If you have ever wondered where we got the term “Sigalert,” the term used in Southern California to refer to a severe roadway problem, Harry Marnell takes us back to the days just after World War II when Los Angeles began earning its reputation as a global center of auto traffic.
It’s a fascinating story of private ingenuity and a small innovation that became a core part of commuting life in the land of car culture.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Bloom Town: The Wild Life of American Cities”
Maggie Koerth-Baker NYTimes.com November 27, 2012
Confession: I love my lawn. But I feel guilty about it.
My homeowners’ association says I have to have grass, and it has to be green. That doesn’t break my heart. I confess that there are evenings when, even in our mild Southern California winters, I will walk shoeless out my front door, risking the ire of my spouse, simply to experience the sensual pleasure of walking barefoot on grass that is just catching the night’s coastal dewfall.
Yet I know that same patch of grass is responsible for the majority of the water consumed by our three-person household. I know that somehow it is wrong, even if it feeds the Audobon’s Cottontails that in turn feed the hawks in our neighborhood, and even if it helps employ my irrigation guy and my landscape maintainers. Lawns are water-sucks.
In an article in the The New York Times, BoingBoing.net science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker explains that in places like Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami, up to 80% of the urban space is natural surface, and that means that what we grow in our gardens collectively alters ecology.
Koerth-Baker is not calling for a wholesale change of lifestyle or human geography as much as she seems to want us to cultivate gardens made up of indigenous flora, like many people in Phoenix do with their desert-like front yards. This practice, called “xeriscaping,” seems to have great benefits. While much lighter on water requirements, the xeriscaped gardens appear to capture more carbon and absorb more heat than their natural counterparts up the road.
I’ll confess I’m not thrilled at the idea of giving up my lawn for the kind of natural ground cover I see growing on the dunes behind our house. But I can see the virtue, and I’ll bet our homeowners association will start to agree in ten years as the cost of the water to irrigate our common areas becomes our most expensive outlay.
The future of the California yard is, thus, California. We should welcome that, and, rather than fighting for our grass, start figuring out ways to make our California yards more appealing.
of the future and eventual fate of one of Southern California’s most defining man-made features: the freeway system.
The rising cost of petroleum, Angelenos’ growing acceptance of mass transit, and a gradual rise of a new California lifestyle that places sustainability ahead of mobility could mean that SoCal’s reliance on the automobile has plateaued. Dutton’s manifesto begins with a call to abandon the car as a dysfunctional element of our lifestyle, introduces the idea of a a “Slow Move” future to go alongside our presumed “slow food” future, and then lays out the implications for urban planning and lifestyles.
The car, Dutton suggests, has dominated our city for too long. It is time to approach things another way. By shifting to an integrated, hierarchical network of sidewalks, bike paths, light rail, and subway networks beneath the greenways that take the place of freeways, the study suggests we can claim a lifestyle in keeping with our ideals and our climate.
As with many such studies, there is an thick band of utopianism woven throughout this picture. Southern California has been zoned, built, lived, and governed with the car at the center. Changing that means changing much more than repurposing freeways, and thus it presumes either a burst of instant national enlightenment or a cataclysm (economic or environmental) that will convince Californians that they no longer have a choice.
Yet such criticism is somehow unfair, as it presumes more than what the study was intended to offer. Dutton’s team is proffering a vision of the post-automotive city that can be in many ways better than what we have, not worse. It is not a roadmap on how to get to that future.
I’m not ready to buy yet, but I wish more of California’s planners and architects would pursue such innovative thinking. It might just get us someplace.
Sheila Weller takes us back to the 1960s, where a tiny cult of personality born in the early days of California’s surfing craze became a plunge into dysfunction and criminality.
Juicy reading, regardless of whether you grew up in that era, especially if you knew or were a part of the surf culture yourself growing up (as were many of us who went to high school within an hour’s drive of a SoCal beach.)