Artists Have Different View of Miracle Mile

For the last few weekends, KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde has been telling Street Stories about the history and marketing of Wilshire Blvd. But artists have a knack for turning the official story upside down. Here's a special Christmas Day street story that may have you looking for a place to rent a movie.

Kitty Felde: In a city that loves to promote itself, Wilshire Boulevard might have been the most heavily promoted street.

Matt Roth: Promotion is designed to kind of soothe anger and worry, and to minimize conflict. And I think artists are attracted to promotion as something to negate.

Felde: Matt Roth, historian for the Automobile Club of Southern California, says the same artists who flocked to Los Angeles didn't take long to fashion a dark, dystopian vision of the place.

Roth: You know, it starts out with the noir fiction of Raymond Chandler. He has all kinds of, you know, real cutting putdowns of Wilshire Boulevard. He calls it a neon-lighted slum.

Announcer from old radio show: From the pen of Raymond Chandler, outstanding author of crime fiction, comes his most famous character in "The Adventures of Philip Marlowe."

Roth: The art of David Hockney, he has a painting called Wilshire Boulevard, which is, you know, this blank wall with bright sun hitting it, and a stringy palm tree, and, you know, these alienated stick figures kind of lost in this sunstruck landscape.

Felde: It wasn't the sun that struck Wilshire Boulevard in a 1974 disaster film starring Charlton Heston. It was a 9.9 magnitude earthquake.

Clip from "Earthquake": The city of Los Angeles and its millions of people, living, loving, planning, fighting, until nature's most violent upheaval forces them to battle and claw for life itself.

Felde: In "Earthquake," a massive aftershock destroys the graceful Wilshire Colonnade, then known as the Ahmanson Center, near Western Avenue.

Roth: Well, there was this great underground film called "Miracle Mile," which was this post-nuclear fantasy, and which, through rather crude effects, kind of shows this, you know, blown up Wilshire Boulevard.

Felde: Earthquakes and nuclear war? Roth says they were only the beginning.

Roth: There's the Tommy Lee Jones movie "Volcano," treats movie goers to lava flows destroying the Wilshire streetscape.

Clip from "Volcano": Mitch, I don't know how to describe this, but the tar pits themselves are on fire, and they're right now spilling out onto Wilshire Boulevard. It's coming right up out of the ground itself. It's as if the tar caught fire, melted, and somehow expanded. I know this sounds crazy, but it almost looks like lava, volcanic lava, pouring onto the street.

Felde: So why have so many artists portrayed a Wilshire Blvd that seems to invite catastrophe? One prone to massive destruction on a regular basis?

Roth: I think it is precisely a reaction to the promotion of the kind of sunny environment where we can travel and shop in safety and freedom.

Felde: Of course, people with a long view of history might say Wilshire's connection with death and disaster dates way back. Wilshire, after all, is home to the La Brea tar pits, where prehistoric wooly mammoths and saber-toothed cats met a sticky and untimely end. And 9,000 years ago, someone murdered a young woman and dumped her body in those same tar pits on what is now Wilshire Boulevard.