Free Falling and the Soul of a Highway

Mulholland Highway and the Engineering Culture of Los Angeles in the 1920s”
Matthew W. Ross
Technology and Culture
Volume 4o, Number 3
Society for the History of Technology
1999

Articles, books, songs, and movies that chronicle the California love affair with the automobile are legion, to the point where you almost cannot make a movie about the Golden State without featuring an automobile in a supporting role, or as a character statement no less essential than wardrobe. In 48 hrs., Nick Nolte’s nostalgic Cadillac Coupe de Ville ragtop contrasted brilliantly with smooth-talking Eddie Murphy’s classic Porsche roadster. In L.A. Story, Steve Martin’s Oldsmobile Cutlass said as much about the character of weatherman Harris Telemacher as his cardigan sweaters. And speaking of the Porsche, two words: The Graduate.

What we never hear enough about, however, is the geography of the California car culture: the roads. Randy Newman got as close as anyone has ever come to giving tribute to how streets in Southern California become shorthand for distinct neighborhoods, unique experiences, and ways of life in his excellent 1984 song “I Love L.A.” But beyond a few paeans like this (Freddy Martin’s 1947 ditty “Pico and Sepulveda” also jumps to mind), nobody has every really captured the role of Los Angeles’ streets, especially not in a scholarly sense.

Enter Matthew Roth.

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Roth, who managed the archives at the Automobile Club of Southern California while a Ph.D. candidate at USC, has written extensively on why and how the streets of Los Angeles exist, and has come as close to penetrating why the city lays out like it does, and thus feels like it does. This was no simple task: unlike New York, which grew according to the survey plan created by Simon De Witt in 1811, Los Angeles was the little town that never expected to get quite so large. As such, the city’s geographic provenance is much more chaotic – and much more interesting.

Roth understands like nobody else that something beyond logic or romance drove the creation of the Southland’s grid of streets. But the human geography of the city and its environs is more than a curiosity: it is a glimpse into the forces that shaped and continue to shape the evolution of California.

English: Sandstone Peak as seen from Mulhollan...
Sandstone Peak as seen from Mulholland Highway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his short but superb and highly readable paper “Mulholland Highway and the Engineering Culture of Los Angeles in the 1920s,” Roth shows us that at least one of L.A.’s most famous streets was created for no better reason than to prove it could be done. Sure, developers and politicans were able to justify the sinuous ridge route that runs from Cahuenga Pass to Calabasas (and sort of continuing on to Leo Carrillo State Beach in Malibu) by selling the taxpayers on its value for tourism and development. But at its heart, it was a publicly-funded civil engineering experiment. The public rationale came later.

So it was built. There was a massive rush of cars on its first day, and the traffic continues everywhere except for the spotty bits between Calabasas and the Pacific. Yet for much of its history it has been most useful as a fire road in fighting the seasonal conflagrations that make living in the Santa Monica mountains so interesting, and as a lateral shortcut between the canyon roads linking the Valley and the basin. (“Coldwater is jammed, so cut across to Laurel or Beverly Glen.”)

But Roth, perhaps unintentionally, challenges us to forget the practical and to see Mulholland Highway through the eyes of the Progressive-era city engineers who designed and built it. It was a “massive reordering of the natural environment” not unlike the Owens Valley Aqueduct, the Port of Los Angeles, and the Ridge Route, all of which changed both the character and the prospects of the city. Yet with the Mulholland Highway, there was something more emotional to the project.

The highway accorded with the engineers’ sense of beauty in the landscape, an aspect of engineering that historian David Nye has described as the “technological sublime.” Its construction engineer, Dewitt Reaburn, described one aspect of this aesthetic when he extolled the vantage points that the road would afford: “In driving over the completed portion of the highway, one is charmed and amazed at the wonderful view of the surrounding country, which is continually changing as the vision sweeps from one side of the summit to the other.

Some are charmed. Some are offended by the man-made scar sliced along the backbone of Los Angeles’ central cordillera, our defiantly natural answer to the manufactured parks of London, New York, Washington, and Beijing.  All too many of us block it out of our minds as just another part of the daily commute.

Even a casual visitor, though, can see and appreciate that evolving vista, and the road’s designers and their successors have wisely bequeathed us with turn-outs and vista points, surely averting what might otherwise be a surfeit of deaths-by-rubbernecking. One of those stops, perched above a section of Encino, became the location of the unforgettable flying skateboarder sequence in the video of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” The broad expanse of the Valley splays out below, a woven tapestry of nature and architecture, marinated in sunshine, and hiding in plain sight a contained world of human dramas. We fly above it to escape it, yet find ourselves inevitably drawn back down.

And that is the true allure of the Mulholland Highway. This is not a road that offers you a transcendental experience, but a brief escape from the life below, a chance to withdraw for a moment from the fast, the crazy, the bullshit, the aches, the dreams; and then, when balance returns, to answer the beckoning call of the life below, choose your point of re-entry, and descend, renewed again, to the city.

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Roth offers hard, almost academic record of a project, not the maudlin musings of a songster or the triumphalism of a booster. Yet through his short social history of a simple strip of blacktop carved into sandstone, we are introduced to a truism forgotten in an era where the vocabulary of commerce intrudes into every facet of public life:

Not every feature of our human geography, not every effort to lay the hand of man upon the land or sea, needs to be firmly rooted in rationality and return-on-investment. One need only look across the expanse of California to see that the manmade aspects of the Golden West that have made living here such a delight were those born of a touch of frivolity, of inspiration, and of artistic magic.

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