A Los Angeles Primer: The Freeways

To better understand the tragedy of man's inhumanity toward man, first observe any motorist regarding any other motorist. Dramatic though that may sound, I do think about the finer points of mechanized depersonalization whenever I ride the Los Angeles freeways. Behind the wheel, the sweetest, most forgiving person you know appoints themselves humanity's stern judge, unanimous jury, and zealous executioner. No possible set of circumstances could put them in the wrong; any unpredictable movement from another car signals the incompetence, malice, or hopelessly diminished mental capacity of its driver. I find the rare occasions I actually drive the freeways myself endlessly fascinating, though in the same way I find the crueler university social experiments of the sixties fascinating: they function as designed, sort of; they express a kind of frozen-in-time fashionable genius; and they show us something about ourselves, though not necessarily something we want to see.

Some find negotiating the freeways a harrowing experience. You could chalk that up to the supposedly unparalleled aggression of the driving Angeleno, but I wouldn't; that sounds suspiciously like one of those mythically harsh urban creatures, like the legendarily brusque New Yorker, with tales of whom big-city residents reassure themselves. Despite finding other drivers' behavior mild enough, my own glimpse of the abyss comes whenever I can't quite suspend my belief that these freeways actually function. That cars generally flow through as we expect them to strikes me as little short of a miracle; why, I tend to wonder, don't they constantly careen against one another, metal and rubber endlessly striking metal and rubber, a horrifying pinball machine on a colossal scale? Yet we know the system, with its infinite number of failure points, does fail: we've all caught nauseating flickers of the grisly wreckages that routinely occur at freeway speeds, especially in the late nights or early mornings. During these same dark hours, though, untroubled by traffic jams or even slowdowns, we glide across these sweeping concrete arcs recapturing, if only for a moment, the elusive promise of the midcentury American dream. The midcentury American road engineer's dream, anyway.

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"A few weeks ago I had the good providence to stumble upon a plan of the city council," says Judge Doom, the villain of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", a movie set in 1947 Los Angeles. "A construction plan of epic proportions. We're calling it a freeway. Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena. Smooth, safe, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past." Soon the character, portrayed by a black-clad Christopher Lloyd, has entered a rapture: "A string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it'll be beautiful." This first American city built on a mechanical scale did indeed take its distinctive shape from the reach of the old streetcar system, which the freeways replaced. But the movie never pretends to offer a genuine history lesson, and audiences willfully accept its heightened conspiracy to destroy rail transit and forcibly erect the freeways as factual enough, or true in spirit, just as they do the organized water theft in "Chinatown". Only a collusion of shadowy, population-hoodwinking forces, we assume, could possibly have led to modern, fallen Los Angeles.

But look at the freeways from a more rakish angle, and you almost see Judge Doom's point. I like to think Reyner Banham, the architectural critic who famously defended the city's built environment in "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies", would have understood, had he not passed away three months before "Roger Rabbit" opened. He wrote about the freeways in, if anything, an even more enraptured register, ranking them all, and especially the "work of art" that is the interchange between Interstates 10 and 405, among "the greater works of Man." You can even look at them today and feel that a city that can build such a complex, monumental set of superstructures can truly accomplish anything. But you feel it only fleetingly, before again encountering the inevitable reminders of how much -- and, often, how futilely -- the Los Angeles of the past twenty years has struggled to correct even its smallest-scale problems.

I often hear the city called the first to build freeways, and the first to stop building them. The only one to appear in my lifetime, variously called the Century Freeway, the Glenn Anderson Freeway, or Interstate 105, home to the alienating Green Line train, hardly fires the imagination. (Then again, they did shoot "Speed" on it.) Despite feeling relief that Los Angeles appears to have quit building new freeways, and feeling ready to pull up stakes if it so much as breaks ground on a new one, I do fear the triumphal spirit behind them has long since drained away. Jan Morris already sensed this in the seventies, when she gave Los Angeles the historic label of "the Know-How City" in her eponymous essay on the place. "Remember know-how?" she asks. "It was one of the vogue words of the forties and fifties, now rather out of fashion. It reflected a whole climate and tone of American optimism. It stood for skill and experience indeed, but it also expressed the certainty that America's particular genius, the genius for applied logic, for systems, was inexorably the herald of progress."

Our freeways rose as one such system, but now we see clearly their complications and the deficiencies of the lives we accidentally build around them: the fatalities they allow, the hours they waste in grinding half-motion, the sparse dullness of so many places they lead. But have we really lost the will to improve? America's unsurpassed talent for innovation seems, over the past sixty years, to have atrophied into an unsurpassed talent for mundanification. My homeland lays itself bare to myriad criticisms, but just the fact that automobiles without cup holders don't sell here tells you all you need to know. Somewhere along the line, we let driving a car -- expressing at once the height of your mechanical and aesthetic mastery -- silently pass from the realm of ultramodern pleasure into that of utilitarian chore. The flamboyant grandeur of Los Angeles' freeways makes an especially incongruous background for our withered aspirations. If we treat the car as conveyance, just as we treat clothes as covering, film and literature as distraction, food as fuel, and drink as opiate, we've already lost.

Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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