Culture has been fundamental to the development of a popular modern Los Angeles. Whilst exploring local areas, I couldn’t avoid seeing very visual forms of art and advertising, whether on the plethora of billboards, on wall murals or even spray painted on the pavement (*cue confused American expressions* – the ‘sidewalk’). Angeleno graffiti dates back to the 1930s, however has gone through a tumultuous past of being associated with gangs (1960s-70s), then being banned in 1986, and has recently made a resurgence as it becomes increasingly stylish and fashionable, with companies accordingly capitalising upon these trends (Senn 2011; Fuentes 2014). You can watch a great overview of Melrose Avenue’s art history in the YouTube video below!
The present gentrification and evolution of Melrose Avenue has seen it embracing an alternative, so called ‘hipster’ vibe, with independent retailers coexisting alongside high-end retailers. The buzz which I felt along Melrose corresponds with an increasing social consumption of cultural goods, whereby people spread word of the area through social media or word of mouth (Currid & Williams 2010). The strategy of attracting predominantly young visitors has prioritised urban street art for people to visit or take photos of (which I am guilty of doing myself!).
“If you didn’t instagram it, did it really even happen?” – (pretty much every Millennial, 2017)
In this way, it’s evident how street art has been successfully converted into an advertising method, which has been noted across much of Los Angeles within areas where retail success arises from ‘semiotic qualities’ and distinctiveness (Koskinen 2007: 6; Droney 2010). The historic economic and physical decline of many commercial strips in Los Angeles, and indeed across the USA, instigated the initial gentrification along Melrose. Within the broader conditions of inner-city declines of US metropolitan areas, similar commercial strips such as Sunset or Vermont in Los Angeles saw a reduction in sales despite the overall economic growth of the state (Loukaitou-Sideris 2000). It didn’t surprise me to read in the news of the ‘Melrose Business Improvement District’ which seeks to capitalize upon the area’s edgy style (Romero 2015). The District’s focus upon art and murals appears, in my view, to have successfully prevented the avenue from following the pattern of inner city decline so commonly found in the USA.
However, I did notice that a lot of the art seemed to have a deeper meaning. For example, a pop up shop for mobile accessories called Sonix used the advertising strategy of spray painting feminist quotes on the sidewalk – “Girl Power, Grown Up”. A previous Melrose mural I saw online portrayed the #resist movement protesting the Trump Presidency, reflecting the wider national political turbulence. These politicized murals allow visitors to feel a sense of belonging with the area and self-identify with what values that Melrose is marketed to stand for.
My experiences along Melrose Avenue were reminiscent of a Geog2023 (urban geography) fieldtrip to Hoxton and Shoreditch, which were once peripheral areas renowned for a ‘creative’ vibe. Since then, however, property developers and gentrifiers have moved into the area through selling its artistic history as a trendy place to now live (Harris, 2012). The tourist side of me is obsessed streets like Melrose Avenue, but reflecting back to Geog2023 and applying it to Melrose, my inner geographer can’t help but be aware of how street art – an activity largely associated with acts of resistance and creativity – is perhaps becoming homogenized as enterprises begin to use it for economic gain.
Currid, E. & S. Williams (2010) ‘The geography of buzz: art, culture and the social milieu in Los Angeles and New York’, Journal of Economic Geography, 10: 423-451.
Droney, D. (2010) ‘The Business of ‘Getting Up’: Street Art and Marketing in Los Angeles’, Visual Anthropology, 23(2): 98-114.
Fuentes, E. (2014) ‘LA Story: Graffiti gets thumbs up in Los Angeles’, Index on Censorship, 43(2): 107-110.
Harris, A. (2012) ‘Art and gentrification: pursuing the urban pastoral in Hoxton, London’, Trans Inst Br Geogr, 37: 226-241.
Koskinen, I. (2007) ‘Avenues of Art and Design: How Design Districts Work’
Loukaitou-Sideris, A. (2000) ‘Revisiting Inner-City Strips: A Framework for Community and Economic Development’, Economic Development Quarterly, 14(2): 165-181.
Salim, Z. (2017) ‘Painting a Place: A Spatiothematic Analysis of Murals in East Los Angeles’, Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, 79: 41-70.
Senn, E.A. (2011) ‘The Cement Sanctuary: Contemporary Street Art in Los Angeles’, Ph.D. Thesis, California State University, Fullerton.