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Clearing the Air : Was Los Angeles a Better City Before Air Conditioning?

December 14, 1986|JACK SMITH

Times staff writer Betty Cuniberti wrote recently of "I'll Buy That," a book published by Consumer Reports Books, which lists and evaluates the 50 most important products of the last 50 years.

Cuniberti pointed out that the book includes such obvious boons as the polio vaccine, paperback books, television, the automatic transmission and credit cards.

She noted that Christopher Kuppig, director of Consumer Reports Books, put air travel, compact discs and power mowers on his personal Top 10 but bypassed the birth control pill.

Imagine preferring power mowers to the Pill.

I would certainly also have put air conditioning on my list, as "I'll Buy That" does, but I might not have thought how critical it has been in the development of American life.

"Without air conditioning," the book reminds us, "we wouldn't have Las Vegas."

I would be willing to give up Las Vegas; but the book goes on to say:

"Nor would we have Miami or Houston or Los Angeles--at least not in their modern, metropolitan forms."

I wonder how many remember what life in Los Angeles was like before air conditioning. Most of us can't imagine such a life, any more than we can imagine a life without television.

Even those of us who live in houses that are not air- conditioned are used to shopping in air-conditioned supermarkets and working in air-conditioned places. And we travel from one air-conditioned place to another in air-conditioned cars.

But I can remember the hot summer days before air conditioning.

In July and August, everywhere would be hot. There was no escape but the beach. The windows of the courthouse and other public buildings in the Civic Center would be open to admit the fresher outdoor air, hot as it was. Every room had its fan, swinging back and forth in its arc, blowing the warm air over perspiring foreheads.

In the offices and courtrooms, decorum was put aside. Judges had to wear their robes, by law, but they often let lawyers shuck their coats and argue their cases in shirt sleeves. Spectators fanned themselves with hats.

As a high school boy, I attended the criminal courts, listening to murder trials. I remember scenes that were much like the courtroom scenes in "Inherit the Wind," the movie about the Scopes trial in Tennessee. Fredric March, in his shirt sleeves, as William Jennings Bryan, argued with sweaty passion that God created man in his own image and that man, therefore, could not have evolved from the apes. Won his case, too.

In Los Angeles everyone talked about the weather. "Hot enough for ya?" was the standard greeting.

Children in bathing suits played on their lawns and sprayed each other with garden hoses. The big event of the day was the arrival of the iceman. Kids ran down the street after his truck, scooping up the chips of ice left on the tailgate when he cut a block for a customer.

In the twilight, parents sat on the front porch, drinking lemonade (at least until beer came back), waiting for the evening breeze to cool their house.

We slept under sheets, in the nude; or under nothing.

Restaurants and department stores were cooled by fans, or by open windows. There were no shopping malls, all air-conditioned to the coolness of an April day; there were no supermarkets, now so cold you get a chill. There were no air-conditioned office buildings or factories.

Everyone sweated and prayed for a break in the weather.

It may be true that without air conditioning Las Vegas would not exist, except as a small desert town with a drugstore, a cafe and a gas station--mechanic on duty.

But Los Angeles would have been a metropolis even without it. As we say here, no matter how hot the days, the nights are cool. We had the sun, and we had Hollywood. Also, we don't have the humid summers of Miami, New York or Washington.

I wonder, though, what Los Angeles would be like today if it hadn't been for air conditioning. It would probably be half as populous. Like water, air conditioning makes it possible for more people to inhabit a place. Most of us would still live in detached houses with yards and lawns. We might still have the great public plunges at Long Beach and Redondo, and maybe the Bimini Baths.

We would probably have no Music Center and no opera. Without air conditioning Los Angeles might be the hick town that San Franciscans think it is.

That is the ultimate blessing of air conditioning for Los Angeles. It has made it possible for us to civilize ourselves.

Even so, if I could have but one of the products that have come along in the past 50 years, I'd take the polio vaccine.

More than anything else, it has lessened the cruelty of life.

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