Even in a city full of parched architecture, few buildings look as thirsty as a mini-mall. Take the one that's baking at Osborne Street and Woodman Avenue in Panorama City this stifling afternoon. A squat rectangle of stucco and drywall, it offers everything we've come to expect in these ubiquitous corner "convenience centers": a pizza parlor and doughnut shop, a music store and forlorn Laundromat. There's the requisite oil-stained parking lot, the brick enclosed dumpster, some spindly little shrubs that cry for water.
The building's faux Italian tiles weigh heavily overhead, and the faade is in desperate need of fresh paint.
Built in 1973, this row of charmless storefronts is thought to be L.A.'s first "modern" mini-mall, and its lack of design and generic bleakness would be appropriated at tens of thousands of other street corners--first in L.A., then Southern California, the United States and, yes, the world.
"You'll find the mini-mall not in the cities of Europe," says Mark Mack, a design professor at UCLA, "but now in the smaller towns and suburban areas. It's a true Los Angeles export." Last year, a Polish developer planned a mini-mall across the street from the Auschwitz concentration camp, with a fast-food outlet, clothing store and supermarket. Outraged Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors successfully halted construction.
But it's fortunate for the mini-mall that the sun never sets on its empire, because suddenly, it seems, the unthinkable is possible: Mini-malls in Southern California may be headed for obsolescence. Spawned during the oil crisis in the '70s, the mini-mall is now undergoing a crisis of its own--it's being besieged by the "power center," essentially an outdoor version of an indoor mall with big-name chain tenants.
Why, in a landscape just as spread out and car-dominated as the one that gave rise to the mini-mall, is it losing its dominance? And how did it manage to proliferate so relentlessly anyway? As the power centers continue their expansion, as they gobble up entire blocks with their own brand of dull uniformity, suddenly the beleaguered mini-mall seems almost discrete, brought down to human scale. From this arises an unnerving possibility, a thought even more unbelievable than the mini-mall's demise: Might we someday feel nostalgic for it?
Mini-mall nostalgia is, surprisingly, not without precedent. The nation's first mini-malls, premiering in the 1920s during L.A.'s early infatuation with the automobile, were born to beauty. They were called "drive-in markets" and oftentimes were of a whimsical design. There was the since-vanished Mandarin Market in Hollywood: With its giddy, hyper-realized "Oriental" ornamentation and plethora of pagodas, it recalled the grandeur of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Or consider the Spanish Colonial Revival Chapman Park Market on 6th Street, conceived in 1929 by the designers of the Mayan and El Capitan theaters. However large and ornate, it met standard mini-mall principles: The automobile comes first, the pedestrian second. Immaculately restored with piped-in jazz music and a gurgling fountain, Chapman hints at what the mini-mall could have been, and in its lone case, continues to be.
"They had all the products you wanted under one roof," explains Richard Longstreth, author of "City Center to Regional Mall." "In separate concessions, but all in a single place. The big deal was you could get off the street and drive up to it, get your stuff and go."
The early markets already incorporated prototypal mini-mall elements: usually L-shaped and situated at a busy intersection, driveway access from two streets, free parking but never enough. The anchor tenant was commonly an independent grocer. About 250 were built in California by the late '20s.
And no, they were not victims of the Depression, but, rather, the supermarket.
Some drive-in markets disappeared, others adapted--recast as body shops or car lots. One survivor in Echo Park was transformed into Casablanca Furniture, barely recognizable as its former self, the Mission Motor-In Market. The Clock Market on Wilshire Boulevard incorporates so many decorative Italian tiles and wrought-iron flourishes that it now seems a fitting home to the Beverly Hills Porsche-Audi dealership.
When the mini-mall was reborn in the early '70s, it would be in reaction to the proliferation of such postwar mall monoliths as the Lakewood Shopping Center. Shoppers were annoyed at having to search for a parking place, then walk several hundred yards to pick up a goldfish or buy an LP. As eating habits and work schedules became more fragmented, demand grew for the convenient danish-and-decaf breakfast to go, same-day dry cleaning and 10-minute manicure.