Westward on Washington

I was taking A. to an important appointment yesterday morning, so of course when we headed out to the car we discovered that a tyre was flat. A call to AAA got the wee narrow spare put on (this is the point at which I swear I’d have done it myself but for the fact that we don’t have a functioning jack), and I got A. there not too late, then headed to a tyre place on Washington that she’d been to before and felt good about. I hauled out the flat, which they pumped up nice and big, then dunked in water to find the leak, only to discover that there was apparently no leak. Odd. Maybe a valve problem caused when we’d gone for an oil change the day before and they’d checked the tyre pressures too? Either that or someone had let the thing down, which is feasible, I suppose, but worryingly bizarre.

Dawdling west on Washington, taking the scenic route back to Santa Monica, I then passed a clean and well-maintained, brutally ’60s rectilinear building on the north side of the street, and realised that I recognised it from something I’d seen recently: Ray. It was the RPM International building that had been Ray Charles’s offices and studio for the last 40 or so years of his life. Perhaps they’d spruced it up a bit for the film, because it was immaculate in the morning sun, but I doubt it. In any event, it had the dated but still timeless look of ’60s LA architecture.

One of the very best things about LA – certainly one of the most characteristic things, whatever one might make of it – is the way that landmarks of genuine significance are often quite unheralded, and sometimes shockingly neglected. There’s a point of view that LA has no great heritage to speak of. With the caveat that such a young place of course can’t expect to have heritage of great age, it’s nevertheless hooey to claim that there’s little of greatness. The trick is just to realise that LA’s greatness is in its celebration of the ephemeral and the popular. The unfortunate corollary of that, however, is that the ephemerally great is so easy to discard, its cultural value having been vastly underestimated. What happens then is a kind of accelerated stratification. Even where cultural artefacts are lucky enough not to be swept away, they’re soon buried beneath the next layer of ephemera.

One of the reasons why I love to drive the length of Broadway is because it’s such a clear example of this stratification. It’s the cultural analogue of one of those geological curiosities in which a rock-face has been uncovered to expose millennia of layered history. Broadway hasn’t been uncovered; the new strata are simply so flimsy that one can see right through them to the strata beneath. On the surfaces – and in the cracks and the bowels – of the great movie palaces that once lined the street over which Harold Lloyd dangled, a vibrant, day-glo raucous Babylon of hucksterish multi-ethnic commerce now flourishes. Yet several of the movie marquees still carry the sad remnants of previous commerce. Lift your head above the cheap electronics, the sweat-shop clothing and the pushy evangelicals, and you’ll catch a glimpse of Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid.

It’s sad, and it’s comforting. Empires fall – or, in the case of LA, they just move to Burbank – but nature pushes on. In a quiet section of the mostly unloved Washington Boulevard, there’s no more Ray Charles, but there is now a Ray Charles Square, and his studios are now officially a historic landmark. Still, most passers-by just pass by. Perhaps they’ve got a flat tyre that needs to be fixed.

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