Thank L.A. for Proliferation of Malls

City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950

By Richard Longstreth

The MIT Press

528 pp., $60

In his engrossing new work, Richard Longstreth shows that Los Angeles's initial accommodations to the automobile foretold the nationwide trend toward mall development post-World War II.

Unlike the older metropolitan areas in the East, and cities like San Francisco in the West, Los Angeles was a modest urban area in the late 19th century. Indeed, it could boast a population of only 11,000 in 1880. By 1900, even though the population had grown to 102,000, it still was a mere third the size of San Francisco. But a real estate boom in the first three decades of the 20th century, caused a tenfold rise in population. In effect, modern Los Angeles's growth took place during the proliferation of the automobile and the spread of consumer culture through the department store. These circumstances acutely shaped the city and its future.

By 1920, traffic problems in Los Angeles became so severe that the City Council passed a ban on curbside parking in the core area for most of the day, and limited parking to one hour on nearby streets. The effects of that short-lived ordinance are still felt today. Not only did business decline in the downtown area, but people also came to think of the ban as a plot by the street car company to increase usage. Then, as now, Angelenos identified the automobile as essential to the lifestyle of large, decentralized residential areas.

Longstreth argues that the desirable quality of life in 1920s Los Angeles turned on the relative openness offered by tracts of single-family houses on large lots. As these suburbs proliferated, they were, of necessity, built farther and farther away from existing streetcar lines. The characteristic low density residential housing stretched residential areas far from the core, creating inexpensive real estate frontage along trafficked streets.

By building away from the old downtown, and including parking lots and garages in their initial plans, the new Los Angeles department stores set a pattern for retailing that would be elaborated throughout the 20th century. Increasingly, new building projects created a place for the customer to park the car.

Because southern California suffered the effects of the Great Depression for a shorter period than many other parts of the country, retailing spurred new construction projects. After World War II, a general consensus had emerged about how to fashion retail stores. Developers agreed that exteriors need not play a part in advertising the shops within a building. Early mall architecture pleased consumers with neat, orderly, park-like settings. Researchers found that customers who were separated from their cars spent more time shopping.

The first regional mall in the Los Angeles area was born of these ideas in 1947, and built in 1950. Others followed, literally capitalizing on customers' desire to spend greater amounts of time rambling from shop to shop, having a meal, or meeting friends. Add a food court or cineplex, and the contemporary mall beckons.

And though Longstreth is reluctant to comment on the desirability of these changes, he does offer an engaging look at the neglected history of retail architecture and its relationship to the automobile.

* Mary Marien teaches art history at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

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