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Concrete Fantasy: When Southern California's Freeways Were New (And Empty)

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S2 E3: Building the Metropolis

The Southland's freeways hardly inspire optimism anymore. Glance at the shoulder of a slow-moving freeway and among the weeds you'll see shards of plastic and twisted metal – the accumulated detritus of a dozen high-speed crashes. They may (occasionally) be convenient, but whether it's their shabby appearance, the way they displaced a quarter-million people, or simply their soul-crushing traffic, it's hard to feel good about the freeways. We consider the profound social and environmental costs of our freeway system in tonight's episode of "Lost L.A."

But there was a time when Southern California's freeways were new, and feelings were different. Despite local opposition to specific routes, the freeway system as a whole enjoyed widespread political support. L.A.'s infatuation with the automobile hadn't yet waned, so it was only natural for the city to embrace these new monuments to car culture. They provided an alternative to the aging electric railways and traffic-choked boulevards. They promised to improve life in the decentralized city. They represented the region's best hope for the future.

The photographs here – many of them produced for publication in the Los Angeles Times, Examiner, and Herald Express – reflect the unbound optimism of the time. Sure, the concrete is freshly poured, the landscaping is trimmed, and the shoulders are free of debris, but the images themselves represent a deliberate celebration of the freeway. Their composition emphasizes open pavement and gently curving lines, implying speedy and graceful travel. And in many of the images, the freeway lanes fill the frame at the expense of the surrounding landscape – a subtle but reassuring message that these superhighways have conquered the long distances of the famously sprawling region.

The concrete practically glistens in this 1958 photograph of the San Diego Freeway (then CA-7, now I-405), looking south at its junction with the Ventura Freeway, courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner collection, USC Libraries
The concrete practically glistens in this 1958 photograph of the San Diego Freeway (then CA-7, now I-405), looking south at its junction with the Ventura Freeway, courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner collection, USC Libraries
Here's a newly opened section of the Hollywood Freeway (US-101) in 1958, courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries
Here's a newly opened section of the Hollywood Freeway (US-101) in 1958, courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries
1954 photo of the Hollywood Freeway (US-101) at Vermont
1954 photo of the Hollywood Freeway (US-101) at Vermont, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.
1940 photo of the Arroyo Seco Parkway (CA-110), courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library's Herald-Examiner Collection
1940 photo of the Arroyo Seco Parkway (CA-110), courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
In 1951 dignitaries including California's lieutenant governor celebrated the opening of the Hollywood Freeway from Silver Lake to Western. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries
In 1951 dignitaries including California's lieutenant governor celebrated the opening of the Hollywood Freeway from Silver Lake to Western. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries
A view of US-101's "Downtown Slot" segment shortly after its 1951 opening
A view of US-101's "Downtown Slot" segment shortly after its 1951 opening, courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.
An early view of the the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) at Bristol in Santa Ana, courtesy of the Orange County Archives
An early view of the the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) at Bristol in Santa Ana, courtesy of the Orange County Archives
An early view of the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) at 1st Street in Santa Ana, courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Another early view of the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) at 1st Street in Santa Ana, courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
A view of the same freeway further south at El Toro in 1964, also courtesy of the Orange County Archives. That commodious median has since been converted into several additional traffic lanes.
A view of the same freeway further south at El Toro in 1964, also courtesy of the Orange County Archives. That commodious median has since been converted into several additional traffic lanes.

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One more early view of the Santa Ana Freeway at El Toro Road, also courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
One more early view of the Santa Ana Freeway at El Toro Road, also courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
A view of a newly opened stretch of the San Diego Freeway through the San Fernando Valley in 1958
A view of a newly opened stretch of the San Diego Freeway through the San Fernando Valley in 1958, courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.
A view of the 1956 opening of the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10)
A view of the 1956 opening of the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10),  courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.
The mayor of Inglewood proudly stands in front of the newly completed San Diego Freeway (I-405) in 1963. Photo courtesy of the Inglewood Public Library.
The mayor of Inglewood proudly stands in front of the newly completed San Diego Freeway (I-405) in 1963. Photo courtesy of the Inglewood Public Library.
1966 photo of the opening of the final stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway, courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.
1966 photo of the opening of the final stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway, courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

This article originally appeared on Gizmodo's Southland subdomain on April 25, 2014. It has been re-published here in conjunction with the airing of Lost L.A.'s "Building the Metropolis" episode. 

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