Petersen Automotive Museum

How the most car-friendly urban form went from quaint to grotesque.

A group of schoolchildren, about six or seven years old, stand in front of a display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, listening to a docent explaining what they're looking at. This was an old-fashioned strip mall, he told them, recreated just as it would have been in the 1920s or '30s, with wax figures standing in for the merchants and shoppers who would have been there.

It didn’t look like what we think of as a strip mall today. The fronts of the stores were open to the street. There was a produce stand with neat rows of fruits and vegetables, and a butcher shop with a glass case. Behind it stood the butcher himself, hands raised over his head, holding a fish and a knife. He would have called out to the people in their cars out front, explained the docent, trying to lure them in to buy some of his choice offerings.

Parked in the small reproduction parking lot in front of this proto-strip mall we saw the reason for its existence: the cars themselves, gleaming, beautiful things with swooping lines and shining grilles and generous running boards, meticulously restored. The cars were sizable; there was only room for three or four. You could imagine the men in fedoras who would have driven them, the women in their dresses and stockings and hats. It was hard not to love these machines.

This was how the strip mall began, the docent explains to the children, right here in Southern California. This was how the pattern of land use we are all so familiar with today got started: the shops in the back of the lot, in an L- or U-shape, and the parking out front. Over the years, those parking lots got bigger as the cars grew more numerous. The shops got pushed farther and farther back from the street. The stores closed off their fronts, and instead of a vendor calling out his wares, tall signs beckoned from the roadway.

The children look and nod. The urban forms dictated by cars – the huge freeways, the vast parking lots, the strip malls – seem, in these exhibits, as inevitable as valleys sculpted by rivers. This all makes good sense to the children. After all, it is the only way of living that they know.

The Petersen Automotive Museum (we're not linking to their website only because Google is telling us it's infected with malware) is an impressive place filled with sleek vehicles and opulent displays on topics ranging from aerodynamics to hot rods (it was founded by the owner of Hot Rod magazine). If you’re a person who spends as much time as I do writing about the ill-effects of urban development centered around cars in the U.S., it’s kind of like being in the belly of a very beautiful beast.

The entire first floor is devoted to a permanent exhibit on the history of the automobile in Southern California, and it is instructive. The early days of automobile touring, when drivers were adventurous types traveling the splendid coast on unimproved roads at their own peril, are evoked with great romance. Looking at that quaint little reproduction of an infant strip mall, you see the strip malls of today in a whole different light. These clumsy, obese adult malls were once young and fresh and full of promise, just like the children learning about them.

There is a section, too, devoted to the demise of the streetcar in Los Angeles. Some have alleged that decline was the result of a concerted effort – a conspiracy – by General Motors to ensure that the city would be designed to make the dominance of the car inevitable. Here, it is the streetcar’s fate that is presented as inevitable, the only sensible outcome of cars’ burgeoning popularity and the congestion they caused. Freeways, the ultimate response to that urban congestion, are hailed as a form of "environmental sculpture." Only in the last 20 years has the city started building trains again, expanding bus service, installing bike lanes.

Upstairs, an artwork tells another story about the way Los Angeles was shaped. It’s a 1953 ice cream truck, painted from nose to tail by artist Vincent Valdez with images from the struggle for Chavez Ravine. That was the piece of Los Angeles land that was home to Mexican immigrant families who lived in the hills tending gardens and fruit trees and livestock. After the city decided to clear the land for urban renewal in the 1940s, the families were promised they would be resettled in public housing in the same area.

Homes were demolished and families were moved out. But the leadership of the city changed, and a public housing project came to be seen as a suspect and possibly socialist enterprise. Then, in 1958, the Dodgers came to town, and they bought a big tract in Chavez Ravine for their stadium. The plans for housing evaporated for good.

Residents protested, and some refused to leave. Over the months and years, the fight for Chavez Ravine turned ugly and violent at times, all scenes that are painted in vivid colors on that old ice cream truck. The piece was commissioned by musician Ry Cooder, who in 2006 released an album called Chavez Ravine memorializing the battle.

In the end, the Dodgers got their stadium, and the residents of Chavez Ravine were scattered, their once tight-knit community broken up. It was part of the way the city grew over the 20th century. The streetcar tracks were ripped out, and the freeways grew up, plowing over neighborhoods and consuming huge swaths of the city’s land. The strip malls bulked up, the cars multiplied, and the air grew brown.

Standing in the Petersen, the children of Los Angeles learn how it all happened. What they don't learn is that maybe it didn’t have to go that way after all.

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