THE DECISIVE QUESTION TO ASK ABOUT the opening of The Grove at Farmers Market is, Why? The question was asked, in other forms, years before construction began on the 575,000-square-foot shopping center that now looms over Third Street, near Fairfax, like a penitentiary wall. Why build a mall less than a mile and a half from the Beverly Center and the Beverly Connection? Why impose Nordstrom, Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, Gap, Gap Kids, Baby Gap and Gap Body on a commercial district -- oh, hell, let's call it what it is, a neighborhood -- of small shopkeepers whose clientele of tough Polish bubbies and wannabe boulevardiers and panhandling clochards do not wish to live life shrink-wrapped into S-M-L-XL? Why, above all, invite mercantile giants through the gates of one of the few unchained, no-name-brands spots in L.A.? Too late to ask. The Grove at Farmers Market is open for business -- is there anything else? -- making these objections frivolous, or at best quixotic.
Then again, why not indulge in a bit of grousing? Farmers Market, along with the nearby strip of Fairfax with its Jewish bakeries, Russian delicatessens, cigar shops, swap meets and nightclubs, is worth saving. Not as a museum, but as a hangout on a horn-honking, jaywalking, battered, littered, insouciant, though occasionally polite, street. Just what L.A. needs, and craves. But another mall? To paraphrase the French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss, what can the so-called escapism of shopping do but confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our lives?
Something already has been lost. The mall occupies land that had been a remnant, a parcel from old Los Angeles. Before Caruso Affiliated Holdings' graders arrived, you could wander the back acres of Mordigan's nursery on the eastern edge of the Market, and pace off the basin and range of the Gilmore Drive-In. The screen was gone (it came down sometime in the early 1970s), but the lumpy parking lot that aimed your windshield toward the giant outdoor images was intact, an archaeological layer coated in debris cast off from the Market and fissured by the roots of boxed trees that had never sold. This detritus was only the latest sediment, covering what had been Gilmore Stadium (whose wooden bleachers were built for 18,000 fans of midget-car racing and later the Hollywood Stars, the Pacific Coast League baseball team). The wasteland in a densely populated part of the city had a reassuring, informal decrepitude to it, like an old home gone to pot. It was a buffer, a lung, and the opposite of all the ambitions that surrounded it. It was a rebuke, of sorts, a patch of tumbleweed desert stubbornly holding out. The kind of marginal space cities need. But all that well-heeled developers and wealthy landowners -- Caruso and the Gilmore family -- could see in this bereft patch of dirt was sterling demographics. Hank Hilty, the scion of the Gilmore Oil fortune and owner of all that undeveloped acreage, couldn't countenance the blank spot. Asked, Why not give the land to expand the Pan Pacific Park next door? as Major G. Allan Hancock, another oil magnate, had done with the La Brea Tar Pits, Hilty replied, "We are in business to make money, not donate land." Same as it ever was: Pie and doughnuts
That settled it. Down came the Gilmore Bank, an earnest 1950s modern. Mordigan's moved and downsized. Then, one by one, the wreckers backhoed their way through the outbuildings of the Market itself, tightening the noose around what was left. The fall of these scattered structures -- with all of their built-in inefficiencies and, no doubt, subpar health standards -- robbed the Market of some of its distinctive laxity and openness.
Among other things, a piece of what a London cabdriver calls "the Knowledge" was scraped off the map. There were those of us who used to drive through the parking lot of Farmers Market, day or night, as if it were our personal escape route from the traffic jam at Third and Fairfax. We had it down. We knew how to zigzag through there, barely touching the brakes. You had to pace your run to avoid the shuttle bus that always stopped at the bottleneck created by the edge of the Dell, as it was called, where the post office and Kip's Toyland had been, and the old warehouse, the two-story structure with immense trussed spans of clear-grained Douglas fir and those New Yorkstyle steel chutes that connected the loading docks to storage areas in the basements below. You had to time your squeeze through that little strait, and you had to know what to expect: a 1973 Coupe de Ville, or worse, one of those white Pontiac Grand Ams -- a dead-giveaway rental car! -- tentatively chugging along, its driver uncertain whether the right place to park was in that lot between the Gilmore Adobe and the kitchen-prep buildings or in the lot near CBS.