Alexandra Lippman is a cultural anthropologist interested in alternative intellectual property, law, sound ethnography, and experiments with new modes of digital and multimedia communication. You can visit her at www.alexandralippman.com.
Thank you, Bill Maurer, for inspiring and commissioning this project. Lana Swartz, thank you for being an amazing mapping companion for the first exploratory venture out into the world of payments.
We are in the midst of what Scott Mainwaring has called a "Cambrian explosion" in payments. New payment networks, smartphone apps, cryptocurrencies, and loyalty reward cards vie for our attention. Seeking to document the diversity of payment practices and technologies in everyday life, I set out to explore Los Angeles. To sample the city, I superimposed a Fibonacci spiral on a map of Los Angeles. The center of the spiral begins in the political and historic center of the city, downtown LA, and extends to the iconic Venice Beach, the birthplace of skateboarding, Muscle Beach, and more. Along the way, I marked more or less equidistant points which took me from Beverly Hills to South LA, the Fashion District to the Hollywood Hills.
I noted the intersections and drove out three times during April and May of 2014 on my payments quest. At intersections with more than one place of payment, I selected a shop, vendor, factory, or restaurant to focus in on. Some places offered nothing for sale. At others, especially in large franchises like Starbucks or MetroPCs, corporations invented their own systems of payments that rewarded—and attempted to create—customer loyalty. Cards of all sorts proliferated.
Elsewhere, pharmacies sold plastic gift cards bridging the un-banked (and those who preferred cash's anonymity) to online payment networks such as Amazon and iTunes. Responding to the growth of gift cards, a pawnshop advertised cash for cards.
Cash—despite the numerous technological developments for how to pay—remains important. Many places not only were cash-only, but also displayed signs imploring customers to pay with small bills. While the technologies for payment are exploding, cash remains. Similarly, a storefront's acceptance of Google Wallet, PayPal's app, or Bitcoin as payment did not imply its use. At a nail salon which accepts Bitcoin, the beauticians enthusiastically explained Bitcoin's superiority to the U.S. dollar. No one, they admitted, had paid with Bitcoin yet.
While mapping payment practices might imply a stasis for what was mapped, this money map (or money-like map) is rather a snapshot of the Spring of 2014. While the history of future payments is yet to be written, it will not simply erase the past. With payment technologies, times are intertwined, rather than linear or evolutionary. Don't ditch those bills in your pocket yet!
Mercado Del Pueblo
In a warehouse-like mall, tucked between a carniceria and a tienda de descuentos (discount store), I walked into an unmarked door. Half of the space was empty or shuttered and on the right side of the space star-shaped piñatas dangled from the ceiling. Amidst the piñatas a bilingual sign read “We Accept Aceptamos EBT.” The fiesta store sold a little of everything—hot sauces, shampoos, dolls, dried chili mango. “¡Recarga Aquí!" signs on the wall and at the register advertised top ups for Digicel, Claro, Tigo, Nextel, Telcel, and other mobile phone services. These signs created scalar distinctions: "Mexico Top Up," "World Top Up," and "Domestic Top Up." Two men and one woman were eating an early dinner at a small table in the shop. As I purchased goat's milk caramels, the woman told me there was a $10 minimum for cards. I asked, in Spanish, about recharging phones. “No,” she smiled, “we don’t do that here anymore.” Signs don’t always tell the story. Outside of the mall, a faded sign pointed an arrow to “140 tiendas de descuento.” Most shops, however, looked long shuttered.
Venice Boulevard, Venice Beach
"Young Thai coconuts by donation," a young man with a straw hat and swim trunks called out to anyone heading to or returning from Venice Beach. Friendly and smiling, he explained that he wanted to share young coconuts with as many people as possible. He addressed people as “brother” and “sister” and sounded like a missionary, sharing the word about the benefits of coconut water. He opened up the styrofoam cooler with coconuts wrapped in plastic wrap. He held each coconut up to his forehead to test its coolness before pulling off the wrapping and hacking the top of the coconut off with a cleaver. People seemed thrown by the “donation” and asked how much others paid. "Four or five," he responded. After trying it, one woman returned a coconut saying, “Sorry, I don’t like it. It must be an acquired taste.” She still handed him one dollar and then another from a friend. He smiled and began drinking the coconut himself. His iPhone with a white Square credit card reader attached peaked out from the waist of his swim trunks. He sold about 100 coconuts daily.
The Plaza, Bundy Dr. and Santa Monica Blvd.
The strip mall is one of the quintessential architectural features of Los Angeles. Uninspiring design crams together surprising assortments of languages, cultures, and hidden gems of restaurants serving the Korean BBQ, Persian ice cream, falafel, and more. AAA Gold Exchange was wedged beside the All India Café, a dentist, a music school, an Acu-Massage, and a payday loan and check cashing venue. A large sign announced "Cash for Gift Cards." Were gift cards for Best Buy or Home Depot the new gold? A store of value. A way to freeze cash into plastic until needed?
Green Acres Drive, Beverly Hills
Tall hedges hide the homes of LA’s elite behind walls of greenery. At the end of Green Acres Drive, palm trees, cypresses and a gate with lions block the view of house. Exclusivity brings a hush to the city sounds. The estate, as I later found out, had originally been built in the 1920's by silent film star, Harold Lloyd. In 1928, the 44-room home cost $2 million. It boasted Southern California’s largest pool, numerous gardens, a canoe stream, a 9-hole golf course, a dancing pavilion, and more. Although the estate was subdivided after Lloyd’s death in 1971, the mansion remains and in 1984 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The estate has served for fund-raising galas for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. In 2001 the FT estimated the mansion’s worth as $50-60 million. At my visit, however, despite the opulent wealth everywhere, there was nowhere to pay for anything.
La Fortaleza Tortilleria
I followed my nose to La Fortaleza tortilleria. I walked under a mural of corn and a painting of an indigenous woman grinding corn on a stone in front of a larger-than-life corncob. A little shop within the factory sold tortillas and chips. A large glass window afforded a view of the tortilleria in action. Moving belts carried tortillas which workers in blue and white aprons stacked and packaged into bags. I asked where they sold their products. The woman working there said with what sounded like pride “We sell them everywhere, even Japan.” One hundred people worked there 24 hours a day, split into three shifts. Even though they shipped their tortillas and chips around the world, the shop open to the public next to the factory only accepted cash.
Windowless warehouse offices lined the boulevard. “Would this be another payment-free—or more precisely, impenetrable—zone,” I wondered. I walked into the only building with a sign and a visible door. I sauntered in and innocently asked what they sold. A man working there directed me to a woman who asked me if I was interested in ordering something and suggested that I look at their website. A banner announced “Your identity… is our mission.” They produce patches, tags, embroidery, and packaging for companies such as Tommy Hilfiger, The Gap, and Adidas. Near their TagTime banner, the plastic stickers for credit card companies adorned the glass. I was surprised to see how far LA's industrial garment production district extended. TagTime's website—which I checked later—announced they could produce 20 million labels, tags, and patches daily. Los Angeles as factory—and not just for music or film—confronted me again.
As I neared the intersection of Olympic and Alameda, I passed by Sam’s Hoffbrau, a dive bar advertising topless dancers and cocktails. Despite the lure of potential ethnographic gold, I didn’t want to go alone at 3 PM to one of the strip clubs, which dotted the area. Luckily I spotted a large sign for Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food restaurant. They accepted cash, Visa and MasterCard. They had no rewards cards or signs urging customers to order online or via an app. A sign on the register announced, “No $100 Bills After 10:00 PM Thank You, -Management.”
Naomi St and 22nd StThe residential area had a school soccer field fenced off, trucks and vans covered in graffiti, and a trailer filled with wood scraps attached to a truck. This was my first stop where I saw no place accepting payments within a block.
Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round
I assumed Griffith Park would be a “no payment zone” of trees, trails, animals, and perhaps picnicking families. I parked and heard carnival, fairground music rather than birdsong. The Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round was nearby. Built in 1926, the Merry-Go-Round continued to draw children and their admiring parents. The ride was built by the Spillman Carousel Company of New York state for an amusement park on Mission Beach, San Diego before being moved to Griffith Park in 1937. Elaborately painted horses with faux jewels on their saddle rose up and down as the carousel went round and round. A booth nearby sold drinks, churros, and $2 tickets. One sign on the glass read “CASH ONLY NO BILLS OVER $20” and another handwritten on red paper read “Help! We need small bills. Thank u.” I purchased my ticket and a lemonade from a teenage boy who operated the old-fashioned register. I then handed my ticket to the carousel attendant who also operated the ride.
Three days before USC’s graduation. Parents assisted their children pack up into moving trucks, while workers set up white outdoor tents in the 95° heat. A slow line filled the coffee shop, which faced the library and the McCarthy Quad. I asked if they accepted Starbucks cards. “We do, but we don’t sell them here,” the woman who took my cash for a mango popsicle, said. The blond young woman behind me bought an iced Americano with her USC card, which hung around her neck on a red cord. I overheard a young man walking out of the café say to his friend, “That’s B.S. that they don’t have rewards cards here.” At the other Starbucks one block away, outside the campus, the young woman working there gave me a blank stare when I asked if they accepted USC cards there but sold me a $5 rewards card. I chose the “Thank You, Teacher” card, which featured a red apple. Even two Starbucks one block away from each other did not accept the same payments.
CVS, Eagle Rock
Strip malls dotted both sides of the York and Eagle Rock intersection: Sicha Siam, Fiesta saBarrio, King’s Donuts, and Little Caesars in one mall and in the other CVS, Starbucks, and L & E Hawaiian BBQ. I walked into the CVS. They accepted the standard credit cards, cash, and SNAP/EBT. Near the cash register, a red tower of prepaid cards for Amazon, iTunes, American Express, and others beckoned those who wanted to purchase gifts or who had no (or wanted to avoid using) credit or debit cards. In terms of space this was CVS’ best “bang for its buck.” Nearby a sign announced, “Get a kiss from Mom. Recibe un beso de mamá,” above the MoneyGram phone, “Your Direct Line to Send Money, Receive Money, Pay Bills,” I asked a middle aged employee about MoneyGram. He obliged by explaining who uses it and why. He said that clients give cash to CVS and the money transfers via MoneyGram. “It's best when people have to send something internationally because it’s cheaper.” He continued, “Sometimes people come in and use MoneyGram and then buy something at CVS.” I asked if people use it to send
money to Mexico and the clerk added "or Russia, all over to friends and family. It’s better than some services at mom and pop stores,” which might be untrustworthy. MoneyGram, the clerk asserted, “is big so people can rely on it.” He, however, uses his bank to transfer money.
Autry Lookout, Mulholland Drive
As I drove along the hairpin turns above the city on Mulholland Drive, the sun began to set, casting a golden glow over Los Angeles on one side of the ridge and the San Fernando Valley on the other. David Lynch once said that one can feel “the history of Hollywood” on this road. From a look-out over the Valley, I watched wisps of pinks, nectarines, and purples stretch along the skyline. I was alone on the lookout until a middle-aged man and a woman in a sports car pulled up to make out for a few minutes until speeding off along the winding two-lane road. Surrounded by trees, scrub and sky, miles of Mulholland Drive offered nothing to pay for.
Mr. Good's Donuts, Hamburgers and Ice Cream
In the case next to various donuts were bags of Cheetos. Above the coffee machine a sign read cash only and a handwritten sign further specified "Sorry. Please no bill over 20. Refill coffee 75 cents. Thanks." I bought a glazed old fashioned donut and noticed that they also sold lottery tickets. "Any big winners?" I asked smiling. "No big, only small here," the middle-aged woman working there answered.
Italian Fabrics, Fashion District
Fabric stores and cheap clothing shops lined the block. I walked into a warehouse of bolts of fabrics. “What are you looking for,” an older man asked me as soon as I walked in. I brushed off the question and walked around past dozens—or probably hundreds—of all kinds of fabrics for sale. Towards the back two women employees spoke on telephones making orders in Spanish. In another shop I had heard Spanish and Armenian. The sticker on the window of the store announced that they accepted MasterCard, Visa, and American Express. In the wholesale fabric shop next door, the table where the cash register was covered in handwritten accounting tracking numbers—IOUs? Credits? Everyday accounting? The owner or manager, however, was busy yelling at two women for touching and partially unrolling a bolt of fabric, so I didn’t stay to chat.
Signs announced “free,” “gratis,” and “free gift” around the metroPCS authorized dealer. On the wall facing the customer two signs announced their payments rewards program. If a customer made five payments for their metroPCs phones, she would receive “FREE GIFT!” The woman working there asserted that yes customers did use this. The gifts were things like cellphone charms or cases. Outside the store a sign announced, "Attention this store has LIMITED CASH on hand. Store personnel have NO ACCESS to the safe."