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Hollywood: The former movie queen is trying a comeback

AH, HOLLYWOOD. The ``Entertainment Capital of the World.'' The home of furs and Ferraris, glitter and glamour, the place where movie stars can be spotted in palm-fringed caf'es and where limosines are as prevalent as Rocky sequels. The only trouble is it isn't, nor has it been for a long time. These days, major studios are just as likely to be found in Burbank or Universal City. The limos prowl Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and the stars, if they can be found at all, exist mainly as fading bronze icons embedded in the sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame.

Today, however, Tinseltown may be on the verge of a comeback.

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Private developers are beginning to move back in, a preservation drive is gathering momentum, and the Los Angeles City Council has targeted the town for one of the biggest community redevelopment projects in city history.

``Tremendous things are happening,'' says Marian Gibbons, an indefatigable Hollywood booster who is founder of Hollywood Heritage, a local preservation group. ``We have shed our image as Hollyweird.''

The cradle of the movie industry will require more than a nip and a tuck. Hollywood started to decline as early as the late 1950s, when television began to rise and motion pictures faded as a mass medium.

Increasingly, film work began to be shot ``on location'' elsewhere. Some entertainment businesses sprang up in surrounding suburbs. The industry went into such a deep slump that one chronicler wrote a piece in 1960 entitled ``Visit to a Ghost Town.''

At the same time, Hollywood was becoming a magnet for drifters, prostitutes, and runaway teenagers. Along Hollywood Boulevard, once the glittering main thoroughfare of a thriving film capital, tacky storefronts replaced deluxe department stores and ``porno'' signs went up over movie marquees.

Even today many of the 4 million tourists who come to Hollywood each year -- the largest number to visit any California attraction other than Disneyland -- expect to see celebrities and chic shops and instead often find panhandlers and rundown buildings.

All that, however, may be slowly changing. While numerous attempts have been made to revitalize Hollywood in the past -- most launched with black-tie hoopla and little else -- this time around community activists believe matters will be different.

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A chief reason is that late last month the L.A. City Council approved a $922 million plan to revitalize Hollywood over a 30-year period. The Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) project will be the largest undertaken in Los Angeles outside of the downtown area.

``This is more than just boosterism,'' says David Wilcox, a senior vice-president of Economics Research Associates, a Los Angeles-based urban consulting firm. ``We will for the first time have substantial financing power to see that redevelopment will occur.''

The project will focus on reviving an 1,100-acre area in the heart of Hollywood, including the main commercial district. CRA, which wields the power of eminent domain and backs projects through tax income derived from rises in property values, will seek to spur new construction as well as preserve historic buildings and rehabilitate existing housing.

Analysts expect the government backing to entice more private developers to the area, a few of whom have already been ``rediscovering'' Hollywood. More than a dozen restoration projects are underway or have been recently completed. The famed Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards presentations, recently underwent a $35 million revamping. It is considered the anchor for the comeback of Hollywood Boulevard.

Not far away, local developers have restored the six-story Barker Brothers office building, once the home of the famous El Capitan Theater. Farther up the street, the old Hollywood Congregational church, a local landmark, is being turned into a new national headquarters of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Until recently, SAG was planning to move from its outgrown offices on the edge of Hollywood to another town.

All this coincides with a recently developed movement to preserve Hollywood's past and rediscover its roots. A few years ago, the ``entertainment capital of the world'' had no museums. Today it has four celebrating different aspects of its colorful past. At the same time, a section of Hollywood Boulevard has been declared a national historic district, which will bring tax benefits and is expected to save landmarks from the wrecking ball.

Some new projects are underway as well, including the building of a new library. Yet even the most ardent local boosters concede that neither nostalgia nor new construction will return Hollywood to its halcyon days. Instead, they envision the town recreating an ``aura'' of the past, while trying to build on a shifting economic base.

Tinseltown does have a few things going for it other than a celluloid legacy. It lies close to rapidly expanding downtown Los Angeles, has plenty of good architecture, and continues to draw tourists. In addition, even though many film studios have sprouted elsewhere, Hollywood continues to be the home of numerous movie-support businesses and other entertainment companies.

``What we have could even be greater than the Hollywood of the past,'' claims Michael Woo, who represents Hollywood on the L.A. City Council and was instrumental in pushing the CRA plan through.

Still, Tinseltown is a long way from regaining all its glitter. Besides a seedy commercial district and an aging, overcrowded housing stock, it faces serious social problems -- not the least of which is crime. In recent years, area police have formed special units to crack down on prostitution and crime along Hollywood Boulevard. Now special attention is being focused on drug trafficking. Neighborhood groups have pitched in. The efforts seem to be paying off. Last year the overall crime rate in Hollywood remained flat, despite a population increase.

Most community activists believe this old movie town is well on its way to better times.

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