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

Summary

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.

Commentary

Longstreth wants to use the shopping center and mall as a category of analysis, rather than as a subject, thus he traces the developments with the 1997 goal of adding to the historiography. (p. xvi) Alison Isenberg, Robert Fogelson and others would look at downtown as place and purpose while Longstreth is allied to architecture and transportation, asking how did the automobile change the way that people engage in meeting their needs now that cars were and integral part of their lives. He credits Los Angeles as being the trend setter in this regard and the general historical consensus shows that he is correct. As some reviewers have noted, this is not a look at ‘high’ architecture, rather, this a look at vernacular architecture. One oversight is the inclusion of mostly white suburban Angelenos, we don’t learn a lot about what happens in other ethnic neighborhoods, which form a larger part of the city. Far too often, the ‘ghetto’ or ‘barrio’ is the subject of its own study and in this context with Spanish architecture, it would be an apt subject for more study.

At the other extreme, his treatment of Beverly Hills and the Miracle Mile show how a specific area can be targeted to attract consumers and how architecture, in this case, low buildings and a cohesive feel and flavor won shoppers. Many of the things that we take for granted are also being explored and developed during this time, Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, another early center, emphasized the tenant mix , which continues to play a major role in the shopping mall. Valley Plaza in L.A. was a planned use area that exploited its proximity to the freeways. Real estate developers are another actor in this drama and both individuals and firms tried to leverage power and influence development and construction.

City Center, a prize winning tome, answers the question of how retailers moved to new physical models and locations to attract shoppers that now lived and worked outside of the city core. I suggest that by attaching themselves top new architectural and merchandising models, they were seen as ‘modern’ and that by segregating motorists and pedestrians, they helped anchor and usher in the modern mall. Ironically, many modern malls are now being marketed as and made over to resemble an idealized Main St. Longstreth reminds us of the essential questions in an urban space, how is it used? Who should control the future? How do various interest groups react to a new technology, like the automobile and most importantly, how will these changes be seen in the future? For my personal work, I look to this book as a model for how one might trace the development of chain restaurants form the downtown corridor to the suburbs.

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