (she was subsequently arrested). As much as its streets are lined with high-rise towers and Art Deco mansions and Spanish-colonial houses, it is really the myths that make the architecture of this city: the whispered names, the tales of who lived, loved and died here.

It is still early as Sarah the photographer and I reach Sunset Strip; the streets below the high-rises lie smooth and quiet. We can still smell the early lilacs of Beverly Hills, hear the low call of wood pigeons as we pass City National Bank, billboards for Guess jeans and Jack Daniel's. Scratched on an electricity cupboard is a warning: YOUNG HOLLYWOOD WILL PAY.

At this hour, the Strip is largely populated by late-night stragglers and morning street-sweepers. The cleaners in their orange tabards work head-down, tidying all evidence of the evening’s revelry—broken glass swept from patios, beer bottles fished from eucalyptus hedges. A group of young women in short skirts, bare legs and leopard-print heels totter by in a cloud of boozy laughter. In a bus shelter sits a young man wearing shorts, a Chanel earring and elaborate sunglasses, ready to make his weekly journey home from an electronica club. His name is Jake. "I live far," he says sleepily. "It’s in LA county, but it's far." When a woman jogs past, he looks faintly baffled by this strange collision of night and day.

Past the Viper Room, where River Phoenix died 20 years ago, and the clairvoyant and the tattoo parlour, and the window of the Hustler store, with its gimp masks and its stripper shoes and the huge sign that reads: "The Screaming O—Have One Tonight". Past the car-rental store where you can lease a Bentley, the better to impress your date or your business associates. Past the gaggle of Nickelback fans camped outside a plush hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of them. And on to Book Soup, which has occupied this spot for nearly 40 years. Nicholas, a 63-year-old beautician, is flipping through Paris Match. "I love this place," he says. "It's the only civilised place on the Strip. I first started coming here way back in the early Eighties, when I had a little nook up there, a salon, and the choice was either to come here or get drunk in the bars."

He loves the smell of books, and he likes to buy the European magazines. "It gives me a different perspective," he explains. "There's more truth, more reality than flash. At my age I can't deal with fluff, I need something more in my brain. My daughter says to me 'Dad, what are you doing here? This is La-La Land!'"

La-la land is a nickname that seems to have spread from the 1970s onwards, a way to capture the strange and dreamy affectations of this city. To walk Sunset is to be struck not only by the deliberately outlandish characters but by the many mentally disturbed people on its sidewalks: the woman rooting through bins who growled on approach, the man masturbating in a car park, the slink-eyed souls muttering darkly to themselves on street corners.

Then there was the peculiar encounter not far from the intersection with La Brea Avenue, as a normal-looking young man hurtled towards us on a skateboard. He was bare-chested, carrying a guitar and eating an ice cream, and it was only as he drew close that we saw something fractured in his eyes. "Save us!" he barked as he skated by. "Before they all kill us!"

And if the air soured then, it was just as suddenly sweetened by the chirruping of a man sitting among the plants on the verge, his hair a tangle of ribbons and purple plastic, swigging Bud Light from a large water bottle. "I'm in the penthouse!" he called brightly. It would be wrong to say we had a conversation. He spoke as if a string had been pulled to make him talk. Why had he come to Los Angeles, I asked, and he gave a disconcerting grin. "I'm tropical, like a dolphin!" he hollered. "You don't put it in the snow!"

He propositioned us, and upon our polite refusal he launched into Carly Simon's "You’re So Vain". We all sang it, from start to finish, there on the sidewalk.

Back on the Strip, when the day was still young, we stopped by Mel's Drive-in, a 24-hour, 1950s-themed diner offering burgers and pancake stacks and Coke floats. They were playing "Dancing in the Street" and "Beauty School Drop-Out" on the jukebox, as a waitress with bouffant hair and bright pink lipstick delivered a plate of waffles to a plump woman in a leatherette booth. 

At the back, a young woman sat sketching on sheets of hotel notepaper. She was dressed in high-stacked shoes and elaborate eyeliner, and at her elbow sat a half-eaten bowl of apple pie. She frowned when I asked her name and stared for a while. The light through the window made her skin look ashen and her eyes hard. "Sun," she replied eventually.

Sun was born in Belarus and moved to Israel as a child before heading to New York eight years ago to work in a clothing store. Somehow she ended up in Los Angeles, running away from a bad relationship and arriving with a dream of recording with Marilyn Manson. Her voice is heavily accented, her glower at odds with the California day. "I'm super-tired," she says suddenly. "I didn't sleep for like a week."

She tells us she has just been released from jail, where she had been placed for trespassing at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I was just there writing lyrics," she insists, "I was really inspired. And a gentleman…" her sentence trails off then revs up again: "I've been arrested twice in the past week," she says. "The first time was because I started throwing tampons into people's cars. I shouted 'Free tampons everyone! Free tampons!' I was so bored, I needed company, and some guy was walking past and I took the headphones from his ears and I told him 'Whoo! Let’s go party!' But he was scared and he ran away. And then the police stopped me and said 'Are you OK miss?' and I said to them 'I want to drive your car!'" And then she was arrested. Now, she says, she has all these papers—she waves the court documents, squints at the small, dark print. "I wish I could throw them away. I wish I could make toilet paper out of it."

Now she is unsure what to do. The bad relationship was psychologically harmful, she says. “It was hard for me to recover. I thought OK, my goals are acting, art, writing. But they won’t give you the papers for work. And it creates legal problems.”

She is wondering if she can stay with friends, or squat in an empty office block she has seen on Rodeo Drive, but she is more pressingly concerned by a romantic entanglement with a guy named Alex. "We met on Valentine's Day last year," she says. "We met at noon-time in Hollywood. I said to him 'I want to see your eyes.' And I took his sunglasses off and I thought 'Oh! I love him!' I was hypnotised. I said 'I love your brown eyes.' And then we went and bought contact lenses." She sighs. "I don’t understand the differences between hanging out, dating or a relationship here in America. He started telling me he was sleeping with other girls. I wonder what the reality is? Is it a test?"

She shows us her sketches, and her notebook, full of lyrics and half-ideas, doodles and elaborate plans for an ecosystem that will cool the Earth. "I'm writing things to fix the world," she explains. "It sounds stupid, because I don't even have a place to be right now. I have a couple of cents left. But I feel like I have nothing to lose. When you have complete freedom, you realise you can actually survive without money and without sleep." Sometimes, she adds, "you see the moon in the middle of the day. And so sometimes I wonder if this is for real or if I've been punked."

Somewhere between Sun in the diner and the tropical dolphin of a man near La Brea lies a story of this city's lost and lonely and weak, of how easy it is to lose your footing here, to lose your self and your sense of purpose, your job, your home, your friends, your mind. Perhaps the most la-la thing about Los Angeles is the apparent absence of a sufficient safety-net to catch the vulnerable.

The Los Angeles region has one of the highest concentrations of homelessness in America. In the two years from January 2011 to 2013 the number of people living on the streets in the LA city area has increased from 25,539 to 29,682. And it's estimated that a quarter of these people suffer from a severe form of mental illness.

Many congregate downtown, in the area known as Skid Row, with its cardboard-box shelters and shopping carts. "The poor man's underworld," the Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Hal Boyle called it in 1947. "A cross-section of American futility, the place where men who have lost hope go after they have jettisoned their dreams." But you find this same sense of futility on Sunset too: dirty bodies curled in doorways, a man asleep on a bench, his feet turtled and grey.

The climate here makes it somewhat easier to survive on the streets. It was part of the appeal for Debbie, now 58, who came here a year and a half ago from Michigan. Debbie's story is not unusual: when the bank foreclosed on her house she decided to head west to California, "because I thought it was nice and warm." She had fond memories, too, of a trip she made here when she was a 17-year-old hippie. She stayed in a hotel at first, but nine months ago, when the money ran out, she began sleeping on the street. For a while she moved about from day to day, but now a leg injury means that she can mostly be found tucked under a blanket outside Starbucks. "I watch people go by, I watch the traffic, I think," she says. "Sometimes I get bored, so I take a nap."

Some of the homeless came here with dreams of more than warm weather. A man sits smoking in a bus shelter. He is wearing blue surgical scrubs and listening to "The Essential Michael Jackson". Calvin says he moved to LA from Houston, leaving behind a well-paid job as a surgical technician for a dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. He has a new job lined up, at a surgery centre in Newport Beach, but until then he is surviving from day to day. "I've been on this bench three months," he says, jovially, "and I've got another month till I start work."

The experience has been "pretty interesting," he says. "Some motherfucker stole my food yesterday. And some homeless guys stole my money and my clothes. So this is my life." He gestures towards his rucksack. "Two scrubs, two pairs of underwear. But the police don't mess with me too much."

He put off coming here for years, he says. "It's hard to leave a good job, good money…but my heart kept calling me to LA." Now 40, he has wanted to be a stand-up since he was 15 and watching "Showtime at the Apollo" on TV. This year, he even performed at the Oscars after-party at the Comedy Store. "You hold on to your dreams," he says, and it is only later that I begin to wonder if any of it was true. 

But still they come. On our walk we meet aspiring directors, actors, cinematography students, trainee music producers who dream of writing soundtracks, wide-eyed young men from Sacramento queuing for brunch outside the Griddle. We meet Matt and Bill, smoking cigarettes outside the Guitar Center. They live in the Valley but came here for the weekend to record with their "sorta nu-metal, thrash-metal" band. "Friday was a good night," says Bill. "We got wasted. We had the cops called on us 12 times. And we had to shower our guitarist because he threw up in his hair."

In the summer of 1950, Paramount Pictures released "Sunset Boulevard", the story of an aspiring screenwriter who heads to Los Angeles from Ohio and ends up dead in a swimming pool. It is a cautionary tale, one that encompasses a pet chimpanzee, a faded movie star, and the dangers of both delusion and aspiration. It culminates, famously, with the washed-up actress addressing a great director: "Alright, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Most people do not see Hollywood close-up. They see it on their TV screen or in gossip magazines. Even if they come here, they see it through the car window. They see it only to the soundtrack of their car stereo, feel it only in the thud of warm air between air-conditioned vehicle and air-conditioned coffee shop.

When we mention that we are walking the length of Sunset, people look at us in disbelief, assuring us that it was not only dangerous but most definitely weird. At street level, though, you see more: an IBM laptop in a discarded takeaway box holding seven prawns; two men dancing in the back room of a salsa club; the words "Love Is What You Make It" scrawled across a wall. You catch the faded incense as you walk past the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, see Jayne Mansfield's pink suitcase displayed in the window of the Dearly Departed Tours Office and Curiosity Shop, with a sign beside it instructing you to "note the damage".

You meet people like José, a former labour-union worker who, six months ago, opened a taco van here on Sunset. "I'm 52 years old," he smiles, "but this is not a midlife crisis. I am halfway through my life and it is a checkpoint: where are you in life? Where you want to be? I consider this a journey. There's a very bright light at the end of the tunnel. I can see it."

Or Paul, 58, who for the last three months has stood silently outside Orchard Supply Hardware with a sign notifying passers-by of its relocation sale. Normally he works as a kerb painter. Paul grew up in Los Angeles. He remembers Sunset in the Sixties, "when it used to be a lot cleaner. A. Lot. Cleaner." He gets a little bored, he admits, standing here with little to do except watch the traffic and think. Recently he saw a homeless guy pushing a woman into the road. "About a month and a half ago. Right there. He just pushed her. I've been thinking a lot about that guy."

You notice the procession of names: Sunset Gower Studios, Sunset Bronson Studios, Home Depot, Food4Less, Kaiser Permanente, The Hollywood Dialysis Center. You notice the drive-thrus and the billboards, their adverts for "Mad Men" and Adult Con and the Phil Spector biopic, all facing out towards the road rather than to the pedestrians. And in this strange no-man's-land you notice the hulking solidity of the buildings, the cars that sail by so impermeably, the curious absence of life. So that when we chance upon a group of skateboarders outside the Metro station at Vermont and Sunset, we watch them, mesmerised, as they go rolling along the grey marble benches, bodies flung backwards into mid-air, T-shirts flaring. Again, and again, and again. They seem so vibrant.

The mood shifts as we enter Echo Park and Silver Lake. The sidewalks are busier here, full of hipsters walking dogs and eating gelato, standing on ladders and painting murals, physically engaged in the process of gentrification. There are microbreweries and vintage stores, cheese shops and vegan restaurants. People ride bicycles. People even walk.

Gentrification brings odd juxtapositions—designer handbags beside nail salons, tired-looking launderettes pressed up against ashtanga-yoga centres, car-repair shops, liquor stores, pawn shops; a giant American Apparel billboard overlooking a bridge, and, under it, a homeless man on a dilapidated sofa.

The sun is low as we pass the Comfort Inn. A woman stands against the wall of the parking lot, wearing a tracksuit and smoking a cigarette, her face tilted upwards, soaking up the late warmth of the day.

She looks down over the wall to talk to us. Her name is Alicia and she is here from Phoenix, Arizona, for her daughter’s "X Factor" audition tomorrow. Her daughter, Savannah, is 16. "She’s real good," she assures us. "Some people say that because it's their child. Well that's not the case. All of her teachers, everybody, they say how good she is."

She calls Savannah to come down and join us. While we wait, Alicia tells us her thoughts on Los Angeles: "Everybody's lost their mind," she says, her breath clouded with cigarette smoke. "I've had relatives out here, they've come here for their dream and they've been used, ended up on drugs and homeless."

Savannah appears by the wall. She is a sweet, sensible-looking girl with soft eyes and a pretty oval face. Tomorrow at her audition, she will sing an Etta James song, "All I Could Do Was Cry". 

"I like the words," she says, "the concept of it, how she sings, how she builds it up."

There outside the Comfort Inn, Savannah begins to sing. She closes her eyes and lifts her voice over the roar of the traffic on Sunset. "Ohhh, I heard church bells ringing," she sings, her voice rich and dusky and warm. "I heard a choir singing/I saw my love walk down the aisle/On her finger he placed a ring…"

And as we stand quite still on the sidewalk here, the scene once more draws into focus. A scruffy stretch of road. The silence that follows song. The bright, enchanting promise of this city.

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