ON a recent sunny day, it was business as usual at Glen Village, a strip mall on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park. A constant flow of cars streamed into the parking lot; customers dashed into the beauty salon, postal shop or video store and exited as quickly as possible. The whole scene unfolded almost robotically -- no one stopped to chat with a neighbor or window-shop.
For the most part, Glen Village is a typical Southern California strip mall, complete with bland architecture, impersonal service and an emphasis on convenience at all costs.
It goes with the territory: Strip malls are a side effect of car culture, after all. But despite their questionable reputations (a blight on the cityscape, say some; Dante's circles of hell, say others), our strip malls hold countless local gems, including gourmet restaurants, music venues, nightclubs and trendy shops. Glen Village, for example, is home to the art gallery Pehrspace.
These treasures are often hidden even to locals, but are especially so to transplants. When MOCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel came from New York, he was shocked to find that "the culture of Los Angeles is in its strip malls. They are really the incubators of the new -- young, up-and-coming artists, new restaurants and clubs."
The birth of the strip mall is hard to pin down. Some say the first cropped up in the Midwest in the 1920s; others say the idea is based on Paris arcades of the mid-19th century. According to Petersen Automotive Museum curator Leslie Kendall, however, the progenitor was the '20s-era Clock Market on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Hamilton Drive in Beverly Hills. A decade later, the market was, fittingly, converted into a car dealership that still exists.
"It was the first strip mall to give valuable property over to the car," Kendall explains. "Instead of the building being right on the sidewalk, the space closest to the street is a parking lot, because they realized that if you couldn't park your car, you wouldn't get the customer."
It wasn't until the 1980s that mini-malls became a ubiquitous fixture. Architect Ming Fung, a founder of Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates who moved to the city in 1975, says, "I remember very clearly when the strip mall began to mushroom all over the city, especially at busy intersections."
In those days they were designed with one goal in mind: convenience. "No one would have considered having a gourmet dinner in the strip mall," Fung adds.
But as L.A. grew denser and rents continued to skyrocket, local strip malls provided artists, chefs and designers with an affordable base. Now, what was the epitome of uncool has become a trendy destination.
One of the people orchestrating this transformation is Emily Gabel-Luddy, head of the city's Urban Design Studio, who describes strip malls such as Glen Village as "putting a size 10 foot into a size 7 shoe" -- they just don't fit the new urban model.
Gabel-Luddy sees how a little city planning could reinvent the strip mall as a hub. For example, she suggests, strip malls might use what is now a parking lot for outdoor cafes. "Who knows?" she says. "Maybe mini-malls will become the preservation cause of the future."
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A sampling of some of the great, quirky finds in strip malls around Southern California.
Alegria When this wonderland of Cal-Mex cuisine caught on with the designer-jeans crowd, it wasn't long before we ate our savory tacos a la crema next to Heather Graham. 3510 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 913-1422
Asanebo Star sightings here might be of the Shatner variety, but the food is Michelin-rated. Concentrate on the sashimi, paired with an artisan sake selection. 11941 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 760-3348
BrewBakers Take matters into your own hands and brew your own beer at this folksy microbrewery, then round up your buddies to do justice to your handcrafted creation. 7242 Heil Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 596-5506
El Cochinito A spare interior, laid-back vibe and several signed photos of Cuban B-list actors make for the perfect place to gnaw on one of the city's best roasted pork specials. 3508 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 668-0737
El Pollo Inka The original location of this small Peruvian chain makes a tasty chaufa de pollo, sort of like fried rice. Drown it all in the bottled green sauce. 15400 Hawthorne Blvd., Lawndale, (310) 676-6665
Hamasaku The sushi, seafood and celebrity following here conjure comparisons to local legend Matsuhisa but at less lofty prices. 11043 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 479-7636
Hollywood Thai Does this low-on-atmosphere hole-in-the-wall with the pretty waitresses serve the best Thai food in L.A? Its many fans would argue yes. 5241 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 467-0926