Bob Hope: Robber Baron

Media outlets are gushing about Bob Hope’s 99th birthday, they describe him as the goofy comedian we know from his media image, but I know who he really is: a greedy land speculator who raped and pillaged Los Angeles. It is not widely known that Bob Hope is one of the largest single land owners in Los Angeles County and several surrounding counties. Bob Hope has a long history of using his Hollywood profits for land speculation and profiteering, and it made him wealthy beyond your wildest dreams of avarice. And therein hangs a tale, a complex chain of events that destroyed Los Angeles’ urban architecture.

California has long been a leader in the world environmental movement. Environmental regulations cover everything from urban planning to gasoline sales. One of the seemingly innocent laws enacted in the mid 1980s mandated a change in the gasoline pump nozzle. In order to cut down on spilled fuel, restrictor nozzles with backflow preventers were required on every gas pump in California. This new nozzle was only able to pump gas about 75% as fast as the old style of nozzle. The gas sales environment changed overnight, smaller stations with 4 or 6 pumps could not pump gas fast enough to remain profitable. Larger gas stations with 8 to 12 pumps were still profitable, and some gas chains decided to retrofit old stations with more pumps in the same space. However, one of the largest chains, Standard Oil, decided to sell the vast majority of their stations in Los Angeles. Standard stations were everywhere, in many ways they are a symbol of California. For example, Ed Ruscha’s Standard prints are an icon of California art.

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Robert Venturi wrote an influential essay about urban planning called Learning from Las Vegas. Venturi wanted to examine the urban landscape from the viewpoint of the car. He asserted that Los Angeles had a unique form of urban architecture of widely separated locations spanned by surface roads, with a few tall buildings as landmarks to navigate by. He described driving in Los Angeles as analogous to airplane races in the Nevada desert, where old surplus WWII fighter aircraft would race along the ground, making required turns at tall pylons that marked the path. Los Angeles was full of these architectural “pylons” and navigating LA in a car was largely a point-to-point driving experience, like the air races. And along the route were scattered minor landmarks, the gleaming Standard Oil stations to give rest and refueling to the traveller.

But no more. The new nozzles made the stations unprofitable, and Standard sold them in one huge block, one of the largest auctions of urban properties in modern LA history. And Bob Hope bought them. His company, La Mancha Development, immediately set to developing these properties, which were mostly corner gas stations, many in residential neighborhoods.

I remember when the gas stations closed. I lived in Studio City, and stations at both ends of my street were closed. Large signs for La Mancha Development announced that construction would begin soon. All across LA these signs appeared, followed by buildings that were the start of a new wave of architecture that would totally change the LA urban environment: Mini Malls.

In the space of a few short months, gas stations disappeared and mini malls appeared all across LA. Everywhere you went, wherever there used to be a gas station, now there was a mini mall with a convenience store, maybe a tanning salon and a donut store, and a few miscellaneous businesses. The traffic the malls attracted was intense, the old gas stations never had this level of traffic. Mini malls became the places to stop on cross-town drives, displacing traffic patterns into commercial zones adjacent to quiet neighborhoods. Once the mini mall became an established feature of Los Angeles architecture, the city would never be the same.

I won’t even go into the further horrors committed by Bob Hope and his company La Mancha Development. Turning LA into a city full of mini malls is horrible enough. But I could easily go on and on, like for example his notorious fight with the LA Nature Conservancy. So I’ll just conclude with the reminder that Bob Hope is just another greedy money-grubbing Hollywood scumbag.

4 thoughts on “Bob Hope: Robber Baron”

  1. fascinating stuff: Bob Hope as the progenitor of strip malls!
    ps. along the same lines as Venturi, another fascinating book on LA’s highway architecture is Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.

  2. La Mancha is still in business, and still one of the largest real estate developers in the world. But their operations are shrouded in secrecy, I have been unable to find out anything about their current activities.

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