The Sounds of Silence on the Sunset Strip

DEEGAN ON LA-The iconic Sunset Strip is irrevocably associated with Los Angeles, even though located in, and stewarded by, the City of West Hollywood. Big (Los Angeles) or small (West Hollywood), our cities share the same growth dilemmas: what gets sacrificed in the name of progress and who are the winners? Is it residents of our communities or the politicos in the city halls who authorize the changes? Join the conversation and take the pop poll at the end of this article. 

The Struggling Sunset Strip: The Sheriff ordered a 10 p.m. curfew for the Sunset Strip, the Whiskey A Go Go considered changing its name to the non-alcohol associative Whisk;” rumors circulated that Jack Nicholson was one of the protesters who helped shut down the Strip to traffic as kids swarmed the famous street. Authorities were on edge, fearing a repeat of what they said were 1,000 young club goers rioting” there. 

If only the Sunset Strip had that kind of notoriety today, a half century after those events sparked news headlines. Now the home to what the City of West Hollywood’s Economic Development Department calls four “clusters” of business interests -- Music, Entertainment, Dining and Hotels -- the rock n’ roll Sunset Strip has become not only tamed, but lamed. Its edge has been substantially dulled. 

Once upon a time it was ground zero, a playground for the counterculture’s Baby Boomers who rock ‘n rolled into history as teens and twenty-somethings, marked by the “Pandora’s Box Riot” of Nov. 12, 1966. But over time, newer generations of partiers have found other places to play, like the emerging Echo Park, Silver Lake and Los Feliz, a nexus of hipster music, dining and club scenes. Downtown LA is also getting its share of the formerly “Strip-centric” audience. 

Before the Summer of Love, the Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock, before Dylan went electric, the Sunset Strip was the coolest, hippest place in town. It was a favorite destination for partygoers, the place where a creative culture was incubated, centering heavily on a music scene that would help define Los Angeles. It even had an eponymous TV show, 77 Sunset Strip,” that ran from 1958 to 1964. 

The Strip enjoyed decades of fame and notoriety due to its glamorous and substantial rock and roll history, but it’s been on a downward trajectory as a cultural lodestar, even though the EDD reports that hotel “bed taxes” (Transient Occupancy Tax) accounted for almost $20 million in revenue to the city last year. But, hotel stay overs are not what has made the Strip famous, no matter how much revenue that brings to the city. A bed is a bed, but there’s only one Sunset Strip to experience. 

How to return vitality and relevance to the Sunset Strip, and bring people back to hang out there?  How to make it a “destination” again? That is the subject of a Dec. 18 City of West Hollywood Sunset Strip Report that recommended that the WeHo City Council develop a “vision” and a “marketing plan.” They’re right about this and fortunately they have lots to work with. One key asset -- potentially the greatest -- is the evocative brand name, “The Sunset Strip.” The city needs to define and distill the essence of what the Strip really is and then effectively work it. 

In an era where brands can motivate behavioral decisions, the Sunset Strip could have resonance, once it’s livened up by injecting it with a shot of the future. Understanding, articulating and maximizing that brand will require a think tank of creativity and imagination. This task is well-suited to the creative entrepreneurs who run the music scene and the restaurateurs who survive through the patronage of customers. Both groups would be beneficiaries. And they would need the support of solid infrastructure improvements -- stuff the city understands – which is also recommended in the report reviewed by the City Council at its December 18 meeting. 

In addition, it would be helpful to separate responsibilities for envisioning “content” (the essence of the Strip) and spelling out “process” (a city-led review to upgrade parking, streamline special events permitting, build a fiber optic ring, and other infrastructure improvements). 

Nowhere else in Los Angeles can you indulge in the Sunset Strip dream of being “discovered.” It’s time for that star-making aspiration to be reactivated. In a pop culture that uses the Mamas & the Papas singing California Dreamin’ to entice us buy lottery tickets, it’s not a stretch to imagine setting the mood to attract “Sunset Strip dreamers” as we honor the ghosts of the past while offering opportunities for the future. Robert Louis Stevenson was right when he unwittingly became a leader in advertising and marketing theory, saying, in a travel book circa 1875, that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Or, as a Taoist may express it, "the journey is the reward." 

The vibe, the history, the hope and expectation of fun, good food and drink, music and entertainment, is the reward for coming to the Strip, starting with the locals. But according to a city survey, the Strip is finding no love at home. Only 11% of WeHo neighbors say they ever visit this part of their own city, right in their own backyard. According to the report, residents could be attracted to this backwater area again by improvements to the environment like cleaner streets and sidewalks that will enhance safety and walkability. 

The house almost always wins in Vegas, but that didn’t stop 43 million visitors from going there last year to be part of the “Vegas” brand and vibe. They poured into the casinos to fulfill their aspirations: dreams of making it big while having a good time along the way. Many know they will most likely either break even or lose, but this doesn’t stop the aspirational drive that fuels so many lives. 

The Strip can pack a similar emotional payoff. If a serious effort is made to recreate its greatness, chances are it will succeed. 

What do you think: is the Sunset Strip worth it? 

Please take a moment and share your opinion by taking the brief poll below. Then press “view” to see how your responses compare with others. 

Pop Poll Questions 

Do You Live In?
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When did you last visit Sunset Strip?
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Where would you like to spend an evening with a date?
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(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the Mid City West Community Council and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com. This article first appeared in WEHOville.)  Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.