Analysis: Saving the Struggling Sunset Strip

sunset boulevardThe Sheriff ordered a 10 p.m, curfew for the Sunset Strip, the Whisky a Go Go considered changing its name to the non-alcohol associative “Whisk,” and rumors circulated that Jack Nicholson was one of the protesters that helped shut down the Strip to traffic as kids swarmed the famous street. Authorities were on edge, fearing a repeat of what they said were 1,000 young club goers “rioting” there.

If only the Sunset Strip could have that kind of notoriety today, a half century after those events sparked news headlines. Now it is the home to what the City of West Hollywood’s Economic Development Department calls four “clusters” of business interests: Music, Entertainment, Dining and Hotels.  The rock and roll Sunset Strip has become not only tamed, but lamed, with an edge that has been substantially dulled.

Once it had been a ground zero playground for the counterculture’s Baby Boomers, who rocked and rolled into history as teens and twenty-somethings, marked by the “Pandora’s Box Riot” of Nov. 12, 1966. But over time the Sunset Strip stakeholders have seen newer generations of partiers find other places to play, like the emerging Echo Park, Silver Lake and Los Feliz nexus of hipster music, dining and club scenes. Downtown LA is also getting its share of what had been a Strip-centric audience.

Before the Summer of Love, the Monterey Pop Festival or Woodstock, before Dylan went electric, the Sunset Strip was the coolest, hippest place in town. It was a favorite destination for party goers, the place where a creative culture, centered heavily on a music scene that would help define Los Angeles, was incubated. It even had an eponymous TV show, “77 Sunset Strip,” running from 1958 to 1964.

The Sunset Strip enjoyed decades of fame and notoriety from its glamorous and substantial rock and roll history, but it has been on a downward trajectory as a cultural lodestar, even though the EDD reports that hotel “bed taxes” (Transient Occupancy Tax) accounted for almost $20 million in revenue to the city last year. But, hotel stay overs are not what has made the Strip famous, no matter how much revenue they bring to the city. A bed is a bed, but there’s only one Sunset Strip to experience.

How to return vitality and relevance to the Sunset Strip, and bring people back to hang out there? How to make it a “destination”, again? That is the subject of a Dec. 18 City of West Hollywood Sunset Strip Report (which can be viewed online here) that recommended to the City Council that making a “marketing plan” and having a “vision” would help, and they are right. Fortunately, they have lots to work with. A very key asset is one of the potentially greatest, evocative brand names: “The Sunset Strip.” They need to effectively work it, by defining and distilling the essence of “what is” the Sunset Strip.

In an era where brands can motivate behavioral decisions, the Sunset Strip could be seen as having real resonance, livened up by injecting a shot of the future into the Strip. Understanding, articulating and maximizing its brand will take a think tank of creativity and imagination. It’s a task well suited to, and would benefit from being led by, the creative entrepreneurs that run the music scene, and the restaurateurs that survive by the patronage of their customers, supported by the implementation of the solid infrastructure improvements—stuff the city understands—recommended in the report reviewed by the City Council at its Dec. 18 meeting.

Separating visioning responsibilities for “content” (the essence of the Strip) and “process” (a city-led review of upgrading the parking, streamlining special events permitting, building a fiber optic ring, and other infrastructure improvements) may be helpful.

There’s a history of star making, of being discovered on the Sunset Strip. Nowhere else in Los Angeles can you dream the Sunset Strip dream. It’s time for that aspiration to be reactivated. In a pop culture that uses the Mama’s & the Papas choraling about “California dreaming” to get us buy lottery tickets, it’s not a stretch to think the “mood” can be set to attract “Sunset Strip dreamers” honoring the ghosts of the past and the opportunities of the future. Robert Louis Stevenson was right when he unwittingly became a leader in advertising and marketing theory by saying, as a travel book author circa 1875, that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” or, what a Taoist may express by saying “the journey is the reward.”

The vibe, the history, the hope and expectation of fun, fermented by good food, drink, music and entertainment, is the reward for coming to the Strip, starting with the locals. The Strip is finding no love at home. It has become a backwater for WeHo residents, with only 11% of them, in a city survey, saying that they even visited the Strip, which is right in their own backyard, a part of their city. Walkability and safety, along with clean streets and sidewalks, also factor into the environment and may help attract the Strip’s WeHo neighbors, and others, according to the report.

The house almost always wins in Vegas, but that didn’t stop 43 million visitors from going there last year to be part of the “Vegas” brand and vibe. They poured into the casinos to fulfill their aspirations: dreams of making it big while having a good time along the way, usually knowing they will break even or lose, but that can never get in the way of the aspirational drive that fuels so many lives.

The Strip can also pack this type of emotional payoff. If it aspires to greatness, again, driven by creativity, again, chances are it will succeed.

  1. So the City has sold the soul of the Sunset Strip; stop the presses!
    The evolution of the Strip is simply a glimpse into West Hollywood’s future of crass commercialization without regard for our unique history or the people who live here. Of course you neglected to point out that thanks to all of this wonderful development the City is awash with cash; at nearly half a million a year, our City Manager is one of the best paid in the State, we have $18 million to spend on a dysfunctional robo-garage behind City Hall plus we can afford to pay $500,000 for John Duran’s sexual harassment suit.

  2. A belated lump of coal to those on the city council that allow the city to be exploited by the exploiters.

    Gratitude to those on the city council whose diligence helps continue the original goals of the city.

    One half a lump of coal to the fence sitter at the fork in the road who can’t determine how or where to proceed.

    WeHo was not conceived as a pot of gold to be shared by the exploiters at the expense of the residents that have weathered the storm and call it home.

  3. The more corporate crap restatuarants that open up there — and tourist bars, the less anyone who lives here will go. It’s devolving into Hollywood Boulevard practically. Wahlburgers? Please!

  4. “The Strip is finding no love at home. It has become a backwater for WeHo residents, with only 11% of them, in a city survey, saying that they even visited the Strip”

    With WeHo and surrounding neighborhoods not adding enough new housing units, prices are rising and average resident age is getting older and less hip. The article cites Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, DTLA; and I would add Koreatown which are places young hip people can actually afford to move.

    If WeHo wants the Strip to become hip again, it should be building tons of new housing units, many of them small and with little parking. Attract young hip residents and they will want to stay in the neighborhood when they party.

  5. If you want people to come to the Strip, then don’t make the experience of coming to the Strip so unpleasant. Traffic is terrible and there’s no subway nearby, so you’re probably stuck in a car (or bus) no matter what. Then depending on what you’re doing that night, you have to factor in parking costs, cover charges, and drink prices and/or minimums. One time in the good old days before Uber, I wound up with a $33 cab ride home from the Rainbow Room just going to East Hollywood. It’s just not worth the expense and annoyance to hang out on the Strip, and anyone capable of restarting any sort of “scene” there has been priced out of it.

  6. The City of WeHo is convinced that thousands of tourists will be drawn to the Strip for the pure joy of looking at the endless billboards they’ve approved. Sheer idiocy.

  7. fine7760: They tried a “street Rock event” a few years ago. It was called the Sunset Strip Music Festival. It hemorrhaged money, so they shut it down.

    “Rock clubs being replaced by hotels” didn’t kill the Strip, and anyone who says otherwise is delusional.

    Here’s what killed the Strip: cruising in the ’80s turned off a lot of visitors who didn’t want to deal with the traffic or the douchebags. High rents and poor planning created a lot of vacant buildings and killed foot traffic. The Whisky and the Viper Room going “pay to play” in the late ’90s killed whatever music scene was still around by then. And in the last decade there’s been endless construction, from WeHo’s repaving of Sunset to all the new hotels. All that kept businesses from thriving and people from walking around.

    Once construction is finished on Sunset Time, foot traffic should slowly increase amongst neighbors and hotel guests, especially now that we have several decent restaurants and bars to choose from. Of course, work on Gwyneth Paltrow’s club, that rumored hotel next to the Edition, and maybe even something on that long-vacant lot at Hammond will soon start, which will return us to clogged sidewalks and no foot traffic.

  8. You can’t live in the past. The more things change, the more they remain the same…..Meaning, when it comes to attracting new business and embracing trends, the Sunset Strip must change to stay business relevant……Modern business relevance not the nostalgia of the past.

  9. Sadly, Weho invented Las Vegas as a prototype and then the whole thing got up and moved to Las Vegas itself. We had speakeasies, illegal gambling, cat houses in the hills with vans going up and down all night and sammy davis jr was king of the strip. Now we are stuck with the ghosts of the heavy metal music movement when it comes to nightlife on the strip. Hotels they have, nightlife they don’t.

    It was all covered in a great documentary about the strip made for HBO: TRAILER –

  10. Really? None of the ‘city planners’ thought about the impact of removing music venues and replacing them with hotels would have on the Strip? It’s now just hotel row, a place to spend the night before going elsewhere for entertainment. Kinda like when a development will clear cut all the trees because ‘it’s needed,’ but then turn around a couple years later and say we need trees because ‘it’s needed.’

  11. The Sunset strip has been in decline for years, made worse when the House of Blues finally closed. The Strip recently has also lost the Cat club and the Key club as well. While we continue to close the venues that locals and tourists come to see and replace those eith more high rise hotels, the future only looks grim for such an iconic region. Unfortunately the rock n roll days from the 60’s through the 90’s are gone and probably never to return. R.I.P The Sunset Strip and all the good times.

  12. Greed plain and simple is your answer. Overpriced everything including $ 62 for an expired meter . West Hollywood and local business took visitors and locals tor granted . Now cry because a new generation of people are wiser. In the 15 years I’ve lived in WEHO. There has been a dramatic change. A once cozy feeling community now feels like just another part of west LA. You can thank city hall for this. .

  13. To paraphrase WeHoMikey — How about we STOP TEARING DOWN EXISTING HISTORIC/NOTABLE MUSIC VENUES, BARS AND HANG-OUTS TO BUILD HOTELS IN THEIR PLACE, so that visitors have nowhere to actually go when they stay in all of these new hotels?

  14. How about we STOP BUILDING MORE HOTELS on the Strip? If I wanted to see yet another Marriott, I can do that anywhere.

  15. What about a Rock & Roll Museum? That should draw some people. Those tacky museums at Hollywood and Highland alway seem busy. Add to it a venue where new talent could perform that otherwise would not be seen at the Whisky or other clubs. Lastly, put on street Rock events fashioned after Halloween which seems to make money on Santa Monica Bl. each year.

  16. “STRUGGLING” Really? With all the NEW Hotels our city has authorized the long awaited new building(s) at LaCienega/Sunset all of which has glutted the traffic even more (if possible) what is the struggle? There are many older buildings I assume will soon fall to even more hotels….. if any struggle exists, the boring yet lucrative congestion of clubs, hotels and restaurants certainly should be far from struggle. It looks like someone doesn’t know what kind of community it should be there….and the continued glut should make it even more undesirable to many. Perhaps we should STOP adding and instead build/develop in other parts of our city to redefine, repurpose and redistribute.

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