Retail California: Cars, Drive-In Markets, and Consumers

Mandarin Market, a Chinese-style drive-in market built in 1929, located at 1234-1248 Vine Street, in Hollywood. Later demolished to make way for a mini-mall. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared on March 7, 2013 for the Intersections column at KCET Departures. Part of a 3 part series on Southern California’s retail history, Part II on the convergence of the Big Lebowski and Ralph’s as a symbol of SoCal’s early embrace of the grocery store and new “advances” in consumerism can be read here. Part III on SoCal’s role in popularizing shopping malls can be read here. Part I, below, examines Los Angeles’ role in creating the drive in market, a precursor to the dreaded strip mall.]

When C.L. Peckham opened Ye Market Place on Los Feliz Road in Glendale in 1924, few realized the influence the drive-in market would have on urban planning and American retail.

Originally proposed in 1923, C.L. Peckham’s new project challenged conventional wisdom. Set along a commuter highway and located neither downtown nor as part of a designated or burgeoning business district, the new market belonged to no community. Instead, Peckham banked on the 20,000 commuters that passed by the market’s doors each day.

Ye Market Place’s design also set it apart. Organized into a U-shaped configuration with twenty three separate stores and approximately 15,000 square feet of parking, Peckham’s project provided a new model of car-oriented retail. Though some made adjustments in their own effort — most swapped the U configuration for an L shape and eventually separate businesses were corralled under one unified whole as a precursor to supermarkets — developers and retailers emulated the Glendale drive-in market throughout California and later the nation.

Today Glendale might be a bustling suburb, but in 1923 it hardly seemed a coherent whole. While many enjoyed its “bedroom community status,” notes Los Angeles historian Richard Longstreth, “the area was not a neighborhood in the traditional sense. Subdivisions were scattered and few houses lay close to where [local intersections and throughfares] converged.”

For years, urbanists and others considered Los Angeles an exception to national metropolitan growth. Cary McWilliams’s Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946) established “narratives of Angeleno (sur)reality,” thereby cementing its status as “the great exception,” argues UC Berkeley geographer Michael Dear. Works like Robert Fogelson’s The Fragmented Metropolis (1967) and Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), in their own way, reinforced the metropolis’ exceptionalism. Though Banham defended Los Angeles from critics who suggested that the city suffered from cultural and artistic famine, he did so with a caveat: “Full command of Angeleno dynamics qualifies one only to read Los Angeles. The splendors and miseries of Los Angeles, the graces of grotesqueries, appear to me as unrepeatable as they are unprecedented.”

Ye Market Place at 136 Los Feliz Road, Glendale | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Yet when one reads Longstreth’s account of 1920s Glendale, it sounds much like typical suburban and ex-urban developments in today’s Midwest and the Sunbelt. For much of the post-WWII period, with the expansion of the national highway system and military investment in the west, cities developed much more in the vein of Los Angeles than Chicago, the home of the eponymously titled school of sociology that has dominated urban thought for much of the 20th century.

Chicago School theorists like Robert Park believed that urban growth emanated outward from a central business district in concentric circles and organized into zones, hence establishing the belief in a central core and its periphery. While many of its theories have been refuted, critiqued or modified, the Chicago School continues to cast a long shadow. In contrast, Los Angeles, consisting of many centers, embodies the multi-radial or polynucleated metropolitan growth that came to define post WWII development.

In 1987 at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains, a collection of scholars, including the aforementioned Dear, Greg Hise, Mike Davis, Rebecca Morales Edward Soja, Jennifer Wolsch, and several others gathered to put forth an argument that Los Angeles deserved far greater consideration in its role as urban standard bearer. Coming to be known as the L.A. School, the group promoted no central vision of the city, but rather a pluralistic understanding of the region. “Admittedly, such a school will be a fragmentary and loosely connected entity always on the verge of disintegration — but then again, so is Los Angeles itself,” Dear wrote in 2002.

Though not a member of the L.A. school, journalist Joel Garreau agreed that Los Angeles occupied a central place in modern urban debates. In his 1991 work “Edge City: Life on the New Frontier,” Garreau dedicated an entire chapter to Southern California, notably places like Irvine, and made a simple declaration in the book’s opening: “Every American city that is growing, is growing in the fashion of Los Angeles.”

Exterior view of Hattem's Market at 8021-8035 South Vermont Avenue, 1933 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Exterior view of Hattem’s Market at 8021-8035 South Vermont Avenue, 1933 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Other factors unique to the region also proved important. Unlike San Francisco, Los Angeles’ early 20th century population growth derived largely from the migration of Midwesterners hoping for more open space, better weather, and an escape from industrial vistas that populated large swaths of their home towns. These newcomers brought with them incomes that placed them loosely within the middle class, enabling many to afford cars. The proliferation of automobiles led to a demand for gasoline filling stations, which later bulged into super stations in the early 1920s. Increasingly, retail businesses and services adopted or adapted practices according to the demands of cars, and these early examples exerted an influence on the future drive-in market.

Peckham recognized the ubiquity of car travel, but his innovation grew from irritation rather than divine inspiration. Having moved to Glendale while it remained largely rural, its “exponential growth” in terms of population and traffic made simple tasks, like going to the public market, hardships. Being forced to forage for parking spaces upon returning from daily errands, Peckham’s exasperation symbolized a larger transportational angst. As Longstreth points out, “[o]ne did not have to be a longstanding resident to find such conditions annoying, since many motorists had recently moved from smaller communities in the central United States where driving posed no such irritations. . .”

Though it took two or three years to build support in the retail industry, drive-in construction boomed after what Longstreth calls a “gestation period.” In 1928 Los Angeles developers built a dozen new drive-in markets per month. By 1931, over 200 drive-in markets dotted the Southern California landscape. Supporters portrayed the new markets as wholly new innovations, but rather, these entities simply consolidated influences from earlier examples like public markets and super service stations — the large selection of foods under one roof, the convenience of close and ubiquitous parking, and its location along heavily trafficked commuter routes — all combined to bring Peckham’s vision to fruition.

Peckham’s market remained valuable not for its goods, but mainly for its real estate value. In the early 1900s, men like Los Angeles developer/retailer D.A. Hamburger (of the Hamburger Department Store in downtown L.A.) recognized that combining real estate speculation and retail development diminished financial risks and provided a mechanism to finance business expansion. Peckham and others built on these examples, and by the 1930s the drive-in market came to be seen as a prime real estate investment.

In this way, real estate leaders responded to three simultaneous forces: drivers’ increasing anxiety regarding congestion, the desire by food retailers to maintain competitiveness in an increasingly tight market, and the voracious hunger for increasing real estate holdings that pervaded much of the SoCal economy. Exceeding the common cost of arterial expansion at the time, Ye Market Place required a hefty investment of over $65,000. Yet, between 1919 and 1930, assessors rapidly raised local land values, as one nearby plot went from $680 in 1919 to $12,000 by the end of the 1920s.

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Tip Top Drive-In at 3649 Beverly Boulevard, with ‘Ponderous Pup’ gracing the entrance to Barkies Sandwich Shop, 1930 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

In some ways, Peckham’s and other similar developments served as prototypes for one of the largest real estate operations in the 20th century, and another product of Southern California retail food culture: McDonalds. The world’s most famous fast food chain grew out of the culture of drive-in restaurants, which in turn grew from drive-in markets.

Unsatisfied with the drive-in restaurant format, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald, themselves transplants from New Hampshire, worked to reshape concept. While many of the early drive-in restaurants were “[g]audy and round, topped with pylons, towers, and flashing signs,” as noted by journalist Eric Scholosser, the McDonalds simplified the menu, eliminated carhops, and applied assembly line factory methods to food production, creating the modern exemplar of self service fast food with its first location in San Bernardino, CA.

People may have scratched their heads initially at the disappearance of carhops and other features of the drive-in restaurant, but they soon adapted to waiting in lines. By the 1960s, through franchising, McDonalds earned much of its profit not from food — but from real estate. Harry J. Sonnenborn, business partner to McDonald’s famed leader Ray Kroc, told the Wall Street Journal, “We are in the real estate business. The only reason we sell fifteen cent hamburgers is because they are the greatest producer of revenue from which our tenants can pay rent.”

At the turn of the 21st century McDonald’s stood as the largest owner of retail property in the world. Considering the incredible influence on America that fast food institutions like McDonalds and Carls Jr. (established around the same time), it seems even more appropriate that roughly 50 years after their origins in Los Angeles, academics gathered in the mountains of San Bernardino to map out the contours of the L.A. School.

As with most developments, one can point to flaws within the drive-in market concept. Poorer communities in Los Angeles rarely witnessed construction of drive-in markets in their neighborhoods — a harbinger of the inner city food deserts that urban anthropologists and activists have rightly identified in recent years. Also, as USC’s David C Sloane noted, many of the 1920s drive-ins foreshadowed the dreaded mini-malls that came to be symbols of urban sprawl evil in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. It’s hard to imagine today that 40,000 people in 11,000 cars from 34 states would attend a 12 hour opening ceremony for a newest mini-mall in Reseda, as they did in Glendale in October 1924 for Ye Market Place. As for the rise of fast food, the list of complaints continues to grow.

Nonetheless, Peckham’s development and the restaurants and fast food chains that followed represented one SoCal influence that rapidly spread through out the county. Furthermore, the drive-in market also gave birth to the supermarket, and once again, Los Angeles served as the petri dish for the rest of America. Los Angeles may have been unique in 1928 — but it soon became the model for post-war metropolitan development, making its exceptionalism standard.