November 28, 2011

The anti-social mid-century and present day: Drive-in churches, restaurants, and theaters

One of the greatest misconceptions about periods of increasing safety, such as the 1950s, is the view that people are out and about, chatting up their neighbors, strolling down Main Street and socializing with fellow pedestrians, and so on. In reality, the falling-crime period of the mid-'30s through the late '50s was one of ever greater cocooning. The TV show Mad Men depicts this very well, almost as vividly as the paintings of the mid-century's greatest representational artist, Edward Hopper:

To many people I've talk to about this, it seems paradoxical that cocooning and falling crime rates go together -- what do they have to be afraid of? And why are people in rising-crime times more outgoing -- aren't they afraid of all that crime? But it is people's isolation in tiny, private, controlled spaces that sends down the crime rate -- criminals find it a lot harder to get at victims. Also, heat-of-the-moment fights will become less frequent when people stop going out in public, where accidents can escalate into fights. Similarly, when people start venturing out into larger, public, not-so-controlled spaces again, criminals have an easier time finding victims, and heat-of-the-moment fights will become more common.

So, the social isolation and community fragmentation that come from cocooning are the price we pay for enjoying falling crime rates. When we leave our cocoons, we make ourselves more vulnerable, so rising crime rates are the price we pay for enjoying a rich public and community life.

To illustrate how anti-social the mid-century was, consider one of the era's most iconic building types -- the drive-in. People were so mistrusting, suspicious, or just uneasy being around strangers in public that they didn't want to leave their cars for anything, even if it meant sacrificing the quality of the rest of the experience.

The best known example is the drive-in movie theater:

These became popular from the mid-'30s onward, after the wild culture of the Jazz Age ended and its sublime picture palaces were no longer popular with movie-goers. They started to die out themselves over the course of the '60s, when patrons once again wanted to be part of a crowd of real people inside a climate-controlled theater. Surprisingly, drive-in theaters have not made a comeback in the falling-crime period after 1992, perhaps because home video, Netflix delivery, and Redbox have already made it easy to see newish movies without having to be around other people.

Movies shown at the drive-in suffered from poor picture quality, contaminated as the space was by ambient light, which also meant movies could only be shown at night. The original sound, which came from little speakers attached to the car windows, was also poor, although it did improve when customers dialed it in on their car radio. Lacking an enclosed structure, people had only their cars to protect them from the elements. This is why most nostalgic portrayals of the drive-in take place during balmy summer nights, not when it is cold, windy, raining, snowing, or thundering.

What these theaters did offer was the ability to go out and see a movie without having to sit next to other people, hear their comments, smell their body odor, feel their legs brush against your knees as they squeezed down your aisle, and so on. Catering to cocooners, they did not spring up during the more violent but pro-social Jazz Age, when being absorbed into the crowd was all part of the fun of seeing movies.

By the '20s car ownership had begun to soar, so it's not as though there was no potential audience for drive-in theaters. It's just that few back then would have wanted to use their cars as an isolation chamber, except for young people who made out in the back seat away from prying eyes.

After the theater, the most iconic example is the drive-in restaurant:

Aside from the odd example during the '20s and early '30s, these restaurants really began taking off in the later '30s, becoming fixtures of the culture during the '40s (which tended to have a wheel-spoke shape) and the '50s (when the shape was more a long canopy with cars parked side-by-side underneath). As the crime rate and desire to interact with others took off again during the '60s, '70s, and '80s, they started dropping like flies, either being demolished outright or being converted into fast food joints like Burger King. There's a scene in Footloose that's set at a drive-in, although tellingly for 1984 all the kids are out of their cars, moving their bodies in time with loud dance music.

However, during the falling-crime period of the past 20 years, they have seen a rebirth with the Sonic Drive-In chain, and in a modified form with the Checkers chain.

As with theaters, the drive-in restaurant allowed you to park your car close to the restaurant, enter, order, find your car again, and peel out as fast as possible, minimizing the time you had to be around others in public. It's like how in the past 20 years no one sits down to eat in fast food places anymore, but either order their food to go or more likely hit up the drive-thru window so they don't have to leave their cars at all. I remember when the tables and boothes at popular fast food chains would be rather packed during busy hours, but now it's all shifted to the endless drive-thru lane.

Space to eat in the drive-in's dining room itself was minimal and usually featured only or mostly stools with no backs, so that you felt like leaving soon, instead of providing comfortable seats to encourage lingering. Before long they began offering curb service, where you park your car in their lot, an employee (called a car hop) walks out to take your order, re-enters the building to place it, and returns with your food, either in a to-go bag, or on a tray that rested on your open car window. You ate the meal entirely while seated in your car, sealed off from anyone who wasn't riding with you, limiting your interactions to family members or close friends.

Except for that pesky car hop -- sure she's young and pretty, but still she's a stranger, so wasn't there some way to cut out even her? You bet there was -- the motormat. This type was not widespread at all, but the mere fact that they even tried it out, let alone got enough customers to stay in business, just shows how antithetical it was to the mid-century mindset to be a people person. Here are some pictures:

You'll notice that the usual wheel-spoke shape is there, but the cars are parked quite a ways from the restaurant itself. Conveyor belts connected the kitchen to a covered space that hugged the car window, taking in orders, cash, and used trays, and sending out the food. Otherwise it's like a normal drive-in, where you eat from a tray in your car, but now all functions have been completely mechanized and you don't have to see a single human face to go out for a meal.

Finally there was the drive-in church:

These started popping up in the '40s and reached their zenith during the '50s, falling into gradual disuse once people came out of their cocoons during the '60s, '70s, and '80s. However, just as with the Sonic Drive-In restaurants, drive-in churches have made a comeback in the falling-crime times we live in now. They go at least back to the 2000s, although I'm not sure if they were there in the '90s as well.

They don't represent a separate building type, as they were just drive-in theaters that had no better use on Sunday morning. A preacher stood on a central stage, and attendants listened through the little speakers or over the radio as usual. They still offered no protection from the elements and prevented the crowd-vibe from igniting. How did Sunday School work if the children didn't have cars of their own?

We tend to think that the spread of the car caused all sorts of trends that have only gotten stronger as cars have become more common. We see it as an exogenous technological change to which the main workings of society respond passively.

There's something to that, but I think it's over-rated. If people don't want to spend much time in their cars, then they won't. Cars were growing in popularity during the Jazz Age, but who would want to hang out in them all day? Aside from joyriding and making out, they used them to travel to a more carnivalesque space like a speakeasy, a movie palace, a cafeteria or automat, or grand-scale department store. Same thing happened in the '60s, '70s, and '80s -- all of this drive-in stuff disappeared because people felt like hanging out in a nightclub, shopping mall, indoors movie theater, or any other place allowing lots of strangers to pile in and enjoy the community feeling.

During the mid-century and for the past 15 to 20 years, tastes have gone the other way, and people have changed their use of cars accordingly, using them as protective bubbles during their as-short-as-possible trips away from home. The car is equally happy to take the passengers to a curb service drive-in restaurant or to a mall with a bustling food court.

In contrast to the idealized view we have of drive-ins, a look at the real culture shows something unsettling, like a bunch of drones plugging their portable cubicles into a cell within the hive. The cars all facing the same direction and with anonymity makes it look even more hive-like. With people in a movie theater, food court, or church pews, you can make out individual faces, notice unique mannerisms, etc., but not with cars.

It also reveals how socially distant rather than close people were back then, as well as these days. The most they were willing to risk was going to a diner, but those were still pretty small, quiet, and featuring lots of backless stools. That's another restaurant type that has seen a total rebirth over the past 20 years, most of them very self-consciously retro. But I'll get around to covering other changes later.


  1. You're really, really wrong here.

    One of the things you're completely missing is that most of these people in the cars in the midcentury were in there WITH MANY SMALL CHILDREN. Trust me, the most boorish adult stranger is less invasive of your personal space.

    Cars don't box up individuals; they box up your kids in a society that is increasingly full of.... cars, which your kids can get hit by.

  2. No, like I said the drive-in restaurants and theaters began taking off no later than the late 1930s. The Baby Boom begins in the mid-'40s, and even the first ones aren't old enough to eat food from a drive-in tray or pay attention to movies until around 1950.

    The Baby Boom lasts through 1964, so drive-ins should have still been popular through the mid-'70s. But they were just about dead by that point.

    If cars are meant to box up kids in a society increasingly full of cars, why did drive-ins die off during the '60s, '70s, and '80s? Car ownership only grew through that period.

    Obviously it is more dangerous for a kid to be eating a meal or watching a movie while in a parked car out in the open, vs. inside the restaurant's building or an indoor movie theater.

    The resurgence of drive-ins through today doesn't overlap with a baby boom either. What both periods share is a falling crime rate, linked to a desire to cocoon. And when drive-ins were not popular was when the crime rate was shooting up, and people were out and about.

  3. Your linking of the drive-in restaurants and theaters to a need for cocooning makes sense. Edward Hopper's images gives off a sense of being utterly alone in the world inspite of being surrounded by civilization - an interpretation that my SWPL friends usually dispute.

    This sense of cocooning is also apparent when one looks at mid-century modern homes with their wide but high-from-the-ground windows that bring in light but not a smidgeon of view from the street. These homes are also not very high with barely a slope to the roof, almost as if the home wants to hide from prying eyes.

    A very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.


  4. Those drive-in restaurants took their cues from what was trendy in architecture then too, first the Streamline Moderne and then the big dumb ugly box of the International Style as it was in the '50s.

    Some of the ones from the '40s at least had neon signs, but overall it was no color, no ornamentation, no magic. Nothing worth leaving your car for.

  5. Pretty cool link. I always tended to see the drive in as part of the romantic Americana (like the diner restaurant), but that perspective makes sense.

    The only flipside argument I can think of would be that drive-ins are more due to a desire not to be separated from their car and the freedom and mobility it represents (in an age of increasing car ownership), and desire to show off the car, and desire for personal intimacy with a partner (or friends) at the expense of intimacy with a crowd and sharing in a mass crowd experience.

    You could call that cocooning, but I don't really see two partners or a close group of friends wanting to be more intimate and loud so desiring to be alone as cocooning as such, as I'd see it as more driven by positive desires for closeness and socialisation during the film (in contrast to sitting silent with the occasional screech or gasp) at the expense of immersion rather than by fear and dislike of other people.

    If drive in cinemas are all, like, one man per car and noone talks and everyone rolls up anonymously and noone gets out of the car and socializes before the film then your theory is definitely a lot stronger, but I don't know if we can test whether it was like that.

  6. How does Robert Putnam's "cocooning" play into an expected swinging of the pendulum back in the other direction, towards more spontaneous, face-to-face personal interaction and the accompanying increase in crime that is one of its byproducts?

    Crime rates have been dropping fairly steadily in the US for nearly two decades, but the decline looks to be bottoming out. Not sure if that's related to any increase in socializing though, or if it's influenced more by economics and demographics. I wonder if an 'artificial' suppression of community activity by increasing diversity will keep crime rates depressed in the medium-term.

  7. very cool stuff, this is what sociology should really look like.
    It makes sense, living in Japan I always thought that its hard to prey on people when they dont go out much.

  8. If you go to youtube and look at vids from the 40s and 50s in any big city you see very bustling street life - I just did San Fran and it was way more bustling than it is today - so I dont think you are right on this one.

    Also, I grew up in New York during the bad dangerous years - trust me, we cocooned. I remember having to think twice of I wanted to go to the corner grocery after sundown, and I did not live in a really dangerous area.

    These days NYC is squeaky clean and it is more bustling than I ever remember it as a kid. It is simply packed these days.

    So again, nice theory, but too many loose ends, like all theories that try to explain everything. There are likely other reasons for cocooning, partly technological, partly having to do with diversity (NYC is also a much less diverse city these days. Manhattan is majority white for the first time in decades)


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