Peter Bart: The Sunset Strip’s Protest Past Yields To High-Rise Future

Associated Press

The turmoil of the past week happened to fall on the anniversary of one of the oddest chapters in the history of public protests – one in which Hollywood was the inadvertent star. The issues were vastly different, but not the rhetoric of the protesters. A force of 400 cops faced off against 5,000 protesters, who shouted “fight blue fascism.” Within hours, baton-swinging officers made more than 100 arrests amid charges of police brutality.

Sound familiar? This was the scene precisely 50 years ago on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip after local real estate people and civic leaders decided that the crowds of young people and “beatniks” who were nightly cruising the Strip had become “bad for business.” Their solution: Drive the kids off the streets — and if they don’t go willingly, beat ’em up.

Driving the Strip this week, or what’s left of it, I was reminded of those events of half a century ago, flashing back to the T-shirts of the period emblazoned “veterans of police wars.” The protesters of that moment were almost all white and young, but their attitude toward law enforcement was similar to that of the present. And the clashes were equally intense.

I covered the “Battle of the Strip” as a young reporter for The New York Times and was arrested for “walking too slowly” past Tower Records, taking one fleeting whack from a club-swinging sheriff’s deputy. The once-revered Tower Records is now a ghost, as are many of the Strip’s landmarks like the Tiffany Theater. Even the Hustler store has been sold to become part of some 1.1 million square feet of new hotels and stores now rising along the narrow corridor. Thus traffic along the Strip again has been reduced to a crawl, but it’s the massive construction projects crowding the drive, not the cruising rock ‘n’ rollers of a half-century ago.

Sonny Bon,Cher
Associated Press

OK, I admit to being a bit sentimental about the Strip, but I understand the attitude of those who don’t mind seeing it disappear. Some like me think back fondly of the Doors opening at the Whisky a Go Go while others obsess about River Phoenix or John Belushi and the Strip’s drug hangouts. Over the generations, the Strip has evolved from a celebrity nightclub mecca in the ’40s, to hippie heaven in the ’60s, to a punk rock scene in the ’70s.

As for the future? The shuttered House of Blues will become Sunset Time, with 149 hotel rooms and condos plus restaurant space. The Hustler store, which sold for $18.3 million, will become an Arts Club, modeled after its London predecessor, to include lodgings, pool, restaurants and a spa. The big CIM group is building the towers at the top of La Cienega that will include two eight-story mixed-use structures. An Edition Hotel will encompass 20 condos that boast of sprawling terraces to overlook the traffic jams below.

Tower Records Building

And there will be more. The Roxy, the Whisky, the Comedy Store and Carney’s hot dog establishment survive, but the customers being courted for the massive new developments will not provide a clientele for these old spots. The only pedestrians likely wandering the street will be Uber and Lyft drivers connecting with traffic-locked customers. Or those loyalists trying to get through to the venerable, and still chic, Chateau Marmont or the Sunset Towers.

Again, am I being sentimental? The “beatniks” and stoners who cruised the Strip 50 years ago seemed by and large friendly and benign. They were on a discovery mission for weed and rock ‘n’ roll. Unfortunately, the cops they encountered were angered at their stubbornness and perplexed by their own role as “the heavies.” Who were these ridiculous kids? Why were they fighting for their turf? And why did they so fervently hate the cops? Those questions have persisted through the decades. The players and the issues change, but the protests generate the same anger and angst.

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