Atlantic Cities

The Importance of a Giant Doughnut

The Importance of a Giant Doughnut
cclark395/Flickr

It may not have the flashy movie-star credentials of the enormous sign at Randy’s, up the road near Los Angeles International Airport. But the giant pink doughnut that marks the former site of a Mrs. Chapman’s Angel Food Donuts chain is a beloved Long Beach landmark nonetheless.

It was erected in the 1950s, when fancifully shaped roadside signs were a common marketing ploy. And it endured even after the shop sold its last pastry more than 10 years ago. But in a strange twist of fate, the arrival of a new doughnut behemoth – national chain Dunkin’ Donuts – threatened to consign it to the trash heap.

The aging doughnut, perhaps structurally compromised, didn't fit into the company’s modern profile. The franchise announced plans to destroy it, along with the adjacent building, when it took over the site.

That’s when doughnut advocates sprang into action. The Los Angeles Conservancy and preservation-minded Long Beachers rallied, launching a campaign to "Save the Giant Donut."

It appears they've won their battle. In an appearance before the city planning commission last week, a managing partner of the Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee announced that his company had heard the message. "We want to be good neighbors," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "The last thing we want to do is be viewed as the guys that killed the doughnut." The developers are now exploring ways to keep the doughnut where it's been.

For many, the fight to save the doughnut was about trying to retain the city’s distinctive character. Long Beach is a busy port city, with an industrial history and one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the nation. For generations, it has been overshadowed by Los Angeles, its glitzier neighbor to the north. But it has been experiencing something of a renaissance lately, with city leaders focusing on improving the city’s quality of life and bringing back downtown neighborhoods – in part by creating some of the region's best bike infrastructure.

Among those lobbying on behalf of the doughnut were independent business owners on Retro Row, a stretch of 4th Street downtown that has become a popular destination for shopping and dining. The area, which also includes a beautifully restored Art Deco film house, was designated Long Beach’s first Bicycle Friendly Business Zone, and it is one of many neighborhoods in the city where civic leaders are trying to encourage more people to walk and ride bikes. There was some talk of moving the doughnut there, if it could not be preserved in place.

The spot marked by the giant doughnut is a far different type of environment, near a freeway exit on a stretch of multi-lane roadway where cars dominate. Attracting fast-moving drivers is exactly what such signs were designed to do. Now the wheel of history has come full circle - a sign designed to be ultramodern has come to represent a quainter time.


Retro Row.

April Economides, a native and advocate for a more walkable and bikeable Long Beach, sees the doughnut's preservation as a victory for the new, more human-scale Long Beach. Over the years, the city has lost many of the distinctive buildings that gave it a character all its own. Economides says the doughnut victory shows that bulldozing history won't be so easy anymore.

"The fact that so many people — including healthy, car-free folks — rallied to save a giant doughnut atop one of our city's most car-centric intersections shows we are serious about preserving and celebrating what makes our city unique," says Economides in an email. "We don't want Long Beach to become Anywhere, USA. The fight to save this retro icon is our way of saying 'Not this time.'"

Top image courtesy of Flickr user cclark395.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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