The New York Times today implicitly applauds urban gentrification. Would Affordable Housing advocates favor turning back the clock to the 1970s for Culver City?
Note the "Consumer city" angle in this article. New restaurants are popping up in communities that used to be car dealerships. That sounds like progress to me. As I travel from UCLA to Rand once a week, I see a ton of areas in Eastern Santa Monica that would benefit from a touch of this "yuppie treatment". What interest group has a stake in preserving "urban ugly" on such valuable land?
January 28, 2007
In Culver City, Calif., Art and Food Turn a Nowhere Into a Somewhere
By JANELLE BROWN
IT'S a warm weekend evening and it looks as if a hipster convention has descended upon Culver City. On La Cienega, the sidewalk teems with the spillover from the opening of a video installation at the LAXart gallery. At Mandrake, a bar a few doors down, the D.J. plays the White Stripes while artists in distressed denim ignore the Werner Herzog movie playing in the background.
Meanwhile, in the center of town, Ford's Filling Station is crammed with executive types from the Sony Pictures Studios lot who have come for a happy hour hefeweizen, and coiffed couples are wolfing down their smoked trout salad in order to make it across the street to the Kirk Douglas Theater before the curtain goes up.
Ask a resident of Culver City what this Los Angeles neighborhood was like just a few years ago, and you'll hear a list of depressing descriptors: “a wasteland,” “rough,” “old and rundown.” “It was desolation boulevard,” says Timothy Blum, whose Blum & Poe gallery opened here in 2003. “It was devoid of any kind of life — it was mostly known as Wheel Alley, a place where people came to get tires.”
Clearly, things have changed. Culver City, once considered a place to drive by on your way to somewhere else, has become Los Angeles's newest stylish neighborhood, a magnet for lovers of the arts, good food and culture. One part Hollywood nostalgia, one part modern design, the city-within-a-city now inspires expressions like “nascent Chelsea” and “L.A.'s new restaurant mecca.”
Culver City's primary appeal has always been that it's close to everything else: just east of Santa Monica and Venice, just south of Beverly Hills, just north of the Los Angeles airport. The only thing actually in Culver City, historically, was movie studios: the grandly colonnaded Ince Studios (which soon became MGM, and then, 70 years later, Sony) moved in not long after the city was founded by a developer in 1913. The Munchkins and bootleggers came next: “The Wizard of Oz” was filmed here in the 1930s, back when the area was still known for its gambling dens and Prohibition-era nightclubs.
But by the 1970s the city had gone into decline and vanished off the Los Angeles cultural map: a home to middle-class families, car dealerships and low-rent factories. It wasn't until the late 1990s, when a citywide redevelopment push began, that things turned around. Today, Culver City boasts kitschy new 1950s-style signs, which match the vintage architecture of downtown; the brand-new Kirk Douglas Theater and the Actor's Gang (Tim Robbins was a co-founder) are drawing significant plays; and even the historic Culver Hotel, where the Munchkins once slept, has had a makeover.
At the center of Culver City's turnaround is the Helms Furniture District — a blocklong Moderne monolith, once the famous Helms bakery, now (thanks to the developer Walter N. Marks III) home to a dozen furniture and design stores, a jazz club and two restaurants. At one end of the building is the acclaimed Asian-fusion small-plates restaurant Beacon; at the other is H. D. Buttercup, a 100,000-square-foot depot crammed with designer furnishings. Here, you can buy an antique Balinese Buddha, a Blu Dot storage console and a reproduction of Mies van der Rohe's famous Barcelona chairs in one dizzying go, and recover with a plate of moules marinières at Le Dijonaise, the bistro next door.
A few blocks away, where Washington Boulevard meets La Cienega, visitors can find the other reason for Culver City's renaissance: more than two dozen contemporary art galleries, every one of which has opened in the last four years. The respected Blum & Poe gallery was the first to arrive here, drawn by the airy (and inexpensive) old brick warehouses, and was quickly followed by galleries like Anna Helwing, sixspace and LAXart. The area has supplanted Chinatown and Bergamot Station as Los Angeles's center for cutting-edge and conceptual art; on weekends, the funky-spectacle crowd comes for the Sam Durant and Sharon Lockhart openings, and stays for drinks at Mandrake.
For years Culver City was on the culinary map only as the home of Surfas, the legendary restaurant supply store. But since 2004, nearly a dozen restaurants — most with an eye toward organic and casual fine cuisine — have opened in a neighborhood once known as a culinary no man's land.
At Ford's Filling Station, an industrial brick gastropub, the chef Benjamin Ford (son of Harrison) serves high-end pub fare like steak sandwiches and flatbread pizza with grilled shrimp and white bean hummus. Tender Greens, right next door, is a high-concept salad stop where the market greens are so fresh you can practically taste photosynthesis in action. Beacon and Wilson anchor the expensive end of the dining spectrum, and, to wash it all down, there's BottleRock, a wine bar and shop with a mind-boggling list of 800 vintages, a well-edited menu of charcuterie and small plates, and a clientele that packs the chrome stools every night of the week.
Down the road, there's even an affordable cooking school: the New School of Cooking, which offers instruction in everything from essential knife skills to Burmese cuisine. And a half-dozen new restaurants and wine bars — including an outpost of the Santa Monica burger institution Father's Office — are due to open in the coming year.
“Restaurants are spilling into Culver City because there's nowhere else to go,” says the chef Michael Wilson. He chose Culver City as the location of his new restaurant Wilson — Culver City's most ambitious endeavor, serving dishes like truffled pasta and slow-roasted pork with cherry sauce — over the tonier (and more crowded, competitive and pricey) neighborhoods of Beverly Hills or Santa Monica. “The rents are a lot lower so you can really get away without charging astronomical prices for good food,” he said. “In five or six years you won't even recognize Washington Boulevard — it will be the new little restaurant row.”
Wilson is wedged into the corner of Washington Boulevard's new MODAA building, a glowing, Lego-like yellow and gray box that houses live-work lofts, a design museum and an architecture firm. Architecture has quickly become another of Culver City's new calling cards: Some of Los Angeles's best-known architects, such as Pugh + Scarpa, are based here. South of Washington Boulevard, the Hayden Tract is perhaps the most unusual clutch of avant-garde buildings in all Los Angeles: a formerly derelict strip turned into eye-popping offices by the deconstructivist architect Eric Owen Moss, now housing advertising firms, a dance studio and the photography studio Smashbox Studios (home to Los Angeles's fashion week).
Despite the new growth, though, Culver City still doesn't feel much like a city: the boulevards are wide and the buildings low, streets are often empty of traffic (both car and pedestrian), and even on Friday night the restaurants stop seating at 10 p.m. If you're looking for a party, in other words, look elsewhere.
But that, say the new locals, is exactly why they are moving here. “There is a feeling of openness here,” says the New School of Cooking owner Anne Smith, a seven-year resident. “It's still a city on the verge. It still has character, which is what makes Culver City great. My personal hope is that it doesn't ever become Santa Monica.”
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
Wilson, 8631 Washington Boulevard, (310) 287-2093; www.wilsonfoodandwine.com. Dinner for two with wine, $110
Ford's Filling Station, 9531 Culver Boulevard, (310) 202-1470; www.fordsfillingstation.net. Dinner for two with beer, $50.
Tender Greens, 9523 Culver Boulevard, (310) 842-8300; www.tendergreensfood.com. Meal for two, $30.
Beacon, 3280 Helms Avenue, (310) 838-7500; www.beacon-la.com. Dinner for two with drinks, $80.
BottleRock, 3847 Main Street, (310) 836-9463; www.bottlerock.net.
Mandrake, 2692 South La Cienega Boulevard, (310) 837-3297; www.mandrakebar.com.
H. D. Buttercup, 3225 Helms Avenue, (310) 558-8900; www.hdbuttercup.com.
Surfas Restaurant Supply, 8777 West Washington Boulevard, (310) 559-4770; www.surfasonline.com.
Blum & Poe Gallery, 2754 South La Cienega Boulevard, (310) 836-2062; www.blumandpoe.com.
Anna Helwing, 2766 South La Cienega Boulevard, (310) 202-2213; www.annahelwinggallery.com.
LAXart, 2640 South La Cienega Boulevard, (310) 559-0166; www.laxart.org.
PLACES TO STAY
The Culver Hotel, 9400 Culver Boulevard, (310) 838-7963; www.culverhotel.com. This recently renovated establishment has antiques-filled rooms beginning at about $120 a night.
The Sofitel, 8555 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles; (310) 278-5444; www.sofitella.com may not be in Culver City, but it's only a short drive away, and offers more urban chic amenities. Rooms begin at $285 a night.