Concrete Dreams: Desire and Regret on the Freeways of LA

Los Angeles has been made of many things since September 1781. Despite the prevailing mythology that insists Los Angeles has no substance, that it's a city only of dreams, Los Angeles has made itself out of real stuff, beginning with the city's founding in dried mud.

Dried mud is adobe, and adobe Los Angeles had the virtue of being made out of a sustainable and recyclable building material that's also surprisingly durable. With a sound roof and some care, buildings made of adobe have survived nearly 200 years of Los Angeles rain and earthquakes.

American Los Angeles continued to be mostly adobe through the 1850s, when wood-frame houses - some of them prefabricated and shipped around South America - gradually became more common. A few brick buildings rose after 1852, when Captain Jesse Hunter of the Mormon Battalion delivered the first load of bricks from his kiln, said to have been located at Broadway and 2nd Street.

Brick and cast iron built downtown Los Angeles in the early 1880s. Redwood timbers and fussy Victorian millwork built the suburban homes of Angelino Heights in 1886. In the decades after, modest homes went up everywhere, mostly made up of stucco over wood frames. But architects had begun already looking at materials of tomorrow to make the city of the future.

It would be made of concrete.

Concrete Construction: La Jolla Women's Club (1914-1915) by Irving Gill
Concrete Construction: La Jolla Women's Club (1914-1915) by Irving Gill, | Photo coutesy of Wikimedia | Creative Commons License

Irving Gill experimented with concrete construction at the turn of the 20th century, even perfecting a system for "tilt up" walls of concrete panels poured on site. Frank Lloyd Wright worked with pressed concrete bricks. Other architects blended concrete and steel to raise the city's grand department stores, span the Los Angeles River, and erect the office towers that topped out in 1928 with the completion of Los Angeles City Hall.

Sculptured Concrete: Los Angeles Times building (1935)
Sculptured Concrete: Los Angeles Times building (1935). Photo coutesy of Wikimedia | Creative Commons License
Steel reinforced concrete was the wonder construction material of the 20th century. Concrete poured like a liquid but hardened into stone. Depending on the form into which it flowed, concrete could be as sculptural as the Times building on 1st Street or as monumental as the walls of the Los Angeles River. Concrete's whiteness was a symbol of a new age freed from the dull red of brick and the mud colors of brownstone.

Concrete was the future in material form: hard, clean, efficient, machined, and impersonal. Concrete also was cheap and could be handled by relatively unskilled workers, unlike brick masonry or cut stone. Concrete in "right-to-work" Los Angeles had no history of unionized labor.

When Los Angeles looked at itself after World War II, the city saw concrete taming nature and shrinking distance and time. Concrete poured into the region's unreliable rivers to manage their tendency to flood disastrously, as the Los Angeles River had in 1934 and 1938. Concrete aqueducts supplied water for the homes and industries of Los Angeles through the California State Water Project. Concrete, in the form of freeways, overcame the dispersed urbanism of the county, which had been created by Henry Huntington's electric railways but had outgrown rail's capacity to tie the region together.

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Arroyo Seco Parkway, 1941
Arroyo Seco Parkway, 1941| Photo from the author's personal collection.

Concrete would bind up Los Angeles, the planners thought, serving some ideal of modernity, speed, and fulfilled desire.

The vast infrastructure of concrete - 3,500 of miles of storm drains and the 51 miles of the Los Angeles River - is nearly invisible. But freeways - where concrete entered everyday life - commanded attention. They were objects almost of veneration, as Kevin Starr noted:

The challenge of designing freeways ... constituted an art form growing in complexity. ... As in the case of all great engineering on such a monumental scale, the freeways bespoke the values and technology, the options and choices, the sheer drama, of the brave new world Californians were creating.

The world began on December 30, 1940 when a caravan of more than 4,000 cars, led by the head of the California Highway Patrol, traveled north on the new Arroyo Seco Parkway to its Fair Oaks Avenue exit. There, Sally Stanton, as the 1941 Rose Parade queen, and California Governor Culbert Olson cut a ribbon of roses hung across the roadway. The county's first freeway was open.

Sixty-five years later, the ribbon cutting is retold as an expulsion from Eden - from a place of swift, electric railways and uncrowded highways - to a kind of gridlocked and road-rage-filled hell. Concrete, for its critics at least, had turned out to be a brand of the devil's candy.

Perhaps it was a historical mistake to try to form Los Angeles out of the formless goo of concrete.

The Arroyo Seco Parkway is an antique, designed for the cars and speeds of the 1930s and already out of date in 1953 when it was connected to the freeway network on the towering ramps of the Four Level Interchange - the Stack - at the northern edge of downtown. The Stack (officially the Bill Keene Memorial Interchange) is out of date too. It was designed in 1943-1944 but it still has iconic status as a kind of secular cathedral of reinforced concrete.

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Concrete was picked over steel girders for the Stack because concrete would "lend itself better to architectural treatment." David Brodsly, in L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay (1981), called the the Stack "particularly elegant." The Los Angeles Conservancy includes it on the conservancy's list of historic places. The Los Angeles Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers designated it a civil engineering landmark.

How LA Remembers: Concrete prints
How LA Remembers: Concrete prints,| Photo by Thomas Hawk | Creative Commons License

Assistant State Highway Engineer Fred Grumm, writing in the May/June 1944 issue of California Highways and Public Works, enthused that the interchange would be "a benefit to the community by clearing out the old neighborhood and substituting a modern parkway facility which with proper landscape treatment will become a landmark of beauty and pride for the entire city."

Building the Stack displaced 4,000 residents from their working-class neighborhood, a small part of the thousands more removals in a half-century of making room for concrete in Los Angeles. The dispossessed might be considered luckier than those residents who remained behind. Studies have found that a childhood lived within 2,000 feet of a freeway left young adults with "substantial deficits in lung function."

Newer interchanges soar more dramatically than the Stack does, although perhaps with less moderation. In any case, we're past seeing beauty in their design. For Angeleños - particularly those who travel from beach cities to downtown or into the Valley - pride in the freeway system was long ago replaced by fury.

When the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened in 1940, it was regarded as an evolutionary step from the landscaped highway to the high-speed expressway. It turned out to be something else. Today, it's hard to imagine what might replace the freeways of Los Angeles, with their reach across a multi-county region and their intimacy with everyday life. Those who try imagine a radically different life, with less mobility across the region and necessarily more neighborhood-focused.

Merging | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia | Creative Commons License

The freeways of Los Angeles turned out to be tools of state land use regulation, justification for the clearance of unwanted communities, and barriers between communities, as well as gifts of political patronage, and good business for the corporations that designed and built with concrete.

While it's not true that the freeways "made" the city and the region; other, older patterns in the landscape going back to the founding of the city, were responsible for the region's social geography. But it's true that the freeways literally set in concrete how space and time would be understood by Angeleños.

They understand them, but mostly with regret. Having been given concrete as the substance of their tomorrows, most Angeleños are unsure of what to make of their city and region.

This article was originally published Sept. 23, 2015.

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