When did Santa Monica, the laid-back hub of Los Angeles’ beach communities, turn into Bourbon Street?
I pondered this as Oggi and I spent an hour and a half inching our rented Nissan along jam-packed beachside lanes that reminded me less of California and more of Manhattan’s 14th Street at rush hour. Thousands of young people — many clad in green on St. Patrick’s Day, others draped in gaudy strings of beads — strolled in leisurely herds along Main Street and Broadway. In some spots, the sidewalks were as jammed with pedestrians as the roads were with cars.
Those spots were usually in the vicinity of bars, where emerald-hued throngs spilled onto the curb, laughter mingling with the foamy scent of Guinness. But the crowds were just as festive, if younger, along 17th and 18th streets, where a steady stream of tiny Esthers and Mordechais showed up for the Purim carnivals at the Santa Monica Synagogue and Chabad of Santa Monica.
St. Patrick’s Day, Purim and (it dawned on me) spring break: Whatever your holiday, Santa Monica is the place to party. And while I admit to feeling less-than-giddy about the traffic — and let’s not even get started on parking — there was no denying that Santa Monica, once the sleepy, staid province of well-to-do retirees, has an increasingly vibrant street life that is both rare and welcome in Los Angeles.
It is also unusually diverse for a city whose ethnic segregation is cemented by a lack of any kind of urban center. L.A. has no Midtown to bring together all walks of life. But on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the glorious Pacific beach — its boardwalk free to all comers — is a close approximation.
From Orthodox Jewish couples to Japanese tourists, Swedish bikers to Armenian hipsters, the boardwalk is a democratic cross-section of modern L.A. Oggi and I strolled under the towering palms, past glittering new hotels and luxury condos, and heard no fewer than a dozen languages. In a town with sparse opportunities for people watching, this is as good as it gets.
Of course, the beach has always been lively. But Santa Monica’s new vigor is most evident in the way its created public spaces have weathered. Over the years, the Third Street Promenade — a resolutely middlebrow collection of mall chains, punctuated by the odd yogurt or panini bar — has evolved from a plastic New Urbanist fantasy to a genuine urban hangout, a cheerful cacophony of street violinists, break-dancers, and flyer-wielding activists exhorting against capitalism.
The success of this corridor is visible in the way its periphery has expanded. Returning after several years’ absence, I noticed a crop of new salad-and-wine bistros on the avenues just off the Promenade, and a dressier, well-heeled evening crowd heading into hotel lounges.
At the Promenade’s southern terminus, the old Frank Gehry-designed mall was replaced several years back with one of those new semi-open-air shopping centers whose upscale offerings — Jonathan Adler, Bloomingdale’s — reflect the increasing affluence of the West Side.
I bought a coffee frozen yogurt at the Forty Carrots inside Bloomingdale’s and headed back down to the water’s edge — this time a little further south, to the bike shops and bungalows of Venice Beach.
Colorful, block-long murals are among the visual quirks that make Venice Beach distinctive, and I always stop to take in the artwork; one block-long mural features gondolas in a California landscape, an ironic tribute to Venice’s European namesake.
But along the oceanfront walk, a giant image of a dreidel on a wall gave me pause. Looking up, I saw more Hebrew letters, and then a folk-art rendering of Chagall’s Jewish violinist. It turned out that this Jewish tableau decorates the building of the Israel Levin Senior Center, where retirement comes with a Pacific sea view.
That’s not the only Jewish presence on the boardwalk. A bit further down, you can usher in Shabbat right on the beach at the Pacific Jewish Center, which holds Friday-night services at its Ocean Front Walk shul.
But on this particular St. Patrick’s Day afternoon, surrounded by crowds of revelers as the sun beat down, Oggi and I began to tire of the endless party. We craved shade and quiet, and we found it on Rose Avenue, just up from the Jewish Center, where a low-key but hip café scene has gradually taken root. Amid the leafy blocks hung with bougainvillea, these casual spots have wide front porches and a relaxed, family-friendly vibe.
They also have the ultimate West Side amenity: easy parking. In L.A., holiday or not, there is no more compelling argument.