[Editor’s note: This article first appeared on April 4, 2013 for the Intersections column at KCET Departures. Part of a 3 part series on Southern California’s retail history, Part III (below) explores SoCal’s role in popularizing shopping malls 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 I examines Los Angeles’ role in creating the drive in market, a precursor to the dreaded strip mall. It can be read here.]
“It was a peculiar and visionary time, those years after World War II to which all the Malls and Towns and dales stand as climate controlled monuments,” reflected Joan Didion in 1979. “The frontier had been reinvented, and its shape was the subdivision, that new free land on which all settlers could recast their lives tabla rosa,” she asserted, acknowledging that for a period the suburb, its accoutrements, and its architects basked in one “perishable moment” as the American dream seemed within reach of every [white] man and woman. Didion argued F.H.A. policies, postwar consumerism, and suburbia’s “enigmatic glamour” combined to create “something out of nothing.”1
Few institutions symbolize both the promise and peril of suburban life like malls; few regions contributed as much to its development and to a lesser extent its evolution than Southern California.
Growing out of earlier retail innovations — drive-in markets and supermarkets — the shopping mall experienced its first period of development beginning in the mid 1930s and extending into the mid 1940s. While the initial developmental phase of shopping malls was limited, it did spread nationally: New York, Washington, Detroit, and Portland, Oregon all contributed to its changing shape. However, Los Angeles’ mild weather, “established patterns of outdoor activity,” and agglomeration of “avant-garde” designers, notes retail historian Richard Longstreth, made it a prime location for expansion and a breeding ground for an unmatched array of diverse examples with which to experiment.2
Three examples confirm Southern California’s critical role in the mall’s early formation: the Broadway Crenshaw Center, the Valley Center, and San Diego’s Linda Vista Shopping Center.
Drawing on the success of supermarkets’ success in high volume sales, the Broadway-Crenshaw Center (now known as the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza) targeted middle income consumers, thereby occupying a retail middle ground: lacking the exclusivity of Westwood Village or the Miracle Mile, but a step up from a declining downtown.
Site selection for Broadway-Crenshaw depended on innovative number crunching. Researchers poured over the 1940 Census, pulling housing data — the number of dwelling units, the age and condition of stock, monthly rents — to calculate household incomes and their regional distribution. Market analysts figured out their spending patterns by constructing what we know today as “a time distance study” — tracking where consumers lived and the time it took to get from point A to point B. Supermarkets like Ralphs had long gathered data for site selection through newspaper circulation, utilities, and building permits; the architects of the Broadway-Crenshaw project took this process one step further.3
Broadway-Crenshaw’s design — a department store anchored integrated retail complex — was not new. Market Square in Lake Forest, Illinois, anchored by a Marshall Field’s, had opened in 1928, nearly two decades earlier. Contemporaneous examples included Ridgeway Shopping Center (1945-1947) in Stamford, Connecticut, and Bellevue Shopping Square (1945-1946) near Seattle, Washington, both of which employed the department store model as well. But neither had done so on a scale equal to Broadway-Crenshaw. The square footage of Bellevue and Ridgeway combined amounted to less than Broadway’s largest store. Over half million square feet of enclosed space were served by thirteen acres of parking made to accommodate 2,500 cars.
As chain stores proliferated within Broadway-Crenshaw, real estate and retail experts took note of the economic gains that came from the paring of a large department store with national chains.4 The complex succeeded in unexpected ways as well. When May Company opened its own Crenshaw store anchoring a much smaller, less integrated retail complex across the street, relations between it and Broadway soured. At the time, placing two department store rivals in such proximity to each other was unimaginable. Yet, both businesses thrived as Broadway-Crenshaw’s commerce expanded so rapidly that it soon emerged as its own unofficial business district, bisected by Santa Barbara Avenue — a veritable Mason-Dixon separating May Company and Broadway Crenshaw.5
For other developers, like Valley Plaza founder, Bob Symonds, understanding the future impact of the automobile proved critical. Purchasing a 50 acre tract of land at Laurel Canyon and Victory Boulevards, equidistant from Burbank, North Hollywood, and Van Nuys — three communities that represented the three largest populations in the valley — Symonds envisioned a regional shopping center catering to the growing metropolitan area.
Symonds recognized the impending suburban growth that would follow and based his purchase on time, not distance: the time it would take to build the Hollywood, Ventura, and Golden State freeways, all of which ran past Valley Plaza’s future site. Unlike nearly every other developer in the nation, Symonds understood that the freeway promised to make convenience the priority. In Southern California, most developers continued to focus on downtown boulevard locations for new development, while retailers hoped freeways might increase consumer traffic in their own institutions.6
Valley Plaza went through dozens of iterations in the design stage. Unlike Broadway Crenshaw, it featured no anchor department stores. Instead, Symonds pursued national chains, most notably Sears — the first time the upstart had been incorporated as shopping center’s principal retailer from the outset. This led the prolific retail architect Stiles Clements to design one of Sears’ largest stores at Valley Plaza, significantly bigger than its Compton or Inglewood locations.
Ultimately, Symonds had reproduced the basic premise of Broadway Crenshaw: a fully integrated regional shopping center anchored by a significant department store. But Symonds lacked the deep corporate pockets of Broadway Crenshaw or similar projects like Westchester and Panaroma City. Valley Plaza had only Symonds to select new stores for the complex; he mixed chains, specialty and convenience shops, along with a smattering of independent proprietors to maintain some level of diversity for consumers. He had to persuade to potential tenants that the shopping center could be trusted to increase their investment; once Sears committed, Symonds found it much easier to convince others to follow.
Though Broadway Crenshaw made a bigger national splash, Valley Plaza influenced local practices more than its more urban counterpart. With its front lot and “direct visual ties to stores, no matter how far back from the street they stood,” the retail destination proved consumer convenience, especially in regard to automobile access, mattered more than appearances.
Linda Vista Shopping Center
As important and influential as Broadway Crenshaw and Valley Plaza proved to be, another Southern California location encapsulated the mall’s future, even if in obscurity. San Diego’s Linda Vista, a wartime Lanham Act housing project, stood as the world’s largest public housing project at the time of its completion in the early 1940s. With over 5000 units of permanent and temporary housing, residents of Linda Vista, unconnected to city services or commercial districts, required its own local businesses and shopping center.
Based on the designs of the influential but much maligned Greenbelt government housing project in Maryland, the Linda Vista Shopping Center established a grassy pedestrian mall as the center and placed stores along its outer borders. Cars remained confined to the center’s perimeter. Rather than the usual dominant façade, Linda Vista operated as a “three dimensional play of mass and void,” notes Richard Longstreth, “a broad green defined by four buildings, each different in size and shape and a canopied walk connecting them.”7
Editors at architectural magazines swooned at the idea of “planting grass on Main Street.” These observers saw in Linda Vista a reforming tendency that might imbue civic values, retrieving an American existence that was not defined by crowded car-filled streets and rampant real estate speculation. Indeed, the mall mixed commerce and community. By designing the mall to look inward, it encouraged movement and interaction: “customers tended to spend greater blocks of time meandering, meeting friends, having meals, and buying goods,” Longstreth points out.
Ironically, in order to address the wartime housing crunch, government officials required less oversight of projects and employed many more avant-garde architects than one might have expected.
Housing projects of the 1930s fell under the purview of local agencies, resulting in conservative designs that tended to ignore more innovative methods. Though wartime housing projects did not focus on any social reform, the architects designing them did. Linda Vista best represented this shift by helping to legitimize the mall concept, such that it appeared in designs for similar projects in Detroit, Michigan and Portland, Oregon. In this way, the efforts of the private sector — planners, architects, and developers — in unwitting conjunction with wartime federal housing construction, brought the modern mall into existence.
By the 1960s Southern California’s retail landscape shared its influential position with several other metropolitan areas, though local developers, planners, and architects continued to tinker with form and context. For example, South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa introduced a carousel into its environs in 1967; by the 1990s dozens of malls adopted their own refurbished “antique” versions, embarking on what geographer Jon Gross labeled the “carnivalization of retail built environment.”8
Though malls had exploded in production nationally by the 1980s, movies like Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High amplified, at least symbolically, their centrality to SoCal culture.
No less important is the rise in the 1990s of what Gross calls the “heritage industry.” Marketplaces that touch upon collective nostalgia “for real places and historic roots” attempted to recreate historic landscapes through the use of “restored architectural details [and] antique material artifacts.” Numerous examples exist, such as San Dimas’ Old Western facades, now destined for a new rendering, or the Grove and its reinterpretation of Los Angeles’ historic farmer’s market, modeled after 1940s Charleston, South Carolina, where shoppers can enjoy live performers, art deco architecture, and sometimes, fake snow. Likewise, the Americana, developed by the Grove’s brain trust, follows a similar model, though more resolutely focused on America’s industrial era.
All three examples mix middle brow entertainment with high brow interests, and attempt to establish a sort of authenticity, even if this authenticity comes wrapped around a purely consumerist core. Earlier examples from the 1930s and 1940s — such as Crossroads of the World in Hollywood — also employed an idealized backdrop or historical reference, but unlike the malls above, these early shopping centers often focused on visions of a bucolic English countryside or a farmers market.
Despite all the innovation and creativity, for many people, malls still symbolize very troubling aspects of American society. Joan Didion recognized some of these flaws. After having sojourned to the local mall for the latest edition of the New York Times, Didion instead found herself purchasing two straw hats, four bottles of nail enamel, and toaster. “In the literature of shopping centers these would be described as impulse purchases, but the impulse here was obscure,” she reflected. “I do not wear hats, nor do I like caramel corn. I do not use nail enamel. Yet flying back across the Pacific I regretted only the toaster.”9
Real questions remain regarding the combination of commerce and civic space. After all, Southern Californians frequently bemoan the region’s lack of public space, but do malls aimed at consumers fill this void? Certainly, one cannot and should not pin these criticisms exclusively on retail innovations like the mall, but denying any influence in this regard would be equally irresponsible.
In the end, from drive-in and supermarkets to shopping centers and regional malls, California played a key role in them all. Whatever one thinks of these changes in consumerism, for better or worse, much of twentieth century retail development’s future could be found in Southern California’s past.
1 Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979) pgs. 180-183.
2 Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), pg 271.
3Ibid, pg. 228.
4Ibid, pgs. 230 – 232.
5Ibid, pgs. 236-237.
6Ibid, pg. 256.
7Ibid, pg. 296.
8Jon Gross, “The Magic of the Mall: an Analysis of Form, Function, and Meaning in the Contemporary Retail Built Environment,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 83, No. 1 (March, 1993), pg. 37.
9Joan Didion, The White Album, pg 186.