The New Mall

Photo by Bill SmithI have before me a picture post card — really I do — dated September 4, 1942. One of those old-fashioned cards, with bright basic colors painted over a photograph to make the physical world seem even better than it is. It shows Hollywood Boulevard, seen from the roof of the Roosevelt Hotel (Spanish tiles visible at bottom), running eastward to a vanishing point that hovers oddly, impossibly, poetically above the horizon in a bank of cotton clouds. “Nice place,” wrote Peg to Marion, back in Hartford, Conn., “but it is quite warm.” There is the Chinese Theater in the foreground, the First National Bank building at Highland in the middle distance, and occupying the block between them, settled in among trees of unvarying perfect painted green, the fabled Hollywood Hotel, which opened in 1903, when the south side of the street was all strawberry fields. It was torn down 53 years later and replaced with an office building, which was itself torn down not so long ago.

What’s there now, as you have surely seen or heard or know from the promotional mailing, is Hollywood & Highland, a $615 million mall, or “complex” — let’s call it a mall — which has come to train its big guns — Gap! Starbucks! Burger King! — on the local economy. I do not hate it. (I might easily. I possibly should.) Certainly it is better-made than the aging Galaxy mallplex, which buried the Garden Court Apartments, and friendlier to the streetscape than the massive mall-wall going up along Third by Farmers Market, at which I shake my fist, biblically. (I would rend my garment, too, but I only have the one.) I don’t know what to make of the wing collar they’re building around the Cinerama Dome. But notwithstanding its fundamentally Vegas aesthetic and scale, its Times Square Jr. signage — it is a structure constructed for tourists, to give people the feeling they’ve been somewhere and seen something — Hollywood & Highland pays respectable homage to the actual old buildings of the street (in form, materials) and to Hollywood itself (in the giant Babylonian elephant-god statues borrowed from Intolerance). And the Chinese Theater, which the mall enfolds, has been restored — almost as an apology, one feels — to something like its original form, and signposted Grauman’s again; that “Mann’s” always bothered me. It has become once more the theater on my post card.

When I was growing up out in the Valley, we would bus into Hollywood to pity the tourists. Oh, such fun. We found them amusing; we took photos. By their Bermuda shorts did we know them, and by the sad disappointment writ so clear upon their faces; they had come so far to find so little. (Because they were looking for the wrong things, man.) They were after that “celebrated street of gala premieres, world fashions, movie stars and extras, famous shops, hotels and theatres, where beauty, gaiety and glamour reign supreme in a setting seen only in California,” as it says here on this post card. Peg might have had some luck with that back in ’42, but even then it was only partly true. The rest of it was always a lie.

Hollywood’s antique charms had nothing to do with us. (We were just on our way to the comic-book store.) It’s only when you get old enough to reckon your place on the unfolding ribbon of history that Old Junk becomes Cool Stuff, that you fall sway to the romance of the unavailable past, which lies in the opposite direction from your death. Pining for the details, the craftsmanship, the materials of an earlier age — symbolizing as well, of course, the luxury of time, of which it is believed there once was more — that the parsimonious present finds it convenient to forgo: This is an adult disease. When you’re young you incline naturally toward novelty.

A new mall: heaven, long ago. I remember as if it were yesterday my first glimpse of the kinetic “rain forest” sculpture-thing that rose two stories in an atrium of Topanga Plaza. I had to catch my breath. We went to the opening of Century City. That was the future we were promised, back when the Year 2000 still meant something: a nation of modern shopatoria, linked by automatic bubble-car superhighways, with nothing but great green parks in between. (I forget where the people were supposed to live.) It doesn’t sound quite as good as it used to, now that I am grown and with a slight case of the nostalgia, but in honor of my littler self I will give the New Mall some time. How long will it be new, in any case? It is growing old already, acquiring — as do all things except Japanese ceramics — quaintness. Becoming real by use, by damage, by velveteen-rabbit love, even. Heading for the day when the robot wrecking balls come to level it for some bigger, better, brand-new atomic-powered mall. It will have its loving defenders then, undoubtedly.

Lately I have been enjoying the view across a vacant lot at the northwest corner of Sunset and Vine. It was Wallichs Music City once, then a strip mall, and now it is an absence, beyond which may be seen purple hills tumbling down to Cahuenga Pass. It’s like a sudden vision of the distant past, and the far future, perhaps — a time of more general absence. A relief.

They’ll fill that space soon, and I’ll care, then forget to care. From 1927 to 1932 the First National Bank, holding fast to its less-prestigious corner of Hollywood and Highland, was the tallest building in town; but nobody lives in that town now. The strawberry fields were not forever. Charlie Chaplin thought the Hollywood Hotel “fifth-rate.” The new mall seems to have been there for as long as I can remember; we are old friends now. (Love those elephants!) Where have you gone, Peg and Marion? I have your post card.

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