Life Style

Pain and pleasure (and hidden beauty) in Los Angeles parking structures

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

First blunt smoked …

First hand job given or received …

The survival, or execution, of one’s first carjacking …

We giddily reminisce about such cherries getting popped beneath the glow of fluorescent lights, and while these milestones flood us with adrenaline, our brutalist car dumps are as likely to be the setting for a cat nap, an impromptu diaper-changing station or a social-media-scrolling session, the kind where you sink into the limp quicksand of the internet and disassociate for at least an hour, only to be yanked back into real life by an asshole honking from behind the wheel of a yet-to-combust Tesla. The concrete nautiluses where we temporarily abandon our Kias and Porsches and mopeds produce, reproduce and shelter dualities.

The concrete nautiluses where we temporarily abandon our Kias and Porsches produce, reproduce and shelter dualities.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

Agony and ecstasy.

Thrills and ennui.

Sublimity and total lack of transcendence.

Though their architecture appears to obstruct vision (thanks, hairpin turn after hairpin turn!), our perception of who we are, where we are and where we’re going sharpens when we exit these massive structures alive.

Whatever you do, don’t misplace your ticket.

When in doubt, stick it in your bra.

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

(And if that’s not you, you know what must be done.
The human body is riddled with soft, warm garages.)

Gray handprints on a concrete column in a parking garage

The parking garages of Los Angeles bring out my inner 12-year-old.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

Outside of a Venice parking garage sits the largest pair of faux binoculars on earth. The sculpture, titled “Giant Binoculars,” was designed by Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg. It looms like a practical joke, and one must drive through its telescopes to park. Its lenses point toward hell if you’re a cartoon Christian, toward the molten metals that swirl at the core of our planet if you’re a heathen. I’ve never seen this roadside attraction “in the flesh.” Why drive all the way to Venice to stare at binoculars that will show me nothing? That’s a little too “Waiting for Godot” for me. It is, however, fitting that this large novelty object peers toward Hades, suggesting that the subterranean is worthwhile, that it merits magnification. That we often stash our cars underground implies infernal adventure. For this reason, the parking garages of Los Angeles 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 EVERY OTHER HONDA), I pretend to be Orpheus, son of Apollo. Down, down, down I spiral, plunging into the land of shadows in search of my recently deceased wife, Eurydice.

My handbag becomes my lyre.

I strum its vinyl.

It squeaks.

Those I see wandering through the various realms — Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 — those are the damned.

I avoid making eye contact.

Everyone looks sallow.

Two parking spaces lit with fluorescent light

Los Angeles is terrible at housing people. It’s better at warehousing cars.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

Once I’m in my car, and we’re chugging toward the light, I fight the urge to look in the rearview mirror. According to lore, Eurydice may leave the realm of the dead under one condition: Orpheus must not peek over his shoulder to verify her presence. He must trust that the Lord of the Underworld has honored his promise to release her from his grip.

Rescuing the love of one’s life from the afterlife, or one’s Honda from spot D-13, requires faith.

I am a person of faith. I faithfully keep my exit ticket in my sports bra, and so a subterranean garage has yet to swallow my car for good.

Suck it, Hades!

Los Angeles is terrible at housing people. It’s better at warehousing cars.

My grandparents settled in East Los Angeles in the 1950s, a decade when parking spots in Los Angeles County totaled a mere 6,000,000. Billions were being spent to build the massive freeway system for which Los Angeles would become notorious, but my family didn’t rely on asphalt to get here. They migrated from Mexico by train and moved into cramped public housing built during the Second World War.

In Mexico, my grandfather had worked as a livestock inspector. His tools had been a horse and a gun. In Los Angeles, he abandoned his cowboy ways, becoming a factory worker. He landed 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 loathe this commute and decided to make use of the region’s abundant parking.

On a Monday morning, Grandpa slid his checkbook into his back pocket. He put on his fedora and told my 4-year-old father, “C’mon, Butch! We’re buying a car.”

The two strolled to a gasoline station on Soto Street. Clunkers clustered outside the mechanic’s garage basked in the sunshine. Grandpa wrote a 300-dollar check for a 1940 Studebaker Commander, the sweetest ride my father had ever ogled. They drove it home, parking the blue beauty about half a block away, on the street.

Estrada Courts didn’t provide parking to its low-income residents.

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

A gated, abandoned parking garage with an outdoor area

Some lots and garages that have fallen into the ruin have the look of cemeteries. They are monumental in their beauty.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

No harm came to my family’s alfresco Commander, but advertising for Los Angeles’ early pay-to-park garages warned that curbside parking was “almost suicidal to the appearance of any respectable-looking car.” Parking entrepreneurs promised motorists that by using enclosed facilities, they could avoid dents, scratches, broken windows, pigeon shit and arson.

One of the first such garages sprang up at 816 Grand Ave. in downtown. The brainchild of businessman Kenneth Stoakes, the eight-story beaux-arts building was designed to resemble 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, turning it into South Park Lofts in 2002, “upscale boutique” apartments are exactly what 816 Grand Ave. became. Where drivers once paid 50 cents to stash their Lincolns, Oldsmobiles and Chryslers, tenants now hand over thousands a month to live. The federal government takes this site of parking history seriously. In 2005, the U.S. Department of the Interior recognized 816 Grand Ave. as one of the country’s “first parking structures to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Parking garages and lots surround South Park Lofts.

Parking spaces have mushroomed exponentially since my family’s arrival.

A lit-up, multilevel parking garage

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

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

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

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

My grandfather had a heart attack beneath a parked Chevy in Norwalk. He’d finished eating Thanksgiving dinner and had gone to the driveway to tinker. He never set foot in the house again.

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

Because of where Grandpa died, I think of parked cars as graves, of parking lots and garages as graveyards. Some lots and garages, those that are bereft, that have fallen into the ruin, have the look of cemeteries. They are monumental in their beauty. It is lovely to watch them crumble, to watch chaparral and birds creep in and reclaim them.

The inside of an empty parking garage with graffiti on the walls

It is lovely to watch parking lots crumble, to watch chaparral and birds creep in and reclaim them.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

One of my favorite, and cheaper, ways of admiring this city’s magnificence can be found in the parking lot of a big box store in Hollywood. Because my adolescent 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 in a D.W. Griffith set, to the roof. Its flat expanse is a great place for a first, 23rd or 500th date. I have trysted with people at cemeteries, chapels and libraries, but nothing beats the unexpected intimacy of a rooftop rendezvous. Drivers tend to avoid leaving their cars so close to the sun. Pedestrians don’t often linger.

You and your lover will have the sky to yourselves if you time your visit right.

It’s delicious to be able to pretend that the heavens belong to us.

The shadow of a person standing outside an open car door

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

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

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

I’ve been here in the daytime, around noon, and the lots are hectic, filled with contractors coming and going, men seeking work. I tend to stroll the plant nursery, say hello to the orchids and ponytail palms and black-eyed Susans. I wish I could bring them all home with me, save them from a life spent at Home Depot, but I can’t. To treat myself to one agave is to splurge.

The silhouette of a person standing outside their car

Nothing beats the unexpected intimacy of a rooftop rendezvous.

(Adali Schell / For The Times)

I plan on bringing my beloved to this parking lot. We will stop for In-N-Out, cruise to the roof of the hardware store and watch the sun dip west, sink into the ocean that lies beyond so many rich people’s silly mansions. We’ll eat our burgers, share some fries, sip our milkshakes and sigh with happiness, as content as people can be in a city that periodically trembles.

Myriam Gurba is the author of “Mean,” a ghostly memoir about survivorship. She is a co-founder of Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots campaign that battles white supremacy in publishing. She is currently at work on her fourth book.

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