Running from bank- and hotel-lined Wilshire Boulevard, up the glittering gulch of Rodeo Drive, past the slinky curves of Sunset and snaking up leafy Coldwater and Benedict canyons to the legendary top-of-the-hill stretch of Mulholland Drive, ZIP code 90210, and its opulence, are familiar psychic territory to just about any American with a TV set. But if anything, its namesake prime-time series understated its splendor–and its excess.
This past decade's high tide of uninterrupted prosperity has washed some fascinating cultural artifacts onto these gilded shores. A recent Saturday-morning excursion to this–one of LA County's wealthiest ZIP codes–reveals this patch of territory as a sort of theme-park tribute to the myth of America as Ever-Expanding Plenty. On lower Rodeo, just across from the Ermenegildo Zegna showroom (3-button suits, $2,195), within a ten-minute period buses from Gray Line, L.A. Tours, VIP Tours and Starline Tours disgorge their cargo of T-shirt-and-Bermuda-shorts-clad domestic and foreign tourists who, in 95-degree heat, trudge past the windows of Chanel, Prada, Ferragamo, Hugo Boss and Giorgio, faithfully recording their finds on videotape.
First stop is Via Rodeo, a Disneyesque re-creation of an Italian walk-street stuffed with jewelry stores and chocolate shops. A short walk away is the templelike structure of BMW of Beverly Hills, still expanding although it already covers two city blocks. (Having arrived by bus the tourists will, alas, have no need for the dealership's exclusive valet parking.) Then on to Canon Drive, where a Farmers Market has drawn a pulsating crowd of locals bedecked in the latest tailorings of Jones New York–the shabby-chic "Country" line. Who says there's no street life in LA? Among the stalls are such "farmers" as the trendy Röckenwagner Restaurant and Bakery, which has set up across from Gucci's local offices and is selling $3-a-loaf "peasant bread."
If you were to get the notion that you are not only in the wealth center of LA but also that of America, you'd be right on the money–so to speak. Los Angeles County, with 6 percent of its households boasting incomes over $150,000, has more high-income households than anywhere in the state or nation. A lot of them are here in 90210: The median household income in these confines is $134,000, more than triple the county median.
But barely a half-hour drive south, the world turns upside down. In South Central LA's ZIP code 90059–just five minutes from the high-tech Staples Center, which will host the Democratic National Convention–on this same Saturday morning, there is no Farmers Market. To be precise, there are no markets at all. No malls. Among a sea of liquor stores and razor-wire-topped auto repair and parts stores there are barely two or three fast-food outlets and one lonely, bunkerlike bank. Here the median household income is just over $20,000 a year.