California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Larchmont Village

INTRODUCTION

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of Larchmont Village, available in art prints and on a variety of merchandise

This edition of California Fool’s Gold is about Larchmont Village. It was nominated by readers who let me know which communities they’d like me to explore in the comment section. Larchmont Village is not, despite what many sources claim, the same as the neighborhood called Larchmont, which is located next to it, and was formerly known as Larchmont Heights. Larchmont, too, has received votes and I will hopefully get to it someday soon. I suspect, however, whether rightly or wrongly, that when most Angelenos refer to Larchmont, they are referring to Larchmont Village.

A blue Larchmont Village sign, installed by the LADOT north of the neighborhood, in front of Chandara Thai, a Thai restaurant in Spanish Colonial digs.

The most obvious way to get somewhere within a city is by walking if it’s close or taking mass transit if it’s not. However, friend-and-frequent-exploration-companion, Mike Morgan, accompanied me on this exploration and wanted to ride bikes, and so ride bikes we did. It was Lunar New Year’s Day and, after a moderately debauched Lunar New Year’s Eve, a bit of exercise and fresh air sounded good to us both.

For most of the way, we rode up quiet side streets to avoid the car sewer that is Beverly Boulevard. Google Maps defines Beverly as a “bike-friendly street.” I can say, categorically, that it is not… at least not in its current configuration, which has presumably remained pretty much as it was when it was paved in the 1910s. At Larchmont Boulevard, it is about sixteen meters wide. Although it has six lanes, all are surrendered to the automobile, including a curbside lane of useless, empty, parked cars. Perhaps the city could find the political will to take just one of those lanes away and make a protected bike lane.

Larchmont Village is also served by two Metro lines, 14, and 210, which connect the neighborhood to Beverly Grove, University Park, Hollywood, and Torrance, all without a transfer. That said, travel times are necessarily slow because neither one is afforded even one centimeter of dedicated lane and so they are unfairly mired amongst the motorists. Perhaps the city could find the political will to create a couple of bus-only lanes.


For at least 13,000 years, people lived blissfully car-free in the vicinity of what’s now Larchmont Village, and for millions of years before the ancestors of the Chumash arrived, the region was home to all sorts of plants, fungi, and animals, many of which still make their homes here. Around 3,500 years ago, the region’s first transplants, the Tongva, arrived from their homeland in the Sonoran Desert and found that most of the Los Angeles Basin had by then been de-populated for about 4,000 years. In 1769 CE, the Spanish Gaspar de Portolá Expedition passed through the region and began the process of colonization. The area in which Larchmont Village is located was, under the Spanish, set aside as public land. Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1810 and in 1828, the alcalde of Los Angeles granted the 17.96 km2 Rancho La Brea, which includes modern-day Larchmont Village, to a Portuguese sailor, Antonio José Rocha, and his chum, Jose Maria “Nemesio” Damacio Domínguez. The US invaded Mexico in 1846 and by 1848 had conquered 55% of that country, including parts of present-day Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and all of California.

The northern end of Larchmont Village

Rocha, his son José Jorge, and their friend, Josefa de la Merced de Jordan, filed a claim on the land grant in 1852 but it was rejected in 1860. The Rochas and Jordan then deeded the land to New Hampshire-born lawyer and surveyor, Henry Hancock, who went to court on behalf of “A.J. Rocha et al” and prevailed in 1873. After Hancock died in 1883, his son George Allan Hancock began developing and subdividing his father’s lands. A town arose there called Colegrove. On 27 October 1909, that town was annexed by Los Angeles, moving the Westside‘s westernmost border to June Street, just on the other side of where the Wilshire Country Club would be developed ten years after.

Looking north on Larchmont Boulevard

In 1910, James V. Baldwin began developing Larchmont Heights to the north of what’s now Larchmont Village. Larchmont Heights, like so much of Los Angeles, was developed around the (street) car. It was served by Pacific Electric Railway‘s Cahuenga Valley Line, then recently upgraded from steam to electricity in what grew into the world’s largest interurban rail network. Around the same time, to the south, George A.G. Howard began developing the suburb of Windsor Square. What’s now known as Larchmont Village was split along Larchmont Boulevard into two tracts. Windsor Square Heights, on the west, opened in 1910. F. H. Woodruff, Tracy E. Shoults, and Frank Meline‘s New Windsor Square, to the east, opened in May 1920.

Larchmont Village garbage bin

Mike, a Northeast Los Angeles native (and all-around chill guy) said something like, “I know it may be wrong but it’s all Hancock Park to me.” It does seem, in fact, that most developers of the day also regarded Larchmont Heights, Windsor Square, and the tracts within them as subdivisions of Hancock Park. In 1916, further annexations finally extended Los Angeles all the way to Santa Monica Bay, and, as a result, Windsor Square and its neighborhoods were nearer the center of Los Angeles than its western frontier. By the 1930s, this part of town came to be considered Midtown rather than the Westside.

early commercial buildings

In 1920, the Los Angeles Railway (Lary) launched the R Line, which traveled up Larchmont Boulevard and terminated at Radium Sulphur Springs and Hollywood Mineral Hot Springs on Melrose Avenue. That same year, a transplant from Michigan, Julius J. La Bonte, bought a home in Windsor Square at 320 Arden Boulevard for himself, his wife Pauline (née Leitelt). La Bonte recognized the neighborhood’s need for a commercial district and in September 1921, he and his business partner, Charles Ramson, began developing the block between Beverly and 1st along the streetcar line by purchasing seven lots. Most of the buildings were constructed by Clarence Bean and the result looked like a combination of the Main Street of La Bonte’s Traverse City birthplace with the expected Spanish influences popular in 1920s Southern California. It was mostly built out by 1928. Early businesses on the block included AA Carpet Company, Larchmont Cafe, Larchmont Electric Company, Larchmont Motor Service Station, Larchmont Realty Company, Premiere Candies, Wilshire Studios Inc., Windsor Square Pharmacy, and the La Bonte Building and Loan Association.

The Keystone Building, its entrance flanked by ficuses

The R Line was later re-routed and LARy’s 3 Line began traveling up Larchmont. In 1941, the 3 Line ended operation and its right-of-way along Larchmont was surrendered to the private automobile. The Los Angeles Mobility Plan 2035 calls for the creation of a bicycle corridor along Larchmont’s relatively short 1.6 kilometers. Why we have to wait another thirteen years from some stripes of white paint is another one of those frustrating modern mysteries.

A vintage, early 1970s surface parking lot

It’s not clear to me when Angelenos first started referring to the block as “Larchmont Village” but it was before 1960. The Larchmont Boulevard Association was formed in 1965. LaBonte died in November 20 1968. Faced with white flight and the prospect of capital flight, several buildings were knocked down in the early 1970s and converted to surface parking lots in order to make the area more appealing for the car-dependent. One, created around 1972, had formerly been a garage/warehouse. Another building was knocked down and replaced with a bank building that, while not without style, looks utterly unrelated to its neighbors. The same cannot be said for the Larchmont Village Plaza, a Smog Check Revival-style eyesore built in 1987. It is redeemed somewhat by the presence of Above the Fold, one of a dwindling number of newsstands in the city.

Imagine a couple of tables leading to a beer garden… or a driveway to a parking lot
Larchmont Village Plaza — suburban sprawl on a quaint main street

I’m not against eclecticism, but the juxtaposition of delightful 1920s commercial buildings and ficus-lined streets with banal banks and postmodernist abominations is jarring to this aesthete. None, though, is more jarring than the preponderance of cars on what should so obviously be a car-free block. Some people refer to the neighborhood as “the Village,” obviously not a reference to the Village in The Prisoner, which despite being a psychological prison, is at least car-free. Like the Village on that classic television series, though, Larchmont Village mostly overcomes its shortcomings with charming cafes, bakeries, and boutiques housed inside pleasing simulacra that reminds me a bit of places like Disneyland‘s Main Street USA, Huntington Beach‘s Old World Village, West Carson‘s Alpine Village, and the unceremoniously demolished Ports o’ Call Village in San Pedro. None of those, though, are neighborhoods, which makes me wonder, is Larchmont Village really a neighborhood? My answer is “yes,” as it’s the same size and similar, in ways both good and bad, to Little Ethiopia, another walkable micro-neighborhood sullied by cars but distinct from its surroundings.

Fake grass, fake flowers in window boxes in front of apparently fake windows, and a mystery door to who-knows-what
Needs a few more cars

Imagine a gel-slicked Patrick Bateman-clone yelling at an acquaintance on the sidewalk because he’s apparently unable to extricate himself from his black convertible Ferrari. He stops his car in the middle of the street, desperately hoping to inconvenience and annoy as many of his neighbors as much as possible. When his mercifully brief nonversation ends, he revs his engine and speeds a few meters to the red light in front of him, begging the universe to reassure him that he is a very, very big deal, indeed. And then, mercifully, the dork speeds off. After the laughter fades, you notice that the street is humming at a pleasant volume.

Backs of buildings

The noise, what there is, comes not from deafeningly blast recorded music or schmucks in sports cars but from silverware clinking against plates and people engaged in actual conversations. I noticed that many of the snippets I overheard were in Korean. This fact was also noted, though, by Colin Marshall in his 2013 piece, “A Los Angeles Primer: Larchmont Village,” which I revisited after returning home. I looked up the demographics of the neighborhoods and learned, to my surprise, that the neighborhood, that a substantial plurality (42%) of Windsor Square’s residents are Asian. Nearly one in three residents is Korean and about one in four was born in Korea.

Car storage spaces converted to outdoor dining

One positive development to have arisen as a result of this horrible COVID-19 pandemic is the reclamation of streets from automobiles for people. Somehow it took a deadly disease, in other words, for the rest of the city to awaken to what struck most of us as obvious, namely that the weather here is generally pretty much ideal for outdoor dining. So far, about 30 of the block’s roughly 500 parking spots (not, sadly, an exaggeration) have been repurposed for outdoor dining. There are about 60 more on the actual street that could additionally be converted and, if the street was closed to cars, you can just imagine it being filled with playground equipment, fountains, trees, benches, and public restrooms.

An alley that connects to parking lots on the west side of Larchmont Boulevard

There’s still an alley between Larchmont and Lucerne boulevards which access parking lots behind businesses and a city-owned parking lot that on Sundays hosts the Larchmont Village Farmers’ Market. Presumably, were the street closed, the Farmers’ Market could be moved into the boulevard itself, freeing up 34 spots for the car-dependent (although, if you drive to a farmers’ market and you’re not a vendor, you’re doing it wrong). At the same time, it would elevate Larchmont Village to El Pueblo‘s Olvera Street, Chinatown‘s Central Plaza and Chunking Road, Panorama City‘s Plaza del Valle, Santa Monica‘s Third Street Promenade, Silver Lake‘s Sunset Triangle Plaza, Whittier‘s Greenleaf Promenade, or Venice‘s Pedestrian Plaza.

Inside the belly of Great White

When we arrived in Larchmont Village, I wasn’t especially hungry. However, as we walked up and down the block a couple of times, discussing lunch options, I quickly grew ravenous. Having picked up the scent of Great White during our approach on our bikes, I suggested eating there. It also looked busy, which was a good sign, as was the large outdoor seating area and open design, which presumably makes it fairly COVID-safe. The line moved fast and my breakfast burrito and lager were delicious. The decor, both beachy and desert-like, reminded me of the sort of place you might find in Tulum or on Tatooine.

The wined and sports side of Larchmont Village Wine, Spirits, & Cheese
The cheese and deli side of Larchmont Village Wine, Spirits, & Cheese

There are other good options, too. In the past, I’ve eaten at Village Pizzeria many, many times but Mike didn’t want pizza. I’ve also visited Larchmont Village Wine, Spirits, & Cheese in the past, a wonderful establishment that has served the region since 1995. Other restaurants include a location of Burger Lounge, Erin McKenna’s Bakery LA, a location of Go Get Em Tiger, Good Goose Cafe, a location of Groundwork, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a location of Kreation Organic Juicery, Le Petit Greek, Louise’s Trattoria, Muraya, a location of Pressed Juicery, a location of Salt & Straw, a location of Sam’s Bagels, a location of Tacos Tu Madre, and Vernetti. Since 1992, the neighborhood has most years hosted the annual Taste of Larchmont.

There are, of course, businesses other than eateries in the neighborhood. I find it convenient to divide them into two categories: the sorts of boutiques and businesses where people generally pop in and casually browse, and the sort where people only go with a particular purpose in mind. I can’t, for example, imagine just popping into a dentist’s office to see if there are any openings or a frame store because I just happen to be carrying some unframed art. The latter sort, therefore, are probably of less interest to the casual visitor to the neighborhood — but perhaps of interest, hopefully, to the reader, no in the least because they tell part of the larger story, part of which entails legacy businesses being driving out by landlords (aka the gentry) seeking ever-increasing rents and turning away from neighborhood business people toward multi-national chains. Other stores close as owners retire or as technology renders them obsolete.

Chevalier’s Books — decorated for the Lunar New Year

One of the first of these sorts of businesses was Poinsettia Cleaners, which opened in 1923 and lasted at least into the late 1980s. That location is currently home to a location of Le Pain Quotidien, a large, multinational chain. Another business that launched in 1923 was Dippell Realty. It remained in business for 67 years. Its former location is now home to a location of men’s casual clothing chain, Buck Mason. One of the oldest legacy businesses and without a doubt my favorite is Chevalier’s Books, which has been around since 1940 and occupies the spot originally occupied by La Bonte Building and Loan Association. It is, probably, the oldest independent bookstore in Los Angeles. Other businesses of potential interest include Bluemercury, Corridor, Diptyque, Flicka, Malin + Goetz, and Tailwaggers. I would’ve been down to check out a few but the day had actually passed pretty quickly and so we rode home on a circuitous route, stopping by the Getty House (the mayor’s house), on our way home.

Be seeing you!


FURTHER READING

“Despite Changes, Village Clings to Tradition: A New Day in Larchmont” by Barbara Baird (1985)

“Larchmont Boulevard: L.A.’s Version of Main Street, U.S.A.” by Aaron Betsky (1993)



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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.
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2 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Larchmont Village

  1. It’s interesting that as a native of the areas you depict in your blogs, I somehow always feel like a tourist when reading your blogs. It’s like seeing the area with fresh eyes. Do you teach cultural geography classes for universities? You could…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I don’t teach anywhere — in part because I’m pretty uncomfortable addressing large groups in person. I also avoid jobs that keep me inside for too long because I want to be outside exploring.

      I would like to return, someday, to the places where I grew up — Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, and Iowa — to see what I see there now and how different it would undoubtedly appear to me as an adult.

      Liked by 1 person

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