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

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.

``We get a steady stream of everything from innocent teens to biker chicks to ladies in high heels and furs,'' says Dora Friedman, a resident of the home for elders at the corner of Gardner Street.

And of course, the Melrose gestalt changes after sundown, when the night crowd comes out for comedy at the Improv, jazz at Nucleus Nuance, or amateur theater at Groundlings. ``It's one of the great L.A. streets to people-watch at all hours,'' says designer Roseann Kurjian.

``Melrose is on the up, up, up,'' says Daniel Postar, who purchased 80 feet of storefront 25 years ago for $60,000 and recently had it appraised at $1.6 million. ``Rodeo Drive and Hollywood Boulevard are old hat. This is where everyone 15 to 35 [years old] is coming now.''

Not that everyone's thrilled with the new influx of money that may eventually threaten Melrose's rigid nonconformism. One shop owner, forced out by a tripling of his $1,400 rent, remarked, ``I'll be glad to move somewhere quiet where there's still the charm we had here six years ago. Who needs all these new yogurt shops and chocolate chip cookie stands?''

A number of proprietors have also complained about the opening of a new Gap outlet, a chain clothing store available at many local malls.

``We can't zone for taste or against chain stores,'' says Michelle Krotinger, press spokesman for councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. Two years ago Mr. Yaroslavsky's office protected the area from any building over two stories, to retain its low-rise character. The business community is negotiating for more parking at Fairfax High School to alleviate Melrose's biggest controversy, shoppers using residential streets.

For the uninitiated, here is my list of must- and should-sees, gleaned from 2 years of L.A. residency, dozens of interviews, and two recent afternoons of pavement-pounding, notebook in hand:

Off the Wall Antiques and Weird Stuff. One of at least four Melrose stores specializing in art deco and '50s items, Off the Wall sells mint-condition Wurlitzer juke boxes, early, bright-red Coke machines, neon clocks, 1950s phones, furniture, and knickknacks.

Bleecker Bob's Golden Oldies Record Shop. Specializes in non-top-40 music, hard-to-find, independent and import labels, new wave, gothic, and death rock. Also check out Aron's Records, just blocks away.

Wanna Buy a Watch? Specializes in wristwatches from the '20s, '30s and '40s, all restored to working condition with original movements.

Soap Plant/Wacko. The former is notable, if for nothing else, for the sheer eclecticism of products, from Mexican-made plaster Elvis busts to homemade perfume to biographies of non-mainstream rock groups. The latter specializes in all manner of bizarre greeting cards and things like plastic hands, fluorescent skeletons, and windup Godzillas.

Cucina Restaurant. Competing with many new Italian restaurants on Melrose, Cucina has a favorable reputation that extends the length of the menu, from veal parmigiana to shrimp pastas and from swordfish to chicken.

There's a good chance you'll bump into Japanese visitors along Melrose. Many proprietors report over 25 percent of their sales to the visiting Asians, great lovers of art deco and costume jewelry. They come by the chartered busload. Magazines in Japan print complete lists of shops, along with goods and prices.

``People always like Melrose no matter who they are,'' says Kristen Houghton, a local marketing coordinator, who makes frequent trips there and takes out-of-town guests whenever possible. ``It's one of the only places in L.A. that you can get out of your car and watch it all happen.''

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