City Center to Regional Mall

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Richard Longstreth. City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, The Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950.Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press pp.528. $40.00 ISBN: 0262621258


City Center to Regional Mall is a voluminous work that tracks the changes in retailing from the downtown to the mall, looking from the architectural and use perspectives. Following World War II, the majority of downtowns were being challenged by outlying areas and the definition of the central business corridor was being questioned. These changes are minutely illuminated by Longstreth and the case study of Los Angeles adds complements and challenges other interpretations of downtown. Defining Los Angeles and its downtowns by what they are not makes this work incredibly valuable. The early shopping courts and the drive in stores had a major impact on design and flow of traffic, these stores became our modern strip centers and the clusters became our modern malls. Access for parking was the common need and the automobile acts as an important player in this lavishly illustrated story.

Department stores also figure prominently in this story as suburban branches opened and as companies, like Bullocks began to explain outside of the old downtown corridor. This store was also what Longstreth calls the ‘lone wolf’, or isolated location, precursor to our modern big box, however, these were highly decorated and large stores, what we might call destination retailers today. Supermarkets, for example, depended on cars to take purchases home and they began as drive up farmers markets, then clusters of retailers and eventually incarnations of the modern supermarket. They were typically located in the fringes or in emerging areas and they, in turn, attracted other tenants.. The supermarket and the drive in would be the subject of another book, The Drive-In, the Supermarket and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941. City Center also pays close attention to detail and the maps, lot plans and especially advertisements show.

Using newspapers, business journals and architectural records, he is able to paint a very detailed history, matched with his own personal observations. Longstreth is a champion of the city and wants readers to understand that what has been attacked and criticized as blight or urban decay was not the result of poor planning or random growth, rather it reflected change over time and was closely aligned to the new patterns of work and living that forced the expansion of the physical landscape. He sees and credits the shoppers with having the agency and creativity to force and respond to these changes. Small business in particular, gets attention I this work, as they are the stand alone and integrated shops that form the majority of stores. Once the mall comes, small business continues to both succeed and decline, depending on location and neighborhood. In addition to Los Angeles, Longstreth looks at other areas throughout the country and finds a similar story and pattern and clearly the business community of the time also engaged in this discussion. Victor Gruen and others were instrumental in creating the mall and redoing retail space and City Center explains how this operates by documenting changes in place.

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