LA Observed on KCRW: Streetscapes

Today's radio column mashes up the Militant Angeleno's post on the evolution of Los Angeles street signs with the controversy over ad signs to be beamed on the skin of the new skyscrapers proposed for Wilshire and Figueroa. The piece airs at 6:44 p.m., President Obama willing, on FM 89.9 or at Text appears here after the jump.

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

For a city supposedly as private as Los Angeles, there’s always a lot of chatter about the public streetscape. What belongs, what doesn’t, and what to hold precious.

The never-ending controversy about billboards and graphics pasted on walls has gotten hot again. But in a new way.

The upset now is over plans by the owners of the Wilshire Grand hotel to tear it down and build a pair of skyscraper towers.

Any developer -- in this economy -- willing to invest in a downtown skyscraper should be on some level applauded. But the controversy isn’t really over the construction project.

The debate is about the developer’s request for the OK to let advertisers beam messages on the towers.

The targets of those flashing colors would I presume be downtown pedestrians and drivers.

And if there’s enough of either of those to support ads like that, well -- that’s another good sign about the future of Downtown.

Some who oppose the signage think the sedate nature of Figueroa Street needs to be safeguarded. They lose me there.

There are places in the city where billboards should be allowed to burn bright, where outdoor graphics should be bold and distracting. If you can’t do that at the corner of Figueroa and Wilshire, I don’t know where you could.

Impose some controls that let City Hall dial things back if cars suddenly start crashing in the intersection. But otherwise, adding a little visual life to a downtown that still sleeps too soundly at night seems like a good thing.

On the other hand, I’m less sold on a change that affects the streetscape in a different way.

You know those signs at almost every corner in Los Angeles that tell you the street name?

Well, the city is slowly phasing in a new style of sign. And if you’ve seen them you can’t help but notice a certain aesthetic shift.

For decades L.A. street signs have been sleek and cool.

Start with the classic shotgun shape, black porcelain with white upper-case block letters.
They came in around 1946 and for a long time announced to anyone who saw them – this was L.A., man.

In the mid 60s, an aluminum blade-style sign came in. Also white letters on black, they felt a little less like L.A. – and since they went up on new streets, they subtly segregated the new from the old.

Then came a blue version of the blade, installed as older signs had to be replaced.

Finally in 1985, the city began using a blue trapezoidal shape – porcelain on steel – that freshened up the LA look.

It’s the most common style you see, but maybe not for long.

A new aesthetic is arriving on LA street corners. Bright, perky blue -- like you might see in a small town in middle America.

These signs have the city seal and a shape that the blog Militant Angeleno describes as somewhere between a UFO and the Chevrolet logo.

The Militant Angeleno has a nice display of LA’s street signs through the years. Go to our page at – slash – laobserved and you can click over to take a look.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

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