A friend of mine who lives outside of Los Angeles asked me why Angelinos are all so obsessed with the freeways. After all, we talk about them, we put them in our movies, and of course we write about them.
I’ve been writing about L.A. and the freeway system my whole career, and I’ve developed theories about them. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am a little obsessed with them.
Let me be clear. Everyone in Los Angeles hates the freeways. They’re horrible. But they also define us.
They are what make us what we are. Without them, we would be a much friendlier place. Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities described the basic problem of L.A. perfectly. We are really a number of communities that have kind of all grown together.
Most of these were orchard communities.
Land developers realized that houses were more valuable than trees and so bedroom communities began to spring up. Since this happened after the advent of the automobile, people could live one place and commute into work.
So now we have freeways.
All of this created the Los Angeles phenomenon of the single use area. People live one place, commute to work someplace else, and commute to entertain themselves in a third place.
But another phenomenon has risen because of it. So many cities in the world have a kind of city center around which the community grows and helps to define the community.
The city center of Los Angeles is the freeway. We are growing around it rather than growing around a centralized downtown experience, and in fact because of this, different towns become strangely united. People who normally would go to Claremont for entertainment will feel equally comfortable in Pasadena and parts of Long Beach even though these areas are miles and miles distant.
They will pass by Duarte on their way from Claremont to Pasadena never considering stopping, and it could be argued that Pomona is culturally closer to Montebello than Walnut even though they are next door neighbors.
The result is a great deal of unfriendliness.
It’s easy for me to get to areas in town where people like me live and congregate, so I never bother to get to know my neighbors.
On one side of my house a police officer and his family live. These are interesting people who always seem to be laughing and having a good time. Aside from waving at them, I’ve never had contact with them. On the other side of my house lives an immigrant from somewhere. I’m not sure where. He’s obsessed with gardening and Asian art. On trash day, he brings in the trash cans for everyone on the street, and every once in a while he’ll bring my newspaper to my door step leaving a coin for luck underneath it.
Why haven’t I gotten to know him?
Because it’s easy to get on the freeway and drive down to Long Beach where I know I’ll have good time with my friends. The ease of those relationships makes the work of getting to know my neighbors unnecessary.
The result is that we spend hours on the freeways, commuting and growing angrier. All we want is to get to our friends and engage in human relationships. But we sit in traffic for hours completely surrounded by strangers and feeling completely alone. They create a kind of community isolation and despair.
So we become obsessed with freeways. At least I do.
If there were one thing I’d change about L.A., it would be the phenomenon of the single use area, and some communities are trying to do that. The freeways are meant to be a kind of stopgap, a way to bring people together in a city were public transportation doesn’t work. However, they have ended up having exactly the opposite effect.