When I first arrived in Los Angeles between Christmas and New Year in 1966, the whole place looked brand spanking new. I had just arrived on the Santa Fe Railroad’s El Capitan at Union Station and saw a city very different from the grimy red brick and industrial pollution that was Cleveland. Within the first two days after my arrival, I took the Santa Monica #3 bus from San Vicente and Barrington down to the Santa Monica Mall, or, as it’s called today, the Promenade.
I was impressed by the neatness and cleanliness of the place. There were movie theaters, restaurants, bookstores (yes, several), anchored by a J. C. Penney at the north end by Wilshire. It used to be fun to visit Santa Monica. The place made such an impression on my friends that most of them still think I live in Santa Monica, rather than West L. A.
But now, I try to avoid Santa Monica, even though it begins a scant two blocks west of me. All the restaurants I loved are gone, replaced by places that are more pretentious and less tasty. The bookstores? Now there is only one, a Barnes & Noble at the Wilshire end. The movie theaters are sort of hanging on, but it looks as if the Criterion were history. The J. C. Penney store is long gone.
What changed? There are two ways of looking at it. On one hand, the city has become a ghetto for the 1%, with only a few downmarket neighborhoods along Pico Boulevard that escaped gentrification. Also, I have changed. My taste in food is probably far different from that of the 21-year-old that ate at Castillo’s (the daughter of the owner was muy guapa), Las Casuelas, Marco Polo, Chowder Call, the Broken Drum (“You Can’t Beat It!”), the Little Inn Swedish Smorgasbord, El Tepa, the Great American Food & Beverage Company, and the El Sombrero on Fifth Street. Somewhere between Santa Monica becoming too hoity-toity for me, and my own self developing into another person, I found the place chilled me.
Oh, I still use their excellent library—though I have to pay for the privilege now. But Martine and I almost never eat in Santa Monica any more. Today, for a change, we ate at the El Cholo on Eleventh and Wilshire. And we regretted it.