National Geographic : 1992 Jun
can do terrible things to the human spirit." I am coming to L.A. to report on the real Sunset Boulevard, the street that dissects the city from downtown to the Pacific. Skirting the Santa Monica Mountains for about 24 miles, Sunset Boulevard cuts below Dodger Stadium and winds through the immigrant rich communities of Echo Park and Silver Lake. It passes the often tawdry, faded facades of Hollywood. It curves through a canyon of nightclubs and towering billboards in West Hollywood known as Sunset Strip before hitting the manicured lawns of Beverly Hills. It weaves between the mansions of Bel Air and the University of California, Los Angeles, and heads toward the affluent village of Pacific Palisades. Then it plunges to the sea south of Malibu. "It's the one street that most represents Los Angeles," a local journalist told me. That's the real Sunset Boulevard. But the unreal boulevard won't let me sleep well tonight. I had a brother who wrote a movie called Fame. He moved to L.A. and became rich. I remember the expensive cars, the extravagant meals, the sparkling views from the Hollywood Hills. I remember the hot tubs, the gym with endless mirrors, the white pow der, and his gnawing fear that the reel would suddenly break. But mostly I remember that my brother died, years too early, while living above Sunset Boulevard. Just outside L.A. the conductor awakens me from my fitful sleep. I know there's a lot more to Sunset Boulevard than the movie in dustry. Twenty-four miles to the sea. It's time now to make sense of this seductive street. I STEP OFF THE TRAIN at Union Station. Here, at the base of Sunset Boulevard, L.A. looks like the boomtown it's always been. There's a new skyline twinkling in the purple dawn. Most of its towers have sprouted in the past decade as the city became America's financial capital for the prospering Pacific Rim. Beneath Union Station there's the hub of a new 3.4-billion-dollar subway, being built as Angelenos struggle to deal with their traffic and smog. But the greatest boom in L.A. is a people boom. Drawn by the American dream of mak ing it big and making it fast, immigrants are turning the east end of Sunset Boulevard into a new Ellis Island. Many newcomers make their first homes in the cheap, rent-by-the-week tenements of Echo Park, a working-class resi dential neighborhood almost in the shadow of the downtown skyline. "We've got everybody here," says Jeb Brighouse, head of the Echo Park Renters and Homeowners Association. "It's the most American community in L.A. We're proud of that." On corners Latinos sell ears of corn out of grocery carts. At neighborhood botdnicas the pious buy rosaries, while others procure the Deacon at Our Lady Queen of the Angels, Rodolfo Sevilla estimates he has baptized 50,000 babies in his 15 years of service. In the Spanish-colonial heart of downtown Los Angeles, the church now serves a swelling population of CentralAmerican immigrants.