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The Sunset Strip

The Sunset Strip, of Los Angeles but not in it, is a grimly prophetic area. Social, political, and demographic factors explosively combined, have established there a persistent pattern of conflict and hostility which conveys the sinister atmosphere of life in California today with remarkable economy. The atmosphere of the Strip is spreading fast, and is toxic. The reagents which generate it are not peculiar to the area—just, at present, more concentrated there. The same peculiar odor now hangs over the University of California where, optimists say, atmospheric conditions are still probably sub-lethal except to those in especially exposed positions.

Sunset Boulevard is wide, heavily traveled, and about twenty miles long. It runs from downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean north of Santa Monica, though there are shorter and easier ways to get there. The portion known as the Strip is about a third of the way out from town, and owes its existence to a geographical anomaly.

Where the Strip developed, Sunset Boulevard runs through an area about two miles wide which, with Beverly Hills adjoining it on the west, is entirely surrounded by Los Angeles but excluded from it. Beverly Hills is a separate municipality, but the area in which most of the Strip is located is known as West Hollywood and is not incorporated at all. Lawful authority in West Hollywood is administered by Los Angeles County and represented by deputy sheriffs. Freedom from municipal control permitted the Strip to develop into an area of illicit amusement, violent and vulgar but conventional. But during the past decade its character has changed. It ceased to be violent, while vulgarity has become so characteristic of Los Angeles as to require no special enclave in which to flourish. The night clubs and dance hails became somewhat more sedate, and the Strip began to blend into Los Angeles on the east. Smart, or nearly smart, specialty shops opened; and reputable, if rather garish, apartment buildings and hotels were built. Los Angeles’s expensive Restaurant Row developed along the western part of the Strip, near Beverly Hills, and along La Cienega Boulevard where it intersects Sunset.

But business along the now respectable Strip has not been flourishing. Its near suburban facade developed spots of urban decay. There were even vacancies, and businessmen began to worry. Nothing was happening to relieve the Strip’s mediocrity: Hollywood had lost much of its allure; Westwood, a few miles further west, was far more elegant; this part of Sunset wasn’t even tawdry enough to be exciting. The plight of the Strip is epitomized in two electric signs that still dominate its east end. One urges fun-seekers on to Las Vegas; the other shows two elderly satisfied customers—it is not clear whether they are shades or survivors—smiling with satisfaction at the services they have received from Forest Lawn. In any case, the signs suggest, there could be little reason to remain on the Strip.

AT THIS JUNCTURE, and about two years ago, some of the tavern operators came up with a suggestion for improving business. They suggested that Los Angeles County rescind its ordinance forbidding persons under twenty-one from dancing in any place where liquor is served. There could be no question of legalizing the service of liquor to persons under twenty-one, which is forbidden by state law. But rescinding the ordinance would at least permit the owners to admit “teen-agers”—usually for a minimum charge of $2.50—sell them soft drinks and provide them with the kind of music they enjoy, which would open up a totally new market. This was done, and the response was so promising that many of the tavern operators signed leases on their property for several years.

The youngsters who moved onto the Strip and into the clubs did no drinking and behaved very well on the whole. But they are the vanguard of Southern Californian youth, where the vanguard is quite far out, like a vanguard should be. Their dress and hair styles are “mod” in the extreme; The Byrds sing their music, and The Buffalo Springfield, and The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and The Mothers of Invention. Most of the music is beautiful, though some of it is strange; and exactly this may be said of the youngsters themselves.

But as their numbers increased they brought trouble. Traffic along Sunset Boulevard slowed and sometimes halted, especially on week ends, less from the influx of youngsters than because of the curious and hostile tourists and family groups who came to stare—and sometimes to jeer and throw eggs—at them. National newsmagazines published colorful reports on the Strip in which the kids were featured as a new social problem. The local press established a presence with batteries of searchlights and mobile TV units, ready to report any dramatic event or, if none occurred, to incite one. The narrow sidewalks of Sunset Boulevard became crowded with youngsters who wanted to be where the action was but who lacked the funds or the inclination to lay out a succession of $2.50 entrance fees. They lounged and strolled along in a manner that the tourists who glared at them would have enjoyed as picturesque in a Mexican city where the corso is established custom; here, their elders enjoyed recoiling from them in a kind of squeamish panic almost as much.

As the situation developed, business began to fall off in Restaurant Row, whose adult customers had trouble driving to Scandia or The Marquis. Local shopkeepers who were not directly affected by the youngsters’ presence, since they were closed at night, nevertheless became anxious about the damage they thought the kids were doing to the area’s reputation; they had not, apparently, read Jane Jacobs with understanding. But how could the kids be turned off? They had the support of the tavern and coffee-house operators whose livelihood they had become; and these men were bound and protected by their leases. Moreover, at this point, the good behavior of the “teenyboppers” had become a problem. If they had been drinking or making a public nuisance of themselves they could have been abated easily enough. But they were neither hostile, nor aggressive, nor disorderly in their conduct; except by their sheer numbers and incidental economic impact they bothered nobody except people who are psychically disturbed by the sight of Youngsters in long hair and colorful clothing:

They only have respect for men in tailored suits
If you have long hair or are wear- ing boots
They think you’re doing something wrong!

the kids were to sing, with mournful detachment, when the police moved in and cracked down.

THE LEGAL BASIS on which the Sheriff’s Office began to act is County Ordinance 3611.1, which provides that “no person under the age of eighteen years shall loiter about any public street, avenue, alley, park or other public place” between 10 P.M. and sunrise unless accompanied by a parent, legal guardian, or spouse over twenty-one years old. The city of Los Angeles has a similar ordinance, and also has an ordinance forbidding loitering without reference to age or time of day; it is posted on a sign that greets every traveler who arrives at the airport. Loitering is defined as “to idle, to loaf, to stand idly by or to walk, drive, or ride about aimlessly and without purpose”—a definition that may well make the entire solar system illegal. Shortly after New Year’s, the County Board of Supervisors made the law tougher by adding a $500 fine, six months’ imprisonment, or both, applicable to parents or guardians of juveniles.

Through most of last fall, community pressure to crack down on “juvies” and get them off the Strip had mounted more rapidly than police action had responded. The weekly Los Angeles Free Press—one of the best and most aggressive of the loosely syndicated “underground press,” alleged in a detailed front-page story on October 28 that illustrations for a Los Angeles Times story published October 12 called “A Hard Day’s Night on the Strip,” showing sheriff’s deputies questioning suspected juveniles, had, in fact, been staged for the Times. The Sheriff’s Department, the Free Press said, had solicited the article from the Times “as an effective local counter to adverse criticism of the Department” in a recent Life magazine article devoted to the Strip.

The Free Press also dutifully reported that the Sheriff’s public relations office had denied its story. In any case, by mid-November, it was surely no longer necessary to stage exhibitions of police zeal. Sheriff’s deputies, assigned to the Strip in force, had been forcefully enforcing County Ordinance 3611.1. This ordinance, which I have quoted, presents unusual difficulties. Perhaps because of loose draftmanship, it fails to forbid persons of youthful appearance to exist between 10 P.M. and sunrise and forbids only their loitering in public places. Suspects must therefore be required to produce identification that reveals their age—a demand that has since been declared unconstitutional though juveniles have, in any case, no defensible constitutional rights and may not be affected by this decree. The law does not forbid anyone to attend a private party or any legitimate place of entertainment legally open to persons of their age, or to travel directly between such a place and their home, so long as he does not “ride about aimlessly and without purpose,” regardless of the hour. Nevertheless, many youngsters complain, police arrest them for loitering as soon as they leave a coffee house to go to their cars to drive home; and Los Angeles city police did certainly arrest—on a charge of “interfering in an arrest”—the fifty-seven-year-old Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California when he attempted to inform a youth that he need not produce the identification demanded. This arrest, moreover, occurred when the police entered a private hall where a rally to protest police action was in progress, in which the loitering ordinance could not conceivably have applied.

YOUNGSTERS ALSO FREQUENTLY allege police brutality in arrests. Whether police action constitutes brutality or merely indignity, what the police do is certainly objectionable. One tactic, repeatedly photographed on the Strip, is to stand behind the victim and thrust the billy club under his chin, grasping it at both ends and using it as a kind of garrotte to force his head back. Another, applicable only to long-haired youths, is to grasp their hair and twist their heads into position to be photographed. The following incident described by Malcolm Carter in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle of December 11 describes the way it is happening:

The police in action, however, were even more frightening. Seeing a cruiser with two deputies pull a car to the side, then follow the car off the Strip, I became curious. So I watched as the deputies ordered three 16 or 17 year olds out of their car, lean them against the vehicle for a thorough frisk and search the car [presumably for drugs] with a flashlight.

With all due respect,” I said to the deputy watching his partner complete a citation, “but couldn’t that be considered an unreasonable search? Don’t you have to show cause?”

His answer: “I assume everyone has a weapon. That’s how I stay alive.”

This conversation took place after the boys, pale and obviously nervous, were lectured about breaking the rules and asked whether their parents knew where they were.

But another conversation was even stranger. On a street overlooking the Strip, Sheriff’s men had established a kind of command post. In the first cruiser, sat a deputy peering through binoculars. In a second car sat other men. But the third vehicle was the pivotal one. Their faces made grotesque by a powerful light source bouncing off the roof, four men made plans. Two of them huddled around a makeshift table in back, poring over mimeographed instructions and penciled notations.

Can I help you?” a voice said. It was an officer eager to rid himself of intruders.

No,” I said, “just looking.”

This is a restricted area,” he declared.

Restricted to whom?”

To police and press.” Since I did not have a Los Angeles press card [Los Angeles does not issue temporary press cards to visiting journalists], he was not interested in my credentials as I stood there on the sidewalk looking at the Strip.

I’d like to see a superior officer,” I said. He pointed to his stripes. So I asked him what constituted unreasonable search.

Through clenched teeth he answered, “I don’t interpret the laws; I just enforce ‘em.”

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