- The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914–1941
In recent decades, Los Angeles has commanded an unprecedented amount of critical attention from urban geographers, cultural historians and theorists, and environmentalists. For many, Los Angeles has come to represent the extremes of American urban life in the late twentieth century. The very things that make the city unique—its extensive freeway system and its overt reliance on cars over public transportation, its early development of shopping malls, and its proximity to Hollywood and Disneyland—are now used to examine larger issues, [End Page 194] from urban sprawl to consumerism. In his Postmodern Geographies, Edward Soja called Los Angeles a protopos, a “paradigmatic place” where local and specific features of the city represent larger cultural trends. 1 In L.A. many other scholars have discovered the physical embodiment of the postmodern condition. For Michael Sorkin, L.A. is a “city of simulations”; its architecture is “purely semiotic,” and its physical layout is “a lot like television.” 2 Even driving on the L.A. freeway has been compared to watching a film and is thought to be symbolic of the “cinematic” nature of contemporary America. 3
Richard Longstreth’s work differs from these studies of Los Angeles in its attempt to bring specificity back into discussions of the city. Longstreth deliberately avoids what he calls “mythmaking” and “sweeping cultural generalizations” in favor of “historical realities.” 4 Instead of relying on secondary accounts of urban development from newspaper articles or on accounts from novels, films, and other media, Longstreth examines building sites and records from architects, urban planners, real estate agents, trade journals, and businesses. His latest book is filled with evidence of his substantial research. He describes in great detail the earliest histories of Los Angeles’s gas stations, grocery stores, and drive-ins, the term used in the 1920s to describe groceries easily accessible by car. He also explains why developers chose certain building sites and designs over others. For example, he shows how filling stations and then later drive-in markets favored corner lots, locations that led to numerous innovations in store design, including the prominent display of parking spaces. He even handles such minute details as the number of parking spaces available and how quickly the automobile and pedestrian traffic flowed through the spaces. Almost every page has a helpful photograph, blueprint, or drawing to illustrate his arguments. Such a level of detail is, I think, crucial to one of the book’s goals, which is to “delineate in precise and concrete terms how a variety of factors can interact to generate and shape change” (xvii). He wants to explain, for example, exactly how parking evolved from an afterthought relegated to the public streets and back alleys to the primary focus of supermarket designs.
While I found much of Longstreth’s research interesting and impressive, some of the most exciting moments in the book came when he examined the more elusive social and cultural contexts of the commercial spaces. He has some remarkable insights, for instance, into the designs of Richard Neutra, an avant-garde architect who designed several drive-in markets in the 1920s and 1930s. According to Longstreth, Neutra used these designs to “refine his ideas of a machine-age aesthetics” and to create a billboard-type aesthetic for buildings (63). One design in particular used large illuminated signs and cantilevered trusses with mirrors to provide “multiple reflections of the scene below, so that from the street the impression would be of a signboard suspended above an ethereal interplay of machines, people, and products” (65). Longstreth speculates that Neutra is trying to create a “theatrically dematerialized architecture, allowing graphics, ever-changing light patterns, and the stuff sold at the place to engage in a spirited, kinetic display” (64–5). Although he does not specifically argue this point here, Longstreth is creating the groundwork for a discussion of how architectural aesthetics were reconceived to accommodate the automobile. Such...