As Angeleños prepare to survive the upcoming weekend without access to a ten-mile section of the San Diego Freeway, our thoughts may turn to L.A.'s pre-freeway era, a time before it was possible to cruise through the Los Angeles basin at 70 miles per hour, a time when freeway construction was an occasion for celebrity photo-ops rather than an excuse to coin apocalyptic portmanteaux.
In the twenty years between 1950 and 1970, more than 500 miles of freeways were built in L.A., Orange, and Ventura counties. Southern California welcomed them with the pomp and circumstance usually reserved for foreign dignitaries. Movie stars and governors christened the new concrete rivers, and many Southern Californians drove to construction sites to pose in photographs of half-built highways rising from the ground.
The photos below, culled from several regional archives, illustrate that junction between L.A.'s pre- and post-freeway eras, when work crews built bridges and on-ramps but also razed houses and split neighborhoods. They show construction work on five Southern California freeways: the Hollywood Freeway (U.S. Highway 101), one of L.A.'s first; the Harbor Freeway (Interstate 110); the Santa Monica Freeway (Interstate 10); the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405); and the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210).
Santa Monica Freeway
San Diego Freeway
The collections of the Dorothy Peyton Gray Transportation Library and Archive at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority constitute an invaluable resource for understanding Southern California's transportation, from early cable cars to the Pacific Electric Railway and from superhighways to the "Subway to the Sea."
Librarian Kenn Bicknell is currently digitizing another relevant collection that he describes as the "mother lode of information" about freeway construction. Published from the 1924 to 1967, California Highways and Public Works was the official journal of the California Highway Commission and, later, the California Division of Highways. Bicknell hopes to have the entire archive digitized and publicly accessible here on the library's website by the end of the year. He has already digitized the September/October 1956 issue, which contains a treasure trove of photographs, maps, and other information about freeway construction projects in Southern California.
Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.
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When Golden State Mutual Life Insurance commissioned artists Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff to design a home office building, the duo traveled across California to retrace the steps of the region's Black explorers, settlers and leaders. Their mission? To design a headquarters for GSM that looked to California's future and recovered an erased Black past.
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