How the Iconic Dingbat Took Over Los Angeles

The low-slung, car-oriented apartment buildings represent a mid-century solution to a housing shortage and offer valuable lessons for new development.

September 28, 2021, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Glendale, California

Britta Gustafson / Flickr

Describing the "aggressively economical" icon of mid-density apartment buildings known as dingbats that pepper Los Angeles from the Valley to the Eastside, Laura Bliss writes that these buildings "were a multifamily answer to that single-family template." These two- to three-story buildings include a carport on the bottom level and generally house six to 12 units. In the 1950s and 1960s, "[t]his new format for affordable multifamily living became nearly as ubiquitous as the single-family tract housing that iconified the much-mythologized Southern California suburban lifestyle."

Dingbats provided "an essential resource for a growing city: Los Angeles County added more than three million residents between 1940 and 1960, thanks to job booms in manufacturing and aerospace, educational opportunities for returning GIs, and the lure of year-round sunshine." Over 700,000 new units sprawled outward as new freeways made the periphery more accessible and the city swallowed up citrus orchards and ranches.

Today, dingbats, many of which are rent-stabilized, offer some important benefits as "a bastion of relatively affordable shelter" in a city facing a severe housing shortage. "Dingbats may also hold the possibility for accommodating further infill: Thanks to recent legal changes, it’s now possible to convert carports into accessory dwelling units, which some owners are beginning to do." These buildings exemplify the mid-century's answer to "missing middle housing" and "tell a story of when the city met the demands of the day with a low-cost, replicable, yet individualized housing form factor."

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