India Mandelkern, who grew up in the Palisades, has written a new book Electric Moons: A Social History of the Street Lighting in Los Angeles.
“Believe it or not there are or different street lights designs in Los Angeles than anywhere else,” she said. ”We have good weather, which has allowed many historic designs to live on. This is a flat, expansive city made up of hundreds of neighborhoods that have striven to differentiate themselves architecturally.”
Mandelkern added that “for streetlight experts, Los Angeles is the holy grail.”
She said there’s not just one light that dominates Los Angeles. “During the 1950s, Los Angeles started coming out with what they called ‘City Designs’ which were much plainer and more functional than the neoclassical inspired ones of the 1920s and 1930s. Unfortunately, we have lost of many historic lights due to road widenings, freeways being built, or ‘road safety’ upgrades.”
Mandelkern, who attended Village School and then Harvard Westlake, was asked if there were any historic or notable lights in the Palisades.
“In the neighborhood where I grew up, there were Lalux 11s and Marbelite 800s – in fact there was one right outside my parent’s house,” she said. “The Huntington is marked by Marbelites and the Riviera is graced by French Kings.”
Elsewhere in the city you’ll find the Broadway Rose, the Wilshire Lantern, the Olympic Special, the L.A. Crook, – all of them distinctive streetlights, designed to create a sense of place and pride within a rapidly expanding metropolis.
Mandelkern, who graduated from Middlebury College and earned a Ph.D. in history from UC Berkeley said she had never really noticed the lights growing up, but “discovered them” during a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at LACMA from 2016-2018.
During the tenth anniversary of Chris Burden’s outdoor temple “Urban Light,” which was a large-scale assemblage sculpture that consisted of restored streetlamps from the 1920s and 1930s, Mandelkern wrote a field guide of the history of each lamppost in the installation. Her zine was successful and quickly sold out.
“But by that time, I had done a lot of research, and had a lot more to say about the way that street lighting has been intertwined with the history of LA,” Mandelkern said. “Streetlights can tell us a lot about the way that the city developed, the way we move around it, as well as crime, policing, and how we define public space.”
Then Covid hit and “I spent a lot of the pandemic writing the manuscript,” Mandelkern said. “When you couldn’t really go anywhere (let alone visit any museums), streetlights to me were the closest things to sculptures.”
The first draft of the book was finished in 2021, but Mandelkern said, “I’m not a photographer and most of the images didn’t really capture Los Angeles as it is today.”
It was only when she met photographer Tom Bertolotti, in 2022, that she felt the book came alive. “He really changed the book from a history into a living, breathing portrait of Los Angeles, warts and all.”
The book, peppered with color photography, concludes with a “field guide” to forty iconic streetlight designs still extant in Los Angeles.
In his foreword to the book, Christopher Hawthorne, the former architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times and then the city’s first Chief Design Officer, writes: “This is a book about streetlights … that is also a compact and pointed history of modern Los Angeles…. [Mandelkern] picks up the streetlight and uses it as a kind of torch or flashlight, sweeping it across the broad terrain of Los Angeles to illuminate topics as diverse as policing, public art, race, technology, labor, and the structure of city government.”
India is the daughter of Mark Mandelkern and Margot Metzner. The book, published by Hat & Beard Press can be ordered directly from the publisher click here and will also be available at a number of independent bookstores.