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The incomparable Melrose Avenue. Joys of walking, windowshopping rediscovered in Los Angeles

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 1988

Los Angeles

A FUNNY thing happened in the city that grew up embracing the automobile: Somebody forgot to make a place to get out and walk. There are isolated pockets of pedestrianism: Westwood Village, Rodeo Drive, snippets of San Vicente, Wilshire, and Ventura Boulevards. And Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard - famous for the Rose Parade - has begun to establish itself.

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But ask virtually anyone in town for the winningest respite from L.A.'s car-crazed culture, and the answer is Melrose Ave., an oasis of peripatetic perambulators amidst the cement-desert homogeneity of highways and mini/maxi malls. For visitors, it's still a tourist stop that isn't too self-conscious - yet.

Fifties funk to '80s punk, upscale to downscale, artsy to high-tech, avant-garde to merely bizarre, Melrose is the one true, commercial Bohemian promenade of all things Californian. At one end of the street, that means art deco and art nouveau antiques, comic book emporiums, '50s clothing/paraphernalia, handmade jewelry, and tanning salons.

At the other, it means a melting pot of first-rate galleries, Louis XIV furniture, Chinese pottery, Italian lamps, Oriental rugs - and shops with doorbells. Sprinkle in a host of new, upscale eateries (many Italian), gelati and yogurt shops, and you have a window-shopper, people-watcher heaven.

``Melrose is now right up there with the great streets of Europe,'' says Judy Davidson, a 20-year L.A. resident, who, over the past 10 years, has watched Melrose blossom from a sleepy row of antique and counterculture clothing and record stores to a rich mix of first-rate restaurants, chichi boutiques, galleries, and fine gift stores. ``It's a combination of the best of Soho and London's old Carnaby Street. It's a real California upper,'' she says.

Minutes from Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, the Wilshire District, Beverly Hills and downtown, this three-mile stretch between La Brea and La Cienega is, at the moment, the heartbeat of entrepreneurial Southern California.

``How do you see Melrose? You start at one end and walk clear to the other,'' says Elaine Riff, who lived one block off Melrose for years, and now frequents it from the San Fernando Valley. Ninety percent of its retail space is taken, and lists of potential proprietors for each opening run into the hundreds.

Popularity of the area started about 10 years ago, with the counterculture clothing of an English store named Flips. Others, like Aardvark and Posseur, followed suit. Then came more and better restaurants, more specialty shops, and trendier fashion import stores with names like Ecru and Roppongi.

``It's more cosmopolitan than anywhere in California,'' says Mary-Lei Halloway, manager of ``A New Kid in Town,'' a vintage-clothing boutique. ``As far as the fashion scene's concerned, it's the center. This is where everything new and trendy starts.''

Mostly, the fashion appeal of Melrose is one-of-a-kind clothing.

``I come here when I want to get something really far out and different, even by Southern California standards,'' says 19-year-old Nancy Siegmund, who makes regular shopping trips from Pasadena to Melrose at three-month intervals.

The daytime crowd of punkers, hipsters, bikers, and multi-color-maned teens is offset by the influx of upscale lunch patrons - many from adjacent Paramount Studios or mid-Wilshire Boulevard public relations agencies. And the clash of cultures is a major part of its appeal.