Culture, Housing, Love: The Meaning of LA Parking Lots

Memories are made in Los Angeles parking lots. Some inspire electrifying nostalgia and even more electrifying storytelling.

First strong smoked…

First hand work delivered or received…

The survival, or execution, of the first car theft…

We giddily remember those cherries popping up under the glow of fluorescent lights, and while these milestones flood us with adrenaline, our brutalist car dumps are probably the setting for a cat nap, an impromptu diaper changing station, or a social gathering . media scrolling session, the kind where you sink into the quicksand of the internet and disassociate for at least an hour, only to be dragged back into real life by some asshole honking from behind the wheel of a still-burning Tesla . The concrete nautilus in which we temporarily abandon our Kias and Porsches and mopeds produce, reproduce and harbor dualities.

Lanes in and out of a large garage

The concrete nautilus in which we temporarily abandon our Kias and Porsches produce, reproduce and harbor dualities.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

Agony and ecstasy.

Emotions and boredom.

Sublimity and total lack of transcendence.

Although their architecture seems to obstruct the view (thank you, hairpin turn after hairpin turn!), our perception of who we are, where we are, and where we are going is sharpened when we emerge alive from these massive structures.

Whatever you do, don’t lose your ticket.

When in doubt, tape it to your bra.

If it’s not you, there’s always your shoe.

(And if it’s not you, you know what to do.
The human body is full of soft, warm garages.)

Gray handprints on a concrete column in a garage

Los Angeles parking lots bring out my inner 12-year-old.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

Outside a parking garage in Venice sits the largest pair of fake binoculars on the planet. The sculpture, entitled “Giant Binoculars”, was designed by Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg. It looks like a joke, and you have to drive through their telescopes to park. Their glasses point to hell if you’re a cartoon Christian, to the molten metals swirling at the core of our planet if you’re a pagan. I have never seen this roadside attraction “in the flesh”. Why drive to Venice to look through binoculars that won’t show me anything? That’s also a bit “Waiting for Godot” for me. However, it is fitting that this large novelty object looks towards Hades, suggesting that the subterranean is worthwhile, that it deserves an expansion. That we often hide our cars underground involves one hell of an adventure. For this reason, Los Angeles parking lots bring out my inner 12-year-old.

That bitch loved Greek mythology.

When I descend to retrieve my Honda, which can be quite an ordeal (it LOOKS LIKE ALL HONDA), I pretend to be Orpheus, son of Apollo. Down, down, spiraling down, plunging into the land of shadows in search of my recently deceased wife, Eurydice.

My purse becomes my lyre.

I rip your vinyl.

squeal

The ones I see wandering the various realms—Level 1, Level 2, Level 3—are the damned.

I avoid eye contact.

Everyone seems early.

Two parking spaces illuminated with fluorescent light

Los Angeles is terrible for housing people. It is best for storing cars.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

Once I’m in my car, and we start walking toward the light, I fight the urge to look in the rearview mirror. According to tradition, Eurydice can leave the realm of the dead on one condition: Orpheus must not look over her shoulder to verify her presence. She must trust that the Lord of the Underworld has fulfilled his promise to release her from his control.

Rescuing the love of life from the afterlife, or the Honda from place D-13, requires faith.

I am a person of faith. I faithfully keep my exit ticket in my sports bra, so an underground garage has yet to swallow my car forever.

Suck it, Hades!

Los Angeles is terrible for housing people. It is best for storing cars.

My grandparents settled in East Los Angeles in the 1950s, a decade when parking spaces in Los Angeles County were only 6,000,000. They were being millions expense to build the massive freeway system that Los Angeles would become famous for, but my family didn’t rely on asphalt to get here. They emigrated from Mexico by train and moved into cramped public housing built during World War II.

In Mexico, my grandfather had worked as a cattle inspector. His tools had been a horse and a pistol. In Los Angeles, he abandoned his cowboy ways, becoming a factory worker. He got a job in Santa Monica and relied on public transportation, riding the bus nearly 40 miles a day to weld for Douglas Aircraft. He soon came to hate this commute and decided to make use of the region’s abundant parking.

One Monday morning, Grandpa put his checkbook in his back pocket. He put on his fedora and said to my 4-year-old father, “Come on, Butch! We’re buying a car.”

The two walked to a gas station on Calle Soto. Puppies huddled outside the mechanic’s garage basking in the sun. Grandpa wrote a check for $300 for a 1940 Studebaker Commander, the sweetest ride my dad had ever seen. They drove him home, parking the blue beauty half a block away on the street.

The Road Courts did not provide parking for its low-income residents.

Maybe it was assumed that car culture wasn’t for us.

A closed and abandoned garage with outside area

Some lots and garages that have fallen into disrepair look like cemeteries. They are monumental for their beauty.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

There was no harm done to my family’s outdoor commander, but advertising for Los Angeles’ first pay-parking garages warned that curb parking was “almost suicidal to the appearance of any respectable-looking car.” Car park entrepreneurs promised motorists that by using closed facilities they could avoid dents, scratches, broken glass, pigeon droppings and fires.

One of the first such garages sprung up at 816 Grand Ave. in the city center. The brainchild of businessman Kenneth Stoakes, the eight-story beaux-arts building was designed to resemble the surrounding residential structures, and to the casual observer, the 85,000-square-foot building appeared to be apartments. The camouflage was prescient. When developers transformed the former garage into the South Park Lofts in 2002, the “exclusive boutique” apartments are exactly what 816 Grand Ave. became Where drivers paid 50 cents to keep their Lincolns, Oldsmobiles and Chryslers, renters now hand over thousands a month to live. The federal government takes this parking history site seriously. In 2005, the United States Department of the Interior recognized 816 Grand Ave. as one of the “first parking structures in the country to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Garages and lots surround South Park Lofts.

Parking spaces have grown exponentially since my family arrived.

A lighted multi-level garage

It is estimated that Los Angeles County is now home to approximately 18,000,000 parking spaces.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

It is estimated that Los Angeles County is now home to approximately 18,000,000 parking spaces, and researchers have determined that 14% of the county’s unincorporated land is devoted to protecting automobiles. That breaks down to 3.3 parking spaces per vehicle.

My car has 2.3 more homes than me. A bungalow, a pied-à-terre and a hammock.

My grandfather had a heart attack under a parked Chevy in Norwalk. He had finished his Thanksgiving dinner and went to the driveway to play. He never set foot in the house again.

We still joke that the food was so good it killed him.

For where grandpa died, I think of parked cars as graves, parking lots and garages as cemeteries. Some lots and garages, those that are abandoned, that have fallen into disrepair, look like cemeteries. They are monumental for their beauty. It’s lovely to see them fall apart, to see chaparral and the birds come in and retrieve them.

The interior of an empty garage with graffiti on the walls

It’s lovely to see the car parks fall apart, see the chaparral and the birds come in and take them back.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

One of my favorite and cheapest ways to admire the magnificence of this city can be found in the parking lot of a Hollywood department store. As my teenage dreams of becoming a writer came true, I live on a tight budget. I embrace low-cost fun. I chase free beauty. I eat my leftovers.

Located at 5600 Sunset Blvd., Home Depot has a ground-level lot in front. ignore it Instead, take the concrete ramp, an epic piece of architecture that looks like it belongs on a DW Griffith set, up to the roof. Its flat expanse is a great place for a first date, 23 or 500. I’ve tried it with people in cemeteries, chapels and libraries, but nothing beats the unexpected intimacy of a rooftop date. Drivers tend to avoid leaving their cars so close to the sun. Pedestrians don’t usually linger.

You and your lover will have heaven to yourself if you get the visit right.

It is delicious to be able to pretend that the sky belongs to us.

The shadow of a person standing outside an open car door

Once I’m in my car, and we start walking toward the light, I fight the urge to look in the rearview mirror.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

Hollywood Home Depot’s rooftop parking lot offers the kind of panoramic views that make Midwesterners salivate. The Hollywood sign appears crisp, clear and unobstructed. So does the Griffith Observatory. You can pose here, with these landmarks, and not mess with the flow of traffic. You can reach for the “H” in Hollywood and mime it by pinching it between your fingers.

I’ve been here during the day, around noon, and the lots are bustling with contractors coming and going, men looking for work. I tend to wander around the plant nursery, saying hello to the orchids and horsetail palms and black-eyed Susans. I wish I could bring them all home with me, save them from a life at Home Depot, but I can’t. Treating myself to an agave is splurging.

The silhouette of a person standing outside their car

Nothing beats the unexpected intimacy of a rooftop date.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

I plan to bring my beloved to this parking lot. We’ll stop for In-N-Out, cruise up to the roof of the hardware store, and watch the sun dip to the west, sink into the ocean that lies beyond the wacky mansions of so many rich people. We’ll eat our burgers, share some fries, drink our shakes and sigh with happiness, as happy as people can be in a city that periodically shakes.

Myriam Gurba is the author of “Mean,” a ghostly survival memoir. She is the co-founder of Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots campaign fighting white supremacy in publishing. He is currently working on his fourth book.

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