From sleepy town to cinema hub to today – as UCLA has grown, so has Westwood.
By STEPHANIE LAI
The Village is quiet. Blinking lights illuminate "Westwood" on top of the observatory tower overlooking the undeveloped land of Rancho San Jose de Buenos Ayres in 1925.
Decades later, Westwood is crowded with students, residents and travelers in line for the next big movie premiere. And yet in the following years, the Village goes quiet once more.
The sleepy Westwood Village spent several decades as a neighborhood serving the needs of UCLA before transforming into an entertainment hub. In the years to come, the Village faced unique challenges that linger today.
Westwood has seen its fair share of eras, from being a bustling cultural hub to an isolated college town, leaving a common sentiment among residents and alumni that Westwood was once fun. At the time, Westwood was the only major retail and entertainment center in the region.
In a series of unplanned demographic and economic shifts from 1955 onward, the crowds shrunk and the Village began scrambling to reclaim its identity. Westwood Village, in the late 1980s, was no longer a retail center catered to the region or a weekend destination for watching movies and dining, but rather a forgotten neighborhood trying to regain its attraction.
The Village has made strident efforts to bring life back to the neighborhood amid its growing pains. As the Village’s history cannot be rewritten, these impassioned stakeholders now face a delicate task of looking from their own observatory tower and designing Westwood’s future..
Edwin and Harold Janss began construction on the Village in the 1920s after offering to sell a portion of their land to the University of California Board of Regents, which govern over the UC system.
UCLA, formerly known as the Southern Branch of the University of California, was located on Vermont Avenue at the Los Angeles State Normal School. Due to increased enrollment, the school later moved to the "Beverly site," now known as Westwood, in 1925, according to UCLA historical archives.
The regents required the future campus site to be on gifted lands, which led to the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Venice and Beverly Hills passing municipal bond measures to purchase the land from the Janss Brothers for $1.3 million to later donate the land to the Regents, according to Westwood historical archives.
Construction began on the Westwood location in May 1927, and the campus was not officially named UCLA until that year. Shortly after in 1929, the Janss Investment Company opened the Village after attracting local businesses to relocate, including Campbell’s Bookstore and Oakley’s Barber Shop.
The Janss brothers, from then on, were able to grow the Village in tandem with the university. Their intent was to build a town for the gown – a community to support the forthcoming university. Up until the 1960s, students and residents strolled through gently sloping streets and pedestrian-level storefronts, surrounded by Mediterranean architecture.
Each business the Janss brothers brought into the Village provided a different service for the university students and faculty. From Westwood’s inception, the Village developed to match services needed by the university.
The Janss brothers maintained control over the Village until 1955 when they sold their remaining titles to Arnold Kirkeby and later to Manuel Borenstein, both real estate developers at the time, according to Daily Bruin archives.
The shift in ownership signaled the end of the united front of Westwood business. The Janss brothers’ single ownership over the Village allowed them to control the overall mix of businesses that entered the Village. Their control ensured the commercial district didn’t feature businesses that competed with one another, said Andrew Thomas, executive director of the Westwood Village Improvement Association, a nonprofit organization tasked with improving the state of the Village.
The influx of new property owners, most notably in the 1970s, caused a rise in directly competing businesses because landlords failed to communicate what businesses they were bringing into the Village.
In the late 1950s, businesses began growing along Wilshire Boulevard because of the onset of the 405 Freeway that would connect San Fernando Valley to West Los Angeles, Kevin Roderick, author of "Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles," said. By 1962, the freeway had opened and high-rises began developing along Wilshire Boulevard.
Soon, the Bank of America and Holmby Hill Clock tower that protruded into the sky in the Village were overshadowed by high-rises looming along its outskirts.
The growth in high-rise office spaces brought commuters into the Village, further developing the neighborhood into a rapidly intensified business district, Roderick said.
Sandy Brown, president of the Holmby Westwood Property Owners Association and 30-year Westwood resident, said homeowners have historically opposed changing the quiet neighborhood into an urban district.
But in time, urbanizing businesses in the neighborhood emerged.
The shifting neighborhood composition signaled for the city to create zoning ordinances to regulate Westwood’s design. Los Angeles created zoning for Westwood in 1970, later creating the Westwood Village Specific Plan in 1989 to preserve the neighborhood’s unique historical and architectural design, said Zev Yaroslavsky, an LA city council member representing Westwood and surrounding areas from 1975 to 1994 and director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Renee and Meyer Luskin School of Public Affairs and the department of history.
Yaroslavsky said the city aimed for Westwood to remain a low-rise neighborhood with ample parking to maintain the character of a community-oriented retail village.
The community saw an influx of entertainment venues like movie theaters at the expense of community-serving retail stores from the 1960s to 1980s, so the Specific Plan was intended to provide parking and ensure the Village would prevent nightlife from changing the character of the Village, he added.
The Village remained a major retail market for locals and visitors until the 1980s when retail malls opened in neighboring cities.
According to the LA Times, the Century City Shopping Center was scheduled to open with an AMC multiplex theater in 1987 and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica opened Sept. 16, 1989, creating direct competition for Westwood merchants.
Thomas said the onset of large retail centers with better access to parking drew shoppers out of Westwood. The competition contributed to reducing local and regional reliance on the Village.
Amid changing demands, a handful of businesses have stayed in the Village for over 50 years, including Oakley’s Barber Shop, Sarah Leonard Fine Jewelers and Stan’s Donuts.
Clinton Schudy, owner of Oakley’s Barber Shop, said the Janss brothers were clients of the shop and convinced the original owners to move into Westwood in 1929.
Schudy said Oakley’s has seen continued success in Westwood because of good, standing established relationships with the Village and the university.
“I hear this many times over; customers like coming here because it feels comfortable,” Schudy said. “It has continuity and they like going places where there’s a history.”
Sarah Leonard Fine Jewelers, one of the Village’s long-standing businesses, opened in 1946. David Friedman, a co-owner, said his family’s business survived in the Village because of its unique and antique merchandise and wide price range to accommodate students and homeowners. Friedman said his business has also adapted by setting up an online store platform and using social media to reach younger generations.
It has continuity and they like going places where there’s a history.
While the Village had seen shifts, Friedman said Sarah Leonard has seen the same success in Westwood through its eras as a quiet neighborhood and later a lively marketplace.
Even in the 1990s when the Village faced downturns and streets were littered with gum and graffiti, visitors still supported local merchants, Schudy said.
When the Westwood campus officially opened in 1929, the school was composed of four buildings – known today as Royce Hall, Haines Hall, Powell Library and Kaplan Hall – and no student dormitories. As a result, the school remained a commuter campus with the exception of a coed student housing option located on the second story of the old Janss Dome Building and the second story of the Holmby Hills Clock Tower, according to a 1985 Westwood cultural report.
While the Village was formed to serve the university, in time development within UCLA relinquished student reliance on the village. The Village and the university grew in tandem. Soon, student’s lack of demand for services in the Village impacted businesses.
A limited number of students lived in the Village until the university issued a series of expansion projects to centralize student housing and services on campus. Surges of on-campus housing and services in both the 1960s and 1990s reduced students’ reliance on the Village.
Mira Hershey Hall, a women's student housing building on Hilgard Avenue, opened Oct. 19, 1931, housing 131 students. However, UCLA remained primarily a commuter campus until 1959, when the university announced the opening of Dykstra Hall, the first on-campus dormitory that would house 800 men. Following suit, Sproul Hall opened in 1960 and construction began for Rieber Hall in the fall of 1961, housing an additional 1,636 students.
These on-campus housing options gave students a new lounge space, dining area and kitchens.
Ackerman Union opened on April 3, 1961, adding retail shops and entertainment venues on campus like a bowling alley and arcade.
Schudy said Ackerman Union led to a reduction in business for Oakley’s because it gave students less reason to go into Westwood to get a haircut.
The university’s largest expansion was not until 1990 when then-Chancellor Charles Young worked with the city to expand UCLA by 4 million square feet. The expansion transformed UCLA’s campus to its current design.
The Long Range Development Plan, commissioned by Young, aimed to expand the campus without major traffic increases, Yaroslavsky said. As a result, the university started expanding by 1 million square feet at a time with the restriction in the plan that Westwood could not see more than 25,000 cars a day.
UCLA's traffic has remained static over the last 30 years, never coming near the 25,000 additional vehicle trips the agreement allowed for, he said. The plan accommodated a larger student body, but kept them on campus with some off-campus housing options within a mile of the campus. By building more housing on campus, planners were able to manage traffic so the university would shift from a commuter to a primarily residential campus.
This plan allowed UCLA to develop independently from the Village by increasing the campus size without bringing more students into Westwood.
Visitors throughout the region used to line up for hours for the newest movie premiere, filling the streets and local restaurants during the weekend from the 1960s to 1980s.
Peaking into the sky, the Fox Village Theater tower and the adjacent Bruin Theatre's neon sign drew in moviegoers starting in the 1930s when they were constructed. Prior to 1940, the Fox Village Theater and the Bruin Theater were the only two in the neighborhood. Within 35 years, eight theaters opened their doors in Westwood.
The prevalence of movie premieres transformed Westwood from a quiet neighborhood into an entertainment hot spot by the 1970s, the host of Hollywood premieres like “The Matrix,” “The Exorcist” and “The Godfather.”
Westwood was in a favorable position to become a pocket for movie premieres because of its proximity to major studios in West LA, said Lyndon Golin, president of Regency Theaters. The neighborhood had no immediate competition for movie theaters before the 1980s, forging it as a cinema hub.
Studios would partner with theaters to run their movie premieres, often choosing Westwood theaters for their large auditoriums and established presence, Golin said.
Weekend crowds enthralled by the premieres, exclusive to Westwood and a handful of other theaters outside the region, would gather in Westwood if they wanted to see a movie, Roderick said.
Roderick said single-screen theaters at the time would show one major movie for months, such as "The Exorcist," which played for a year.
Charlie Carter, a UCLA alumnus and former resident of Westwood, said the premieres were large scale events with police and security blocking off streets. Attendees not blinded by flashing cameras from paparazzi watched as limos paraded by and celebrities walked the red carpet.
Movie crowds spurred the local economy at the time, but the Village’s popularity was fleeting.
Similar to competition impeding businesses, in 1987, the AMC Century City opened as one of the first multiscreen theaters in the region. The theater, and other multiplexes outside Westwood, provided moviegoers with more convenient locations, more movie offerings and better parking, Thomas said.
Along with the presence of competition, the Village and its businesses began facing problems caused by the large crowds.
“The pendulum had swung too far,” Thomas said. “There was too much activity here, people shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalks, cruising in the streets and some of the stores opening up weren’t great.”
Steve Sann, a Westwood community member, said high-end retail stores started closing and being replaced with bars, frozen yogurt and fast food establishments and brand name retailers in the 1980s as a result of the movie theater crowd
Violence in the Village
The Village in the 1970s was a safe neighborhood, Brown said. Westwood had yet to reach its capacity from movie crowds, and crime was less prevalent relative to the rest of the city.
Yet, through a series of isolated violent episodes, commotion in Westwood gave the Village a new reputation it could not shake for several years, Yaroslavsky said.
July 27, 1984
Daniel Lee Young, 20, killed three and injured 39 pedestrians by driving southbound on Westwood Boulevard from Kinross to Weyburn avenues the Friday before the opening of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, according to Daily Bruin archives. Police at the time reported Young driving 35 mph into the crowded sidewalk .
Audrey Hendricks-Fox, a former resident and a manager at the old Lynn Hallmark’s store, was in a store on Westwood Boulevard when the incident occurred.
“I didn’t leave the store,” she said. “All the sudden, I heard screaming and everyone was running out the door.”
Charlie Carter, who witnessed the aftermath of the incident, said he heard a long series of sirens coming from the Village.
“It looked like a war zone,” Carter said. “A lot of the first responders had arrived triaging and treating patients. It was an endless sea of ambulances and people being tended to.”
December 18, 1987
Over 1,000 people were involved in a large fight midway through the premiere comedy show screening of Eddie Murphy’s “Raw,” according to LA Times archives.
January 30, 1988
Karen Toshima, an innocent bystander, was shot in the head by a member of an LA South Central street gang on Broxton Avenue, according to Daily Bruin archives. Toshima, 27, died the following morning.
Durrell Dewitt Collins, 21, was sentenced 27 years to life in prison for the murder of Toshima and attempted murder of a rival gang member, according to the LA Times.
Yaroslavsky said Westwood became a popular spot for visitors, which he said eventually meant gang members as well. As a council member at the time, he said the city increased foot patrols in the area and posted a $25,000 reward for information on the gunman.
March 8, 1991
Police arrested nine people after a delay in a Friday night opening of “New Jack City” at Mann Westwood Theater turned to chaos. Ticket holders were turned away, causing 1,500 people to rampage through the Village, according to Daily Bruin archives. Rioters smashed storefront windows and looted $100,000 in merchandise from 21 stores.
The aftermath of these events painted Westwood a new reputation.
Among these four isolated instances, the shooting of Toshima has been attributed to the decline of the Village by community members.
Yaroslavsky said the dynamic of the Village changed drastically after the shooting. Some visitors did not go back to Westwood, which contributed to a growing number of closing businesses and vacancies, he said.
Shocked that Westwood was not immune to gang violence, local authorities even named 1988 the “Year of the Gang,” days after the Toshima incident, according to the LA Times.
Elizabeth Rosenfeld, a resident of Westwood for 45 years, said the Village lost its appeal after the shooting because gang violence had extended into the neighborhood.
“There was nothing there left,” Rosenfeld said. “The movie theaters were starting to close, there weren’t as many restaurants, there weren’t as many stores. People didn’t want to go there because it was kind of rowdy and then there were fewer people to populate the stores and the stores didn’t do well.”
Thomas said Westwood needs to find closure on the shooting, because people thought West LA was immune from violence. Even now, the neighborhood has not been able to shake the initial shock of the incident, he said.
Yaroslavsky said the Toshima murder was an isolated case with no incidents like it before or since. The rare incident received wide media attention, which branded the Village as a more dangerous place than it really was, he said.
Following the violent incidents, the LA Times reported no significant increase in Westwood crime rates after 1991. Westwood, however, was branded with a reputation of violence and lost charm.
Visitors stopped patronizing businesses in the Village out of fear of Westwood’s publicized reputation, leaving Westwood to deal with the aftermath years later. Crime stagnated and decreased while streets emptied and businesses closed, signalling the end of Westwood’s acme. The Village fell silent.
Visitors cannot relive dining experiences in Yesterday’s, a popular restaurant in the '70s and '80s, or stroll into Westworld, an arcade that closed in 2008. Memories of browsing through rows of shiny new vinyls at Tower Records, a record store, are long past.
Thomas said the Village suffered in the early 2000s from a growing vacancy rate, but has now decreased to a 16% vacancy rate. In the last two decades, businesses have returned to the Village, filling some of the empty storefronts.
He said Westwood should bring in more similar use businesses to create a synergy in the district. Having similar services, like an array of breweries, drives visitors into the area and create a sense of vibrancy, Thomas said. The city should amend the Westwood Village Specific Plan to lessen restrictions on food establishments and parking, he added.
The Janss brothers envisioned a one-of-a-kind Village to cater to the students, but now new solutions have been posed to best serve the community.
Local community members foresee more problems in the future before a period of growth. John Heidt, a board member of the WVIA, said retail competition in the 1980s caused Westwood to reconsider the demand for local services. He said Westwood has made strides toward becoming more pedestrian friendly, but he expects to see another downturn in business starting in 2022 when construction on the Metro Purple Line Extension begins in Westwood.
However, he said he believes the completion of the Purple Line in 2026 will mark a period of economic growth in the Village.
The neighborhood now faces a pivotal moment to regain its charm and vibrancy, Heidt said.
UCLA and Westwood grew together, and naturally, grew apart. The Janss brothers’ plan to create the perfect college town failed to cater to students in the past; however, current efforts to liven Westwood attempt to reconcile the gap and reconnect students to the Village.
“The Village cannot return to how it once was, but it can keep moving forward,” Brown said.
Now 90 years old, Westwood faces a new frontier, filled with zoning ordinances and local politics – an unactualized future as promising as what the Janss brothers saw in the old Westwood Observatory Tower when they first developed the neighborhood.