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Culver City: A Transformed Set

My small 2005 volvo s60 sedan was full. 5 of us sat on the black leather seats, shifting back and forth as the tires drove over the uneven street of Culver Boulevard. We were playing alternative hits from a range of the last three years and singing along. No one in the car except for me had even been to Downtown Culver City, but we had heard about a new restaurant, Public School, which everyone had been posting about on their instagram stories. As we drove we were barely paying attention to the scenery passing by our windows as we were too busy shouting over each other about something funny which had happened the week before. However, once we reached the beginning of downtown, there was a slight hush that fell over the car. 

“This is a really cute area.” My friend declared from the back, “Like it comes out of nowhere.” The car murmured their agreement looking out their windows to the brightly lit brick buildings and trendy restaurants as we passed.  The moment was over soon and the car again erupted with storytelling and laughter, but for a second, just a second downtown had stopped them in their loud tracks and made them pay attention. 

Downtown Culver City is a place that can be heard. It is loud in its life pulsing through the small stretch of Washington Blvd and Main Street. As soon as you enter the city you can hear it. You can hear the middle aged businesses people as they walk down its wide, clean sidewalks, loudly debating housing prices in Calabasas.The production assistant who is holding a yellow manilla envelope, who taps his foots over and over again to the beat of the street lights which counts down the time until he can hurriedly walk across the white hashes of the crosswalk. The cry of excitement that is issued from somewhere down the street as someone sees a famous celebrity walking into their favorite restaurant. The large black Equinox building filled with fitness influencers and middle aged working people running endlessly on the treadmill, whose footsteps ring in your ears as you walk by and the door swings open revealing a small, white women in Lululemon yoga pants and a small, bright pink smoothie in her hand. Her small slurps from the paper straw can be heard for a block, before she turns into one of the parking garages. You are hit by the endless sound of construction which rings in your ears, as the men in bright yellow reflective vests drill into the uneven black street, marking the expansion of the area. The commanding instructions from the Culver City Hotel host which directs people around the chain link fence that hides away the progress of the construction workers from the pedestrians as they pass the historic red bricked hotel. The singing and murmured prayers in both English and Spanish mingling into one resounding voice issue out of St. Augustine Church, a tall pale grey Catholic Church with elegant arches and steeples. The calls of local Californian vendors selling anything from strawberries to dessert tamales, at the Farmer’s Market calling out to you to come try a sample.

Downtown Culver City sometimes feels like a fantasy. A piece of Los Angeles that has a facade unlike any other. The blue and yellow metal sign welcoming you to “The Heart of Screenland” serves as a lure drawing you into it’s small community. A community rich with history and historical buildings with large metal, oxygenizing plaques which declare the place and its significance to the city. Its architecture is almost disconcerting in its east coast brick style buildings, that seems to come out of nowhere from the endless rows of the apartments decked in various natural colors of stucco which line Culver Boulevard. The elegant columns of the massive white building that houses Sony Pictures Studios fills up the glaze as you enter the area. It is almost as if it is welcoming you into the movie set that is downtown Culver City. A movie set that has been invaded by the hipster culture of Los Angeles and the money that brings in. From the Anthropologie style that clades the population to the 9 dollar “latte potions” which can be found at the small Make Out Cafe across from the Culver City Hotel, it’s almost forceful in its reminders that this place has been taken over. 

Like most of the westside of LA, Culver City was built on land that was stolen from the Tongva people. In 1819 Agustín Machado claimed the Culver City area as Rancho La Ballona with brother his Ygnacio Machado, and Felipe and Tomás Talamantes. The Machado’s applied for grazing rights later that year with success. 20 years later the brothers and Talamantes received a grant for cattles, horses, and vineyards on the land. By 1883 both of the Machado’s had passed away, but they left in their wake a school and St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. The remnants of the Machado’s and the other rancheros who worked the land is still prevalent, today in the abundance of ranch style houses that line the streets of Culver City’s residential areas, that start just a block away from the downtown area. After the rancheros established the land in 1917 Henry Culver incorporated the city as Culver City. The incorporation of the city led to Inceville Studios moving to Washington Boulevard in 1917, just two years after the street was built. This established Culver City as a member of the entertainment industry and allowed for it to be a place known for nightlife and good time in the 1920s. In 1936 Inceville Studios was joined by MGM Studios and Culver City was cemented as a big player in the industry, releasing the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind in 1938. By 1970 however, MGM divested itself of its properties and props and was reduced to simply a main lot. For 30 years between 1970 and 2000 the city was in limbo. Schools were closed down due to declining enrollment and growth in the city became stagnant. Downtown Culver City was simply a strip of street to pass as one was going somewhere else. 

Then in 2003 things started to change. NPR West moved into Culver City which brought jobs and new residents to the area. The Historic Culver Theatre was then renamed the Kirk Douglas Theater and reopened as a performing arts venue. Over the next decade new trendy food spots, high priced movie theaters, and chain restaurants start to dominate the Downtown Culver City space. 

“Culver City, once considered a place to drive by on your way to somewhere else, has become Los Angeles’s newest stylish neighborhood, a magnet for lovers of the arts, good food and culture.” Janelle Brown wrote in the New York Times article, In Culver City, Calif., Art and Food Turn a Nowhere Into a Somewhere back in 2007

It was this change in demographics and businesses that brought the city to the trendy, affluent area it is today. An area which drew Leah and Bea Koch into the area. Leah and Bea are sisters from Chicago, IL who opened up The Ripped Bodice bookstore in 2016 on Main Street of Downtown Culver City. 

The Ripped Bodice is a romance only bookstore, the only one like it in the nation. The store is easy to spot by its elaborate window designs placed in the hanging space between the glass window and store behind. Elaborate decorations which change each month based on the holiday. The inside of the store is even more alluring. It has ornate furniture with elaborate white bookcases lining the wall and beautiful purple coaches to sit on that look straight out of a Jane Austen novel. There are books on the walls, hanging from the air, and on the floor. 

When I make my way into the small bookstore one Tuesday afternoon, from the bustling farmers market set up mere feet from its door, the store has a couple customers roaming around. All of them are women and are glancing around at the plethora of romance books in the store. Leah Koch is busy at the counter, constantly clicking with the mouse on something on the screen. She greets everyone who comes in with a wide smile and an inquiry if they need help finding anything. 

Her shift is ending soon, but Koch is happy to talk to anyone in the store. She loves the community and the discourse she has with her customers in Culver City. In fact, it is one of the reasons she and her sister decided to open a business in the city.

“We (Leah and Bea Koch) loved the feel of the downtown area, we wanted a walkable area which is hard to find in LA. It felt like a small town within a big city,” Koch explains with a smile, gesturing outside towards the crowded farmer’s market beyond. 

Koch and her sister originally hail from Chicago, but have made their home in Los Angeles. Bea followed her sister out to California after attending NYU and Yale. Leah moved to the golden state to attend university.

“I moved to LA to go to college at USC and never left,” Koch said

In 2016 they were determined to try to follow their dream of opening a bookstore. They started by raising $91,000 on the crowd funding website kickstarter. Then they had to decide where they wanted to start their brick and mortar shop.

“We decided to open here mostly because we liked the weather and didn’t want to go back to having winter!” Koch jokes. So their dream became reality. They opened up The Ripped Bodice on March 3, 2016 on Main Street Culver City. Soon they became a success in part due to their originality and uniqueness. 

“We are the only romance focused bookstore in the entire country.” Koch explains, which means they really do not have any competition within the U.S. 

However, while their uniqueness has gained them customers and notoriety, it has also come with plenty of challenges. Being a women run business that caters to women has been a steep hill to climb. 

“There are a lot of men not used to a space that isn’t designed with them in mind and they like to come in and tell us that! But we are used to it now and don’t let it deter us.” 

The Ripped Bodice is definitely not designed for men. Everything in the store is white and pink. They keep the store stocked with  plenty of books for women from funny pins, to a whole section of  erotica, to the cardboard cutout of Twilight’s Edward Cullen hulking in the corner.

They have tried to take their own experience and struggles to help others who may be facing similar dilemmas. One of the ways they do this is through the Diversity Report. The Diversity Report is a Romance Publishing Study which according to The Ripped Bodice’s website, “tracks the publication of books written by authors of color and indigenous peoples in the romance genre.”

“We have a lot of customers who want to read books by authors of color and there were just not enough of them being put out, so we decided to publish a report to hopefully move publishers in the right direction.” Koch says passionately, looking around proudly at the books with surround her. So far The Ripped Bodice has put out 3 Diversity Reports, one each year starting in 2016.

While Koch acknowledges that she and the store have a strong loyal customer base in and around Culver City, the store also holds lots of events to draw even more people in the area. 

“We do a lot of events, between 5 and 15 each month. It depends on the event but we can have anywhere from 20 to 100 people.” Koch estimates. Due to the size of the store those types of numbers mean on these days the store is full, almost wall to wall. Some events they host include signings, writing workshops, and readings. 

So far these events have been a success and part of the reason The Ripped Bodice has become more popular. It has now become a destination for many romance lovers in LA and outside of it. 

“We are definitely a destination for a lot of people outside of our immediate area. We get tons of out of town customers. But we also have a lot of local regulars!” Koch chirps happily. 

The Ripped Bodice has become a place for many to sit and read a book or take a cute instagram picture.This draw has kept the business going well and the two sisters were even able to open a used book section of the book store on the second story of the store. With the succes the two sisters have had so far, many have suggested to them expanding or moving out of Culver City, but Koch is the first to say they are not going anywhere soon. 

“Maybe someday (we will move)  but we are happy where we are for now!”

This last statement boils down where the area is now, happy. Most of LA is experiencing different forms of gentrification and change. Downtown Culver City has already gone through it. The hipsters, the money, and a new culture has already made it’s home on the small stretch of street. While gentrification and the commodification of culture is a terrible plague making its way through southern California, Downtown Culver City has already gone through it and has lived to tell the tale. 

It is different than it was when it was founded by the Muchados. It is  different than it was a mere ten years ago. In some ways Downtown Culver City has become unextraordinary in its stereotypical LA culture which has also made its way into nearby cities like Venice. On the other hand, not every newcomer should be unwelcome and judged by the change that has overtaken the city. Some of the new transplants are like Bea and Leah Koch, who are trying to make space in the city for women and diversity. These new residents should not be taking the blame for the current state of the area. This same generation has brought a large art scene into the Downtown Area. 

This was the reason I first came to Downtown Culver City. I was reporting for class on an annual art festival in the area which shuts down Main Street and a small section of Washington Boulevard once a year. Being a student at Loyola Marymount University and having lived in the bordering city of Westchester for the last year, it was surprising that my friends and I had all never been to this area of LA. I was shocked by the countless galleries that line the street containing extremely pricey pieces of colorful artwork, furniture, and sculptures. Downtown has dedicated large amount of its space to art and art galleries. This stretch of Main Street and Washington Bouclard contains more than 30 galleries in the downtown area, which is the most of anywhere in LA than Downtown. In this small area of Downtown they have made space for art and fine art more than any other city in LA has. This could account for some of the artsy, hipster vibe that has overtaken a majority of the aesthetic and people in the area. However, some of these changes can not be completely villainized. Celebration of diversity, arts and attempting to provide space for minorities all of their face value seem like valuable contributions to the areas. This festival kept me coming back to the area. Even though the event and area was hipsterizes and in many ways the LA “basic” you hear about, it is also a fun and exciting place to be. At this point the city has already changed its look and who it is and as of now is not set to go back to how it used to be. However now a new change will be coming to the already altered landscape with  big businesses like Apple, Amazon Studios, and HBO have or are in the middle of plans to move into the area. 

Amazon Studios has leased 530,000 square feet in Downtown Culver City, taking over Culver Studios and expanding off of that. Apple who already has 85,500 square feet of office space near the Metro Expo Line is expanding after purchasing another 128,000 square foot building also along the line. HBO is following suit and by 2021 will have moved from their Santa Monica office to a five story 240,000 square foot building alos the Metro Expo Line as well. While HBO and Apple’s offices are not technically in Downtown Culver City they are both less than a mile away and will be bringing another new set of people into the area. 

The space for the families who had been in Downtown Culver City for generations is diminishing. With this change is bringing innovation, but also rising housing and living costs to the area. Right now two bedroom condos are leasing for $500,000 and family houses are as high as $4,000,000. This is also affecting its neighboring city of Inglewood which has been making the news in LA in terms of the gentrification it is experiencing, especially with the new Rams stadium being built inside its city’s limits.

The movie set has been set. The buildings have been given their fairy lights. The cast has shown up and they are now milling the streets. The crew is hard at work on construction for the new scenes which are set to be shot soon. The director has approved it and there is no going back now. Culver City has experienced transformation. Some of its growth has made it just another West Side city with no character beside the basic $10 avocado toast vibe, but some of its growth has allowed for new people and ideas to settle into the area. There’s been a lot of good that has come with this gentrification of the area, which has allowed it to thrive, but in many ways we must mourn the time before the money and hipsters moved it. Now we just have to sit back and see where it will go next and hope it is somewhere that we can get on board of. If not we may lose it. It may become as sterile and technology centered as the nearby neighborhood of Playa Vista, but I still have optimism it will not. It will change and continue to find its identity and now as Angelos we just have to take a step back and see where it goes. Maybe the new cast and sets make it a classic in our minds, one to revisit over and over, or maybe it will be a flop and the studio will have to regroup. The audience will be waiting. 

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