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The city that loves the car was slow to pay for parking

Los Angeles lays claim to being the birthplace of such phenomena as drive-in church services (Emmanuel Lutheran, North Hollywood, 1949), hang-gliding (Dockweiler State Beach, about 1960) and the Cobb salad (the Brown Derby, 1937).

But the city was no pacesetter in the category of parking meters. Oklahoma City was the first to install the coin confiscators in 1935, and more than 60 other municipalities followed before Los Angeles joined the crowd in 1949. Even Fairbanks, Alaska, beat L.A.

Three times -- in 1940, 1942 and 1946 -- the City Council rejected the notion, much to the delight of The Times, which scoffed that it would be “just as fair to install turnstiles for sidewalk pedestrians.”

When a nickel-an-hour rate was first talked about in 1936, The Times warned ominously that “the autoist using the space for only a few minutes would have to pay as much as he who uses it for the full period.”

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The newspaper also asserted that the number of parking spaces would be reduced because they “must all be long enough for cars with the largest wheelbase.”

And what of the technological challenge facing autoists?

“Can a stranger, or even a forgetful homebody, be mulcted for a fine if he doesn’t know how to work the contraption?” asked Times columnist Chapin Hall in 1940. “Even the mechanics of dropping a nickel in a slot is a major problem for some.”

But others pushed for the gadgets, including council members searching for new sources of revenue, lobbyists for the meter manufacturers and merchants who wanted to eliminate that early 20th century villain known as the “parking hog.”

Finally, in 1949, the City Council gave in and installed 400 of the 5-cents-an-hour devices on an experimental basis on Lankershim Boulevard near the present site of the Metro Red Line station in North Hollywood.

“Meters Ready for Fine Nickel Nursing Trade,” a Times headline said.

Six months later, a survey showed that the meters were generating “considerable profit” and “little complaint.”

Although meters reduced the number of parking hogs, they gave rise to another pest: the parking tamperer.

In late 1949, The Times reported that a Sherman Oaks man pleaded guilty to “slapping a parking meter vigorously in a successful effort to show a woman how to get the meter to register without inserting a coin.”

The defendant saved the woman 5 cents, The Times observed, “but it cost him $50.” She was not implicated in the scheme.

Another offbeat case involved two young drivers of midget automobiles who received citations in 1950 for parking two cars in one space and refusing to insert more than one nickel in the meter.

“Why did the cop cite both drivers?” The Times editorialized. “The nickel obviously cleared one of the cars, at least. Which one? . . . While the judge is about it, he might also rule on why a bald man must pay as much for a haircut as Nature Boy. Seems a similar principle is involved.”

Alas, The Times never revealed how the midget-auto case was resolved. Then again, perhaps it’s still in court.

The nickel-an-hour rate has, of course, gone the way of the nickel cigar.

On Lankershim Boulevard, home of the first meters, the charge is now $1 an hour, which is cheap compared with the $4 an hour assessed on Figueroa Street.

In retrospect, The Times columnist who warned in 1940 that Angelenos might have trouble using the devices had a point.

A survey of a five-block stretch of Lankershim last week found that 12 machines were out of order, including five that were covered with official red Department of Transportation bonnets, one with a trash bag and one with a note that said “Not working.”

Two rusted meters that looked as though they had been there since 1949 were working, though.

Earlier this month, the city revealed that 10% to 12% of the city’s 40,000 devices were malfunctioning. And several autoists, including a field deputy of Councilman Tom LaBonge, complained that they had been ticketed at failed meters.

The city claims it doesn’t cite drivers at discombobulated meters.

But one Transportation Department official explained that broken machines sometimes snap back into operation, which could be why some Angelenos have been ticketed.

It sounds as though the city has found an ironclad alibi.

Perhaps a little vigorous slapping of the meters should be permitted, if only for motorists to vent their frustrations.

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From our mailbox:

The Feb. 14 “Then and Now” column about talent shows of the 1950s mentioned a contestant on a KTLA-TV Channel 5 program who frightened the audience and the producers by unexpectedly pretending to shoot himself with what turned out to be a toy gun.

Bob Reagan, a station employee at the time, adds this memory:

“When it was time for all the contestants to line up in front of the curtain for judging, he [the toy gun-bearer] was told there would be a man behind the curtain with a baseball bat and if he tried anything he would be decked. He behaved himself.”

steveharvey9 @gmail.com


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