1984: The Year of Catastrophic Traffic that Never Was

1984 was the year of catastrophic traffic that never was. The summer Olympics promised L.A. a permanent boost in its global status while incurring no debt, but it also promised the kind of hellish, round-the-clock traffic that would make a typical rush hour look like a walk--or a drive--in the park. For all of Tom Bradley's effusions about what hosting the Olympics would mean to us, it was clear that as the time approached, people were thinking less about the deeper meaning and more about the street-level consequences of staging high-profile events in many venues that generated traffic on normal days. The idea of some giant event landing on L.A. like an alien and disrupting its unique sense of highway entitlement for two weeks was for many people as scary as the Olympics themselves were exciting.

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I took all the dire predictions with more than a grain of salt and an even bigger sense of remove. Sure, the Olympics were coming to town, but were they really coming to my part of town? I had just graduated from UCLA and was living at home in Inglewood while I figured out my next move. Nobody I knew in the neighborhood or in the vicinity was too revved up about the Olympics--curiosity was as far as they went. Even though events would take place at the Coliseum and other sites in South Central proper, the general feeling was that the whole affair would be big and impressive, but it would mean very little to inner-city residents, many of whom were close enough to watch proceedings from their porches. So accustomed had South Central grown to being left out of civic good fortune, even with Tom Bradley in office (or maybe because Bradley was in office), those of us living in the shadow of a newly refurbished downtown and bustling Westside hardly expected to reap anything from one of the greatest events in the world happening in our backyard.

That meant that we didn't worry about traffic and the predicted car-pocalypse; we were not at the center of things and didn't expect to be this time. Traffic would have actually been welcome because it would mean activity and interest that neighborhoods south of the 10 didn't normally get and couldn't figure out how.

I was wrong about at least two things, and more wrong about one than the other.

The first thing was traffic: it simply never materialized, especially on the 405 that led to the Westside and to UCLA, a major Olympic site. It was astonishing to me to travel north down the freeway from Inglewood and make it into Westwood with no obstruction, especially the year after my departure from a university where I never could score parking. (When I had to drive to campus, I parked a few miles downhill from the eastern border and walked--hiked--up.)

The second thing was the assumption that the Olympics themselves wouldn't touch people in isolated places like South Central. I was wrong about that, too. Whether or not they made it to any events, residents had a baseline pride about the fact that the summer Games were indeed happening right down the street and in their own backyard, including USC and the Forum in Inglewood; for my own part, I got caught up in the summer-long craze of collecting and trading Olympic pins. In the end I was very much connected to the whole Olympic zeitgeist even though I went to just one event. I did share in the citywide surprise and pleasure at the fact that traffic turned out to be so benign; I believed that I had a part in pulling off the miracle simply by staying home and not contributing to the congestion that never happened. Ironically, that non-activity engendered a great feeling of collective accomplishment that I haven't really felt since.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The photo used on this post is courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive on Flickr. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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