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A Los Angeles Primer: The Miracle Mile

Los Angeles once had a Seibu. Those who delve into the city’s history tend to obsess over some obscure happening from the past decade, the past century, the past two centuries. My own transfixing blip appeared just over half a century ago and disappeared soon after. “Even in Los Angeles — the city of gala premières for everything from Hollywood spectaculars to hamburger stands — the ‘grand opening’ last week of the U.S.’s first big Japanese-owned department store created quite a splash,” reported Time magazine on March 23, 1962. “Within 15 minutes after Seibu of Los Angeles unlocked its door, 5,000 shoppers were inside, women were fainting, policemen had to bar all entrances to slow down the rush and traffic was backed up for four blocks along Wilshire Boulevard.” But just two years later, America’s only Seibu, purveyor of the “oishii seikatsu” — “sweet life,” as I’d translate it — gave way to the probably more practical but crushingly less exotic Ohrbach’s. It shut down twenty years before I was born, but I still find myself thinking about the old Seibu whenever I walk by its location at the end of the Miracle Mile.

Though it gives me time and space to reflect on Japanese department stores of bygone days, traversing this stretch of Wilshire Boulevard on foot does perhaps snub its historic spirit. First developed in the twenties by A.W. Ross, a bust of whom still stands at 5800 Wilshire, these blocks between Highland and Fairfax Avenue (which actually add up to a mile and a half) offered prewar shoppers an automobile-friendly alternative to downtown crowding. Ross’ idea, the improbable success of which qualified as the “Miracle,” enjoyed a few good decades of eating downtown’s lunch, as they say. But by the time Seibu set up shop, decline had already set in, and the Miracle Mile’s own lunch got eaten in turn by postwar America’s signature far-flung suburban malls. (You can read more about this process in Nathan Masters’ “How the Miracle Mile Got its Name“.) Today, as city-center shopping and living undergoes a renaissance, many of those distant commercial behemoths look depressingly worse for wear; how long before we see a country-wide wave of mall demolitions? And where does that leave a place like the Miracle Mile, optimized neither for motorists nor pedestrians?

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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