A foreigner flying over Los Angeles in a helicopter might think the city was mostly parking lots and swimming pools.
Today many of the old open lots have been replaced by parking structures in which drivers may have to pay up to $14 a day to park. I have paid as much as $2 for a half-hour, both in lots and structures. Buildings have been torn down to create parking lots, and there are surely more parking lots than churches.
It all started with one man, an Italian immigrant named Andrew Pansini, and, as expressed in the title of a sentimental biography of Pansini by his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Pansini La Haye, "It Started With a Nickel" (Nickel Publications, Newport Beach).
Pansini opened the first parking lot in downtown Los Angeles in August, 1917, on the northwest corner of 4th and Olive streets. It cost 5 cents a day.
He was born in the Adriatic seacoast town of Molfetta, on the heel of the Italian boot--one of eight children. When he was 9 his mother and father died within a year. Andrew (then Andrea) became a cobbler's apprentice, and applied himself with such industry that at 15 he had his own shop. Knowing that Italian women liked to be noticed, he invented the ringing heel--a brass bell implanted in the heel.
With the help of an uncle and an older brother who had gone before him, Andrea (now Andrew) landed in America four days after his 16th birthday. He worked as a stock and delivery boy in Hallinan's general store, Bloomfield, N.J., and studied English in night school. His wife-to-be, Mary Catherine Hoffman, was a bookkeeper at Hallinan's.
At 19 he went to work for the Borden milk company in Montclair, N.J. It took him three years to save enough for the engagement and wedding rings. He started his own dairy business, but bacteria in the raw milk ruined him. He left his wife and their son in Bloomfield and struck out for California by train.
When Andrew Pansini arrived in Los Angeles in 1916 he had 11 cents in his pocket. He hopped on a milk wagon at the depot and rode to the dairy, where he talked himself into a job. He got an extra job as a soda jerk, bought an old Studebaker for $50 and started a taxi service, sent for his family, and opened a fruit stand at 9th and Broadway.
Later he acquired a secondhand Winton for his one-man taxi stand at 4th and Hill. One day he saw a peg-legged man motioning drivers to the curb and charging 10 cents to watch their parked cars. Why not charge drivers to park on an off-the-street vacant lot? After all, there were 95,654 automobiles registered in Los Angeles County (compared with 4,282,766 in 1986).
He borrowed the money from his wife's frugal father to lease a lot at 4th and Olive. He put up a sign: PARKING 5 CENTS A DAY. On the sixth day he waited until midnight for his first and only customer to leave. He had taken in 25 cents--5 cents for parking and a 20-cent tip. At the end of six months, Savoy Auto Parks (named after the ruling house of Italy) had taken in a total of $15.
Pansini refused to give up. He sold his Winton for $800 and leased a second lot at 5th and Grand. In 1920 he started what was to become a Los Angeles tradition--knocking down old buildings to make parking lots. Between 1920 and 1945 Pansini wrecked 85 buildings, and a newspaper warned, "Look out for Andrew Pansini or he'll be wrecking the whole of Los Angeles."
Soon the Savoy Auto Park sign, a red, white and green circle (the colors of the Italian flag), pierced by a white and green arrow, became ubiquitous in downtown Los Angeles. In 1929 there were 90 Savoy Auto Parks.
When San Francisco's Union Square garage opened in 1942, Pansini had the contract to operate it. With young men gone to war, he hired his first women. He lost thousands of dollars the first two years, but it finally began to pay.
I have no doubt that some smart young immigrant is starting out today, with sweat and vision, to make his fortune in L.A.