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Tinseltown in search of lost lustre

The boulevard of broken dreams is closed to traffic. Workers on Los Angeles' multi-billion dollar and much-maligned new subway system tunnelling beneath Hollywood Boulevard, have been stalled by a series of sinkholes.

But the subway has fanned new hopes that Hollywood can rebound from decades of neglect. By 2000, three stations are planned to link it with the tourist centre at Universal Studios and central Los Angeles.

The mayor, Richard Riordan, pledged recently to revitalise old Hollywood. It is cast as one of the city's greatest wasted assets. Six million tourists a year, the mayor claimed, come to pick out the stars' names on the pavements and linger over their imprints in the forecourt of Graumann's Chinese Theatre.

Most of them take one look and never come back. Hollywood is littered with stunning art deco architecture and memories of the silver screen. Flowers mark the spot where the late George Burns planted his cigar in the concrete; Disney runs premieres at the newly restored El Capitan theatre; and there are plans to reopen The Egyptian, where the first film premiere was held for Douglas Fairbanks Jnr's Robin Hood.

But an atmosphere of grunge infects the area. Almost every day, police said, they are visited by a stricken tourist family who have been robbed at gunpoint or had their car looted of all their possessions. The side streets are home to more than a dozen gangs, drug dealers, and prostitutes who haunt the cheap motels. Sardi's, at Hollywood and Vine, where Charlie Chaplin dined, has become one of the many porno theatres.

Hollywood's decline dates back to the late 1950s, when the stars moved their homes west to Beverly Hills or Brentwood. Locals often blame drifters and the homeless, drawn to Hollywood's old lustre, for perpetuating its seedy atmosphere.

Mayor Riordan is up for re-election this autumn and busy cultivating the estimated 300,000 residents, more than half of them Hispanic. But businessmen and property owners are determined to take the mayor at his word, fervently believing they are owed a piece of the rebounding economy in Southern California. They believe anti-loitering laws have cut down down the prostitutes' trade - female on Sunset, male on Santa Monica.

City grants have helped pay a private security firm to patrol Hollywood Boulevard and establish "beautification" teams. Community groups have planted palm trees and surveillance cameras around some of the most notorious drug markets, and claim to have cut off a thriving cocaine trade.

"People are going to be amazed in five years," said Leron Gubler, of the local chamber of commerce. "All the things are in place now. Once it happens, it will be like wildfire. We have the name Hollywood, something that no one else in the world has."

Ken Schessler, the 68-year-old author of the This is Hollywood, is not convinced. "There's nothing they can do. They don't want to. Nobody cares," he said.

Though he fell passionately in love with the area when he first moved to Los Angeles in 1954, he bitterly remembers lost landmarks, such as the Brown Derby restaurant, where Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard, destroyed by a fire blamed on squatters.

In the early Seventies, he recalls: "I went up and down that street trying to get the merchants to do something with their storefronts ... Even then they were giving up."