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It may seem far afield, but the genesis of Richard Longstreth’s new book, The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914-1941, came not from L.A. but from right here in D.C.
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A decade and a half ago, Longstreth, an architectural historian at George Washington University, got involved in a long-running battle over the fate of the Park and Shop, the city’s oldest strip mall, located above what today is the Cleveland Park Metro stop. When a neighborhood activist came to Longstreth seeking advice on obtaining a historic designation for the development, the activist produced documentation that the shopping center had opened in 1930, 10 years before the shocked Longstreth had thought possible for such a modern type of shopping center. Armed with this information, Longstreth helped secure a historic designation for the Park and Shop, arguing that it represented a crucial step in the development of car-friendly shoppingan American achievement so ubiquitous it hardly seems revolutionary anymore.
The episode piqued Longstreth’s curiosity about how American retail stores transmogrified from downtown mom-and-pop outlets into suburban strip malls. In turn, that inquiry led to Longstreth’s most recent book, released this month by MIT Pressthe second of a two-book series focusing on the role of Los Angeles in that transformation.
Though friends and foes of the automobile have long squabbled over the larger consequences of America’s reliance on cars, Longstreth pointedly refuses to make moral judgments about Rockville Pike and its ilk. In the book, Longstreth, 53, recounts the largely forgotten role of L.A. gas stations, “drive-in” produce markets, and, ultimately, modern supermarkets in giving rise to the parking-lot-ringed shopping center. He found that car-crazy Angelenos produced the twin trendsbigger stores and car-accessible locationsthat made the modern shopping center possible, yet, oddly, they never put the two together, leaving that step for foresighted Washingtonians to figure out. (The reason, Longstreth reckons, is that Angelenos preferred seeing fruits and vegetables, rather than cars, in front of their supermarket entrances.) Such serendipity is rife in Longstreth’s little sliver of architectural history. “None of it,” he says, “comes in nice, neat, linear progressions.”Louis Jacobson