Weekend in West Hollywood

by Mark Thompson
EDGE Style & Travel Editor
Saturday Oct 22, 2011

This article is from the October 2011 issue of the EDGE Digital Magazine.
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Recently on the West Coast, a certain rainbow-flagged jurisdiction considered a resolution for "Go-Go Dancer Appreciation Day" - because the mayor was fearful that the city was becoming a little too sanitized. Where else but West Hollywood, right?

Originally known as Sherman, West Hollywood has a proud history of championing renegade behaviors. The town was named for land developer Moses Sherman who housed his railroad employees in the liquor-friendly town during Prohibition. All through the Roaring Twenties, nightclubs and casinos flourished along Sunset - and rather than curb its wayward habits, the city chose not to become a part of Los Angeles, adopting the name West Hollywood instead.

To walk Santa Monica Boulevard today (once known as Route 66) is to see the imprint of West Hollywood’s raffish history. On a late summer night, we paused in front of Eleven Nightclub where nearly naked go-go boys shook their moneymakers in the huge open windows of what was once the First National Bank of Sherman. After its incarnation as a bank, the Italian Revival building became a recording studio for Cher, Patti Labelle, and Donna Summer, among others. Is it any wonder then that the 1922 structure is now an upscale gay nightclub where sin, skin, and alcohol fill the former vaults?

Years ago, on our way to a new life in San Francisco, we followed Route 66 across the country, right into West Hollywood. In those days, Santa Monica Boulevard was notable for Frederick’s of Hollywood - and the seemingly endless parade of working boys who cruised the boulevard of broken dreams. Sunset Strip was famous for its notorious roll-and-roll clubs like Whisky A Go-Go and the Roxy, while the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica was where Jim Morrison lived - and Janis Joplin died.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian Jews helped make West Hollywood the second-largest Russian-speaking population in the US. And it was in 1984 that a coalition of gays, seniors, and Russian immigrants fought the city of Los Angeles for the right to keep rent control - and, in the process, incorporated the city of West Hollywood. And just like that, the gayest city on the planet was miraculously born - with the zip code 90069!

West Hollywood was the first US city to create same-gender domestic partnerships - way back in 1985. Now, more than twenty-five years later, West Hollywood’s population of 35,000 is more than 40% gay, a fact that helps to explain the community’s commitment to social justice. As the first US city with a majority of gay council members, the 1.9 square-mile municipality has been at the vanguard of progressive legislation, which in West Hollywood means free HIV testing, a transgender advisory board, a prohibition on public smoking - as well as a ban on handgun sales, leaf-blowers, and the de-clawing of cats. And recently, West Hollywood became the first city in the US to ban the sale of fur apparel.

Where you really notice the gay touch in West Hollywood is when you’re out walking. The medians along Santa Monica Boulevard, for example, are lushly landscaped and a recent public art project titled "On Route 66 Lights," featured a display of classic California neon signs. Palm trees along the sidewalk are flanked by bronze plaques commemorating various individuals who have died of AIDS. And nearly every block along Santa Monica has at least one rainbow flag waving in the twilight breeze.

What you quickly realize about West Hollywood while walking its leafy streets lined with quaint bungalows is how much this small town reminds you of your own hometown. Or rather, the halcyon hometown you created in your mind, the one where men walked hand in hand, laughing together, white teeth gleaming, on their way to dinner at a sidewalk café.

And that’s how West Hollywood is so much more than any hometown from which you escaped (or to which you return) - because what other town of 35,000 residents has world-class art galleries, Michelin-starred restaurants, legendary nightclubs, and a smorgasbord of boutiques from the world’s most famous designers? And what other small town that you know is able to afford a brand-new $84 million library?

Each year, West Hollywood plays host to the world’s largest Halloween street festival, which is more than one mile long with over 350,000 participants. There’s also the city’s beloved Christopher Street West Pride Festival, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010. And every year at Oscar time, Elton John’s much-ballyhooed and very popular fundraiser raises monies for his AIDS foundation.

A recent survey voted West Hollywood the "Most Walkable City" in the state of California, with WeHo scoring 89 points to San Francisco’s 85 - and one of the glories of West Hollywood is that an automobile is not mandatory for enjoying WeHo’s charms. Located at the base of the Hollywood Hills and directly adjacent to Beverly Hills, WeHo comprises three districts: Sunset Strip, Santa Monica Boulevard, and the Avenues (home to Cesar Pelli’s gargantuan Pacific Design Center). The walkable street grid makes everything in the city accessible, although there has been talk about connecting the Los Angeles metro system to West Hollywood - by means of a "Pink" subway line that would link to the Red and Purple lines. Really, could we have asked for anything more fitting?

For aficionados of gay resorts, West Hollywood has some of the same attributes of Fire Island Pines and South Beach, with some of an Atlantis Events cruise ship thrown in for good measure - and while the ocean might not be readily apparent, there’s no shortage of catwalking pretty boys.

As we wandered back from the Abbey on our last night with the gloaming settling over the boulevard, the brilliant-hued sky was a reminder that just as an oasis helps you to appreciate the unique beauty of the desert, so, too, does West Hollywood make the rest of Los Angeles look good - and the world beyond that much better.


(Feature continues on next pages: What to See, Where to Stay, Where to Eat, Where to Play, Where to Shop, Getting There...)


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