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LA's top make-out spots hint at a city constantly evolving

The view from the Jerome C. Daniel Overlook on Mulholland Drive.
Willem Verbeeck for NPR
The view from the Jerome C. Daniel Overlook on Mulholland Drive.

To live and die in LA is to have driven and parked in this city.

Most Angelenos have probably had their fair share of morning coffees, meaningful conversations, and midnight kisses in their cars, giving rise to a whole new definition of "parking."

The creation of the automobile offered a new kind of freedom and privacy, while also transforming Los Angeles into the sprawling, car-centric metropolis it is today.

The city's best "parking" — or make-out spots — offer a vantage point into the history of that transformation.

Patt Morrison considers her car a "second home on wheels." She is a longtime Angeleno, as well as writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and took All Things Considered on a tour of the famous canoodling corners of LA.

Patt Morrison says the city has reached a tipping point in its love affair with the automobile.
/ Willem Verbeeck for NPR
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Willem Verbeeck for NPR
Patt Morrison says the city has reached a tipping point in its love affair with the automobile.

Mulholland Drive

The famed Mulholland Drive was carved into the Hollywood Hills in the 1920s, just as cars began to take over mass transit.

The 21-mile stretch, surrounded by lush bushland that's currently bursting with color, offers views of the city's skyline and sprawling network of freeways. This intersection of panoramic views and car culture combine at the Jerome C. Daniel Overlook, which ranks as Yelp's top make-out spot in the city.

Yet, as Morrison explains, it was neither views nor cars the city's planners really had in mind — it was real estate.

Morrison takes in the view from the Jerome C. Daniel Overlook.
/ Willem Verbeeck for NPR
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Willem Verbeeck for NPR
Morrison takes in the view from the Jerome C. Daniel Overlook.

"Los Angeles 120-some years ago was a big place that was still a small town, but it looked to the horizon and it looked to the mountains," Morrison said.

"Every hillside, every mountain was an opportunity to sell real estate. The beauty was incidental. The beauty helped to sell it, but the beauty was not just for its own sake."

Cars, said Morrison, were a natural partner for Los Angeles as it grew and expanded, absorbing small neighborhoods into its fold by way of ever-expanding roads and freeways.

"New York makes you into the person it wants you to be. In LA, you can define and create your own Los Angeles," she said. "Do you want to be an urban person? Do you want to be a suburban person? Are you a hill person? Are you a neighborhood person? You get to choose your neighborhood and then you become that neighborhood in a way that it's not possible in a lot of other cities."

Cars were a natural partner for Hollywood, too, which could now deliver its newly sound-rich movies straight to drivers. The ubiquity of the automobile met with the movies at the drive-in theater.

The Drive-in Theater

It was the first in California and only the second in the nation, so its name was simply, "The Drive-In Theater."

Opening day was in the fall of 1934 on the corners of Pico and Westwood Boulevards. It cost a quarter for adults and 10 cents for children to catch a flick, though many of the cars that filled the lot were likely too fogged up to see who was inside.

The Drive-in Theater in Los Angeles in 1934.
/ "Dick" Whittington Studio Collection of Negatives and Photographs, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
/
"Dick" Whittington Studio Collection of Negatives and Photographs, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
The Drive-in Theater in Los Angeles in 1934.

For young couples who had the freedom of owning a vehicle, Morrison said the point of coming to the drive-in wasn't exactly to watch the movie. "Although you had to be able to outline the plot when you got home and your mother asked about it," she joked.

"It combines two loves: The love of movies and the love of mobility and controlling your own space," Morrison said. "Think of what it's like to sit in a movie theater and watch a movie: You're in a seat, you've got popcorn, you've got your drink, you've got your friends around you. But it doesn't feel like a personal space the way being in your car does, where you can do what you want."

"You can get up to some romantic hanky panky if you want. Or you can have the kids asleep in the back seat ... So I think that sense of, 'This is my space and I'm in charge of it' really was paramount."

As World War II ended, veterans returned home to their families and a prosperous country with a new kind of stability. And in Los Angeles, they found they had more access to cars and new parts of the city. Families could live farther from where they worked, and drive to newly developed parts of LA for everything from restaurants to churches.

The site where The Drive-in Theater once stood.
/ Willem Verbeeck for NPR
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Willem Verbeeck for NPR
The site where The Drive-in Theater once stood.

Yet even in car-centric Los Angeles, places like The Drive-In Theater couldn't survive the rampant development that automobiles enabled. Cars meant new suburbs popped up along the freeway system, which saw immense growth in the middle of the 20th century, often wiping out neighborhoods that people of color once lived.

The final make-out spot on Morrison's tour is the panoramic background of that urban sprawl.

Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook

Just above the snaking waterway called Ballona Creek on the west side of Los Angeles, a winding road flanked by blooming yellow mustard and daisies leads to the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

The view of the Pacific Ocean to the Hollywood Hills to Downtown LA and beyond is magnificent. Down below lies a neighborhood that was once known as "Black Beverly Hills." It was named for the African American movie stars who once called it home, despite the restrictive covenants that tried to keep them out.

The Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook offers a somewhat private space to hang out.
/ Willem Verbeeck for NPR
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Willem Verbeeck for NPR
The Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook offers a somewhat private space to hang out.

"It was one of those areas that was sort of a howling coyote wilderness that nobody really wanted to bother about until, once again, real estate got valuable," Morrison said. "People had cars so they could drive to places that had been inaccessible before, and the views mattered."

"And the necessity of a car to live in a place like this ... also signaled that you had arrived, that you had made it, being top of the heap and top of the hill."

Yet along with enabling the freedom to move and private moments shared in back seats, Morrison said cars have also led to deep-seated divisions in LA.

"We've lost the magic of having a commonality, of having a presence on the sidewalks and in public spaces with people who aren't us and who aren't like us," she said. "And when you go to cities like Paris or New York or London, you see people just jostling elbows ... They don't exchange words, but they're there with one another and they occupy the same human space."

"Car culture is a classist culture in a way. Even though it demands that people have it to function here in Los Angeles, it creates class and it creates isolation. And I think that's been to Los Angeles' detriment. The cars help the city to grow physically, but socially, culturally, maybe not so much."

The Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook is a worthy place to consider the effects urban sprawl.
/ Willem Verbeeck for NPR
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Willem Verbeeck for NPR
The Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook is a worthy place to consider the effects urban sprawl.

Morrison said she thinks the city has reached a tipping point in its love affair with the automobile, brought on by younger people who see cars not as an asset but as a burden.

"And they say, 'No, that's not going to be for me, that's not the way I choose to live my life.' And with any luck, they'll be able to live in the city and be fully invested citizens in it without having to do it with four wheels," Morrison said.

But even in a city built to the scale of the automobile, there are plenty of places like the hills that overlook this city, where the pavement comes to an end, and people have to step outside their cars to connect with Los Angeles.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.