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How Hollywood Got a Second Chance

Marilyn Monroe’s star mints the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but if the star herself were still alive, would she be caught dead walking it?

Hollywood—the neighborhood, not the industry—hasn’t lived up to its name for half a century. If you could glimpse the New Year’s Eve opening of The Garden Court in 1919, you might understand. A red carpet greeted red-carpet-worthy guests. Each of its 72 suites housed a baby grand piano. The neoclassical building was home to A-listers for decades. That was Hollywood Boulevard.

At the turn of the 20th century, the once-sleepy enclave of Hollywood started drawing aspiring film studios in search of natural light. As making movies developed, Hollywood became the place where anything could happen. But by midcentury, all but one major film studio, Paramount, had deserted Hollywood. Car ownership rose, and residents scattered to the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley and the Westside. Hollywood—the idea, not the neighborhood—transcended itself, and dissociated from its bedrock.

As any golden child does when folks stop paying attention, Hollywood got into trouble. 

Left to its vices, the place once known for its light fell into the dark. Shabby investments brought to life anonymous office buildings and surface parking lots—lots of them. In the 1980s, Hollywood was most known for its seedy nightlife: glamorous to some, but grungy to most. A community redevelopment agency declared Hollywood blight and locals referred to the place as a shame—a waste of talent. Seven decades after opening, The Garden Court was an American horror story: abandoned, home to squatters, frequently on fire. Its new moniker? Hell House.

The rooftop bar at Mama Shelter

Developers demolished Hell House in 1984, the same fate to befall many of Hollywood’s art deco and art moderne buildings.

But today, the horizon looks different from the just-opened rooftop at the year-old Mama Shelter hotel. Located in central Hollywood, which decades earlier was best witnessed from behind tinted windows, an all-glass railing puts the neighborhood into focus, suggesting that Hollywood isn’t just a place to be seen, but a place worth seeing. Open to guests and locals alike, the shared space is designed to strike up conversation, with communal lounge seating stretching across the roof, scattered with colorful foosball tables and the promise of film screenings and live acoustic bands. It’s not just hip or fun but also friendly; the French owners have turned their corner spot from anomie to soirée.

Hollywood is returning to Hollywood, after all. Smarter investments before the end of the 20th century led to the Red Line, a subway shooting straight through the heart of Hollywood that connects the Valley to Downtown. Years later, the Academy Awards, which debuted in Hollywood in 1929 but bounced around for half a century, returned to Hollywood Boulevard and are now held at the Dolby Theater. Even Netflix, the Hollywood of the digital age, will soon open its headquarters several blocks east. Viacom, with its MTV and Comedy Central roster, is also relocating to Hollywood along with BuzzFeed Motion Pictures.

But that’s just business. What we really want is fun, and the new Hollywood is supplying it in spades.

Brooding, Prohibition-style cocktail dens put a fresh face on formerly blemished streets. No Vacancy, a speakeasy in Hollywood’s last remaining Victorian mansion, revives nightlife with moody cocktails and a touch of theatrics—it hosts al fresco burlesque shows in its backyard. The all-wood Sassafras Saloon opened around the same time in a converted townhouse brought in from Georgia; it combines jazz, blues, and a familial Southern charm with no-frills, barrel-aged cocktails. And MiniBar, less than a year old and tucked away in Hollywood Hills, is acutely intimate, with just a handful of seats and an eight-drink menu.

Classic restaurants like Musso & Frank, the oldest in Hollywood, are strongholds of the bygone era with red leather seats and timeless martinis, while the just-opened Paley restaurant nods to the golden age with a lighter finish, operating on a site formerly home to Hollywood’s first movie studio. Marble, oak, and concrete with brass accents and rounded edges are balanced with the contemporary menu’s simple recipes, including items like canoe-harvested wild rice and coal-roasted carrots.

Meanwhile, up-and-coming galleries flourish, taking advantage of modestly priced square footage. Over a dozen have opened in the past five years, completing a circuit of spaces centered in Culver City and Downtown and connecting Hollywood to art, the ultimate conversation starter.

And Mama Shelter—whose lobby ceiling is chalked with doodles and messages from those rising artists—won’t be the only new place to stay for long. In its wake, a clutch of hotels will open sooner than later (first up: the Dream Hollywood Hotel, set to open this summer).

It’s clear: Hollywood, known for its past, now has a future.

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