Politics and Memory Along the Highways of Los Angeles

A mile-and-three-quarters section of the 91, roughly between the Central Avenue overpass and the Crystal Casino at Alameda Street is named the Willard H. Murray, Jr. Freeway. The rectangular green-and-white sign on the barren verge of the roadway is few hundred feet before the Central Avenue overpass. The sign near the Alameda Street crossing seems to be missing.

Perhaps it's the victim of a hit-and-run.

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Somewhere near the western edge of Compton, the Willard H. Murray, Jr. Freeway begins and the Rudolph B. Davila Memorial Freeway ends. Rudolph B. Davila's piece of freeway is a memorial. He died in 2002. The piece of nondescript freeway named for Willard H. Murray, Jr. honors a lively politician.

Rudolph B. Davila earned a long-delayed Medal of Honor for exceptional bravery during the invasion of Italy in World War II. He was wounded there and after recovering, he was wounded again in France. He married the army nurse who tended him, earned a bachelor's and master's degree from the University of Southern California, and spent 30 years as a teacher and counselor in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Willard H. Murray, Jr. served in the Air Force. He was elected to the California Assembly in 1988. He was termed out in 1996. During his first campaign, he disclosed that he never graduated from UCLA despite claims in his campaign literature that he had received a degree. While in the Assembly, he was fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission for dozens of violations of state election law. He was elected to the board of the Water Replenishment District in 1998 where he has been remarkably agile in making a good thing out being a board member.

The clash of war hero and politician along the 91 isn't the only dissonance in how our highways remember.

Vietnam veterans are puzzled why Assemblyman Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo) introduced a resolution last week to name part of Route 1 through Ventura County as the Seabee Memorial Highway. In 2002, the legislature designated all of Route 1 in Ventura County as the Ventura County Vietnam Veterans Highway.

The embarrassed assemblyman hopes for a compromise that will cede part of the veterans' highway to make a place for his preferred memorial.

Many more memories overlap. All of former U.S. Route 6 -- now the 110 and the 5 -- is the Grand Army of the Republic Highway, but large sections have since become memorials for others. Gene Autry has a piece of the GAR highway. So does Dosan Ahn Chang Ho and Burbank Police Officer Matthew Pavelka. The interchange of the 101 and the 110 is dedicated to Bill Keene, the traffic and weather reporter for KNX Radio. The interchange of the 110 and the 91 memorializes Edmond J. Russ, a former Chairman of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

What remembers the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War? Albert Henry Woolson was its last member. He died in 1956. He was 109.

The legislature took over the naming of highways in 2002. There are guidelines for approving designations. Newly named highways aren't supposed to supersede an existing designation, for example. The pairs of roadside signs are paid for by sponsors -- about $1,500 per sign -- but they're put up by Caltrans crews after a Caltrans traffic engineer determines a safe place to install them.

Having found that highway designations are easy give away, the legislature has been characteristically generous. Naming resolutions are always passed as a matter of legislative courtesy, and there are many such courtesies. An attempt to restrain the practice in 2012 died in committee, even though the bill's opponents agreed that the naming of highways had become chaotic.

The 2010 Named Freeways, Highways, Structures and Other Appurtenances of California, assembled by Caltrans, lists the 700 currently designated features along the state's roads. Features named for individuals are mostly reports of tragedies: deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, the deaths of police officers, sheriff's deputies, and CHP patrol officers killed in shootouts or run down by drivers. It's a melancholy list.

It's also a disappointing one, not just because the list is a smashup of memory and grief and political logrolling, hubris, and irony. Mingling the noble and the self-satisfied on the roadside is what we're reduced to -- an almost final acquiescence to our drive-by culture, where the names of heroes and the politically well connected are made to litter the edges of our highways, shorn of context and meaning and unremarked. At 65 miles an hour, Willard Murray and Rudolph Davila and Gene Autry and the Grand Army of Republic blur into clutter, and no one's memory is served.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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