Take a Drive Through 1940s, 50s & 60s Los Angeles with Vintage Through-the-Car-Window Films

Many claim Los Ange­les was “built for the car,” a half-truth at best. When the city — or rather, the city and the vast region of south­ern Cal­i­for­nia sur­round­ing it — first boomed in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, it grew accord­ing to the spread of its elec­tric rail­way net­works. But for ear­ly adopters of the auto­mo­bile (as well as the many aspi­rants close behind), its sheer size, eas­i­ly nav­i­ga­ble ter­rain, and still-low pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty made greater Los Ange­les an ide­al place to dri­ve.

After the Sec­ond World War, the days of the Pacif­ic Elec­tric and Los Ange­les Rail­road, once among the finest urban rail sys­tems in the world, were clear­ly num­bered. Both went out of ser­vice by the ear­ly 1960s, and for the next few decades the car was indeed king. One the­o­ry holds, though with imper­fect evi­dence, that Los Ange­les lost its trains because of an automak­ers’ con­spir­a­cy.

What­ev­er the cause, the long hey­day of the auto­mo­bile and its atten­dant “car cul­ture” changed mid-20th-cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. It left its bold­est mark in the city’s archi­tec­ture, a cat­e­go­ry that must sure­ly include the swoop­ing con­crete of the free­ways, but more obvi­ous­ly includes the build­ings designed to catch the eye of a human being behind the wheel cruis­ing at speed. We notice at a dif­fer­ent scale in a car than we do on foot, and so the struc­tures along Los Ange­les’ main roads — espe­cial­ly boule­vards like Wilshire, Hol­ly­wood, and Sun­set — grew more leg­i­ble to the motorist in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.

That means Los Ange­les’ archi­tec­ture grew ever big­ger, bold­er, more eye-catch­ing — or, depend­ing on your per­spec­tive, ever more gar­ish, ungain­ly, and imper­son­al. You can see this trans­for­ma­tion cap­tured in action from the car win­dow in the three videos fea­tured here. At the top of the post is a six-minute dri­ve through the down­town Los Ange­les of the 1940s, which begins on Bunker Hill, an area orig­i­nal­ly built up with state­ly Vic­to­ri­an hous­es in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. 

By the time of this film those hous­es had been sub­di­vid­ed into cheap apart­ments, and films noirs (such as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Dead­ly) were using it as a typ­i­cal “bad neigh­bor­hood.” That atmos­phere also made it a tar­get for a 50-year “urban renew­al” project that, start­ing in the late 50s onward, scraped the hous­es off Bunker Hill and rebuilt it with cor­po­rate tow­ers and pres­tige cul­tur­al venues.

A through-the-wind­shield view of Los Ange­les in the 50s appears in the video sec­ond from the top, a 1957 dri­ve down Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard. That street and that year stand at the inter­sec­tion of pre-war and post-war Los Ange­les, and the built envi­ron­ment reflects as much the sen­si­bil­i­ty of the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry as it does what we know think of as “mid-cen­tu­ry mod­ern.”

Below that we have a dri­ve through the city so many think of when they think of Los Ange­les: the Los Ange­les of the 1960s, a seem­ing­ly lim­it­less realm of palm trees, bright­ly col­ored bill­boards, and Space Age-influ­enced tow­ers that pop out even more from their low-slung sur­round­ings when seen from the free­way — in oth­er words, the Los Ange­les Quentin Taran­ti­no recre­ates in Once Upon a Time… in Hol­ly­wood.

To get a sense of the greater sweep of change in Los Ange­les, have a look at the New York­er video above (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) that puts the down­town dri­ve from the 1940s along­side the same dri­ve repli­cat­ed in the 2010s. Pop­u­lar cul­ture may asso­ciate Los Ange­les with the will­ful era­sure of his­to­ry as much as it asso­ciates Los Ange­les with the auto­mo­bile, but traces are there for those — in a car, on foot, on a bike, or going by any form of trans­porta­tion besides — who know how to see them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Amer­i­can Cities Then & Now: See How New York, Los Ange­les & Detroit Look Today, Com­pared to the 1930s and 1940s

Enjoy Daz­zling & Dizzy­ing 360° Vir­tu­al Tours of Los Ange­les Land­marks

The City in Cin­e­ma Mini-Doc­u­men­taries Reveal the Los Ange­les of Blade Run­ner, Her, Dri­ve, Repo Man, and More

Watch Randy Newman’s Tour of Los Ange­les’ Sun­set Boule­vard, and You’ll Love L.A. Too

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Gordon Urquhart says:

    Look at all the Apart­ment Hotels, a way of life almost gone. So many rent-a-car agen­cies every­where in a time when not many could yet afford a car. And look, peo­ple actu­al­ly stopped for four-way stop signs! A lost age…

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