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.
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.