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Los Angeles' storied makeout spots offer a vantage point for the city's growth

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Los Angeles, where I live, is a car-obsessed city, and that means parking is a way of life here. And I'm talking about parking in both senses of the word people, if you catch my drift - parking not just as in where you leave your car, but parking as in where you would not leave your car at all.

PATT MORRISON: So how would you do this?

CHANG: I mean, I think I'd put my arm across the seat over and...

MORRISON: Like in the movie theaters...

CHANG: ...Just kind of envelop you.

MORRISON: ...Kind of, oh, lean in. Yeah.

CHANG: Yeah. Are you feeling it?

MORRISON: I'm kind of feeling it, yeah.

CHANG: Yeah? A vibe? So...

MORRISON: I'm feeling 16 years old again.

CHANG: (Laughter).

I am cozying up with Patt Morrison in the backseat of a Mazda SUV. She is a longtime Angeleno and LA Times columnist, and today she is our tour guide to some of the city's top make out spots. And the No. 1 make out spot in LA according to Yelp - yes, they actually rate these - is this turnoff on Mulholland Drive.

Patt, like, if you and I were canoodling right now in the backseat, kind of gazing out the windshield...

MORRISON: Yeah, we would see the lights of downtown Los Angeles. We would see the lights of Hollywood. There's the Capitol Records building, for goodness sake. And so you get that great magical vibe already.

CHANG: Now, before we get any further, I should say that while this story is about romance inside cars, it's also about LA's love affair with cars because these make out spots offer a vantage point into the city's centurylong sprawl. This city's obsession with the automobile drove its development. This is a story that stretches back to the 1920s, when Mulholland Drive was just being carved into the Hollywood Hills, long before it would star in films like David Lynch's 2001 movie named after the road itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MULHOLLAND DRIVE")

NAOMI WATTS: (As Betty Elms) Yes? May I help you?

LEE GRANT: (As Louise Bonner) Someone is in trouble.

CHANG: In some sense, Mulholland Drive embodied the ambitions of the city a century ago, a road that was meant to showcase the real estate potential perched in the Hollywood Hills.

MORRISON: Los Angeles 120-some years ago was a big place that was still a small town. But every hillside, every mountain was an opportunity to sell real estate. And so you had developers who said, if we put this highway at this elevated spot - so beautiful, the views on both sides - we're going to sell real estate.

CHANG: Oh, so it was just a conveyor belt to get real estate clients.

MORRISON: You know, what is this town about? It's about oil, aviation and real estate.

CHANG: Totally.

MORRISON: And Hollywood.

CHANG: (Laughter).

And as roads like Mulholland sprung up, car culture went wild. During the 1920s, the number of cars registered in LA County alone multiplied fivefold.

So how did car culture change how people interacted with each other? I mean, what I'm thinking is a car - it finally meant privacy, right? You didn't have to sneak a kiss in the parlor room anymore.

MORRISON: I have to say, the privacy to go courting - you read the newspapers of the teens and '20s, and they're full of sermons about the sin of the automobile. And when you read accounts of Los Angeles at the turn of the century and the years beyond, you can see how the car was such a natural partner for Los Angeles.

CHANG: A natural partner for Hollywood, too - the car meant Hollywood could deliver its products straight to drivers.

All right, Patt, where are we heading to next? You're our tour guide.

MORRISON: We're going to the movies.

CHANG: Woohoo (ph).

MORRISON: We're going to the site of the second drive-in in the United States, the first in California. So car culture came together with the movie culture to make the perfect evening in Los Angeles.

CHANG: That first drive-in theater to open in California was simply called the Drive-In Theatre. It opened in 1934, cost a quarter for adults, 10 cents for children and screened films like Grace Moore's "One Night Of Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE NIGHT OF LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) For Pete's sake, close the window.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) But I thought you said you wanted some fresh air.

CHANG: Now, this drive-in, which was at the corner of Pico and Westwood Boulevards, is long gone. In its place is an old shopping mall, partly converted into Google offices. But, you know, back in the 1930s, if Yelp had existed, the Drive-In Theatre probably would have claimed its title as the No. 1 make out spot in all of LA.

You know what I love is that for so many people, the point of coming to a drive-in movie theater was not to watch the movie, right?

MORRISON: No, although you had to be able to outline the plot when you got home and your mother asked about it.

CHANG: But in the meantime, while the movie was playing, what was going on?

MORRISON: Well, if you were there with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you were having maybe a little steamy time. It was kind of cheesy, but it was fun. And it was a rite of passage, I think.

CHANG: And you wouldn't just see drive-in theaters. I mean, you would see drive-in restaurants, drive-in churches.

MORRISON: Drive-in restaurants were so Los Angeles - with the car hops, some of them coming out on roller skates. We saw movies like "American Graffiti" that extolled all of this - the car-racing, the movement, the sense that to be an adult was to drive, to have a car.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMERICAN GRAFFITI")

MACKENZIE PHILLIPS: (As Carol) Wow. He's really fast, isn't he?

PAUL LE MAT: (As John Milner) Yeah, but he's stupid.

CHANG: But in car-centric Los Angeles, even a form of entertainment centered around the car itself, like this drive-in, couldn't survive the development that automobiles enabled. Cars and all the new freeways to drive on allowed new suburbs to pop up and suburban malls, which led to the demise of the drive-in. And all that urban sprawl, that endless quilt of development, that is the panoramic backdrop of the last make out spot on our tour.

OK, wait. But really, like, if this is the No. 2 make out spot on Yelp, where are people making out?

MORRISON: I don't know. The parking lot is not very inviting. And all of this is very beautiful, but...

CHANG: But a short walk from the car is a spellbinding view all the way from the Pacific Ocean to downtown LA and beyond. And right now, this park at the top of Baldwin Hills, it's bursting with yellow - yellow daisies, yellow mustard as far as the eye can see.

MORRISON: 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. People had cars, so they could drive to places that had been inaccessible before, and the views mattered. Once again, developers start saying, hey, are we missing a bet? Let's go build some houses up there.

CHANG: So much about what we've been talking about today, Patt, has been about the magic that cars have brought to this city, the magic that allowed people to explore the city, to live in different neighborhoods that they would have never dreamed of living in if they hadn't had cars. But do you think in the process, because of the city's devotion to car culture, that some other kind of magic might have been lost?

MORRISON: 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. And a 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 car has helped the city to grow physically, but socially, culturally, maybe not so much.

CHANG: But even in a city built to the scale of the automobile, there are still plenty of spots like these hills where the pavement comes to an end, and you have to get out of your car to truly connect with this place.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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.
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.