I’m a Los Angeles girl, born and bred. My hometown is Pasadena, about 12 miles northeast of L.A.’s downtown, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. My husband is another Angeleno, raised in Hawthorne, in far southwest Los Angeles County, on the South Bay flatlands abutting the Pacific Ocean. Hawthorne was then a postwar working-class paradise (the big employer was Northrop Corporation, now Northrop Grumman) that was socioeconomically and geographically diagonal to snooty, old-money Pasadena. Later, Hawthorne, its fortunes much deteriorated, became the iconic crud-Los Angeles setting of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994).
My husband and I thus had a keen interest in seeing a mixed-media exhibition titled Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990 at the National Building Museum in Washington. The exhibition was organized by the Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum—Los Angeles entities that promised a vision of the city that would be a welcome break from the typical traffic-choked, freeway-riven, City of Quartz dystopia of dying palm trees that is East Coast intellectuals’ stereotype of America’s second-largest city.
We were only slightly disappointed. The show’s opening wall text declared: “Los Angeles’ identity is inextricably linked with the automobile.” True enough. Los Angeles County is so enormous—more than 4,000 square miles, with the city of Los Angeles alone taking up nearly 500 of them—that it can only be gotten around efficiently by motor vehicle, meaning that the automobile inevitably shaped L.A.’s man-built geography. Yet even though the show was titled Overdrive, the wall-text authors didn’t seem to know what the overdrive mechanism on a car is. “The term . . . alludes to the fact that an engine churning at top speed may overheat,” they wrote. Actually, the overdrive prevents overheating by reducing the engine’s RPM while the car is at peak velocity.
In truth, aside from some tub-thumping for the Metro Rail (Los Angeles County’s far-from-finished and astoundingly expensive current experiment in public transportation) and an inexplicable demographic reference to Los Angeles’s white population as “Northern European”—as though it consisted of recent immigrants from the Netherlands—the exhibition was commendably ideology-free. And there were many wonderful things to be seen among the hundreds of photographs, maps, models, architectural drawings, and videos that the Getty people collected.
The most riveting of them was Pop artist Ed Ruscha’s 1973 black-and-white tracking shots, taken by a car-mounted 35-millimeter camera traveling along the entire length of commercial Hollywood Boulevard. Ruscha duplicated his Hollywood Boulevard tour de force in color in 2002, so it was possible to watch both filmstrips simultaneously and see which buildings, businesses, and ways of living disappeared or persisted as the boulevard changed. The Ruscha filmstrips, exhibited in a room titled “Car Culture,” displayed the crucial understanding that Hollywood Boulevard, like all the arteries in Los Angeles constructed during the 20th century, was designed and built primarily to be driven through, not walked along. Street intersections in Los Angeles were (and remain) dauntingly wide, unlike the walkable intersections of older American cities. And at least through the early 1970s, there was scarcely a shady tree on Hollywood Boulevard to deflect the blinding Southern California sun from the seemingly interminable blocks of low-slung storefronts.
A vintage video clip in the exhibition celebrated “cruising,” the now-defunct practice of Southern California teenagers during the 1950s and early ’60s of jamming themselves into a car in which they could see and be seen by their peers as they showed off their vehicles, their girlfriends, and their hoped-for sex appeal as they drove at millipede speeds up and down their town’s main drag on Friday and Saturday nights. Cruising formed the narrative spine of George Lucas’s 1973 coming-of-age flick American Graffiti. Graffiti was set in Lucas’s more northerly hometown, Modesto. But that only went to show that Los Angeles’s car culture quickly became the culture of the entire state, except in a handful of bohemian redoubts such as San Francisco.