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Los Angeles Times Special Report : On the Fault Line : Southern Californians Take Stock of the Earthquake : An Imperfect 10 : The Santa Monica Freeway took its toll on the neighborhoods it impaled and the commuters it ensnared. But how will we live without it?


I visited a critically injured business acquaintance Tuesday.

It's the Santa Monica Freeway, crippled in Monday's earthquake when an overpass collapsed around La Cienega Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, a key part of my commuting route for the past 23 years.

I say business acquaintance because this freeway is no friend. Our relationship is strictly business, a way of getting to and from work on an ugly, utilitarian structure that exemplifies the worst of California's highway builders.

For me, it has meant slow driving and foul air, relieved occasionally by a dazzling smoggy sunset on the way home. The Santa Monica's only attractive feature is the dramatic bridge connecting it to the San Diego Freeway.

Knowing its history and aware of the inconvenience all of us commuters will suffer because of its disabling, I had mixed emotions when I saw the wreckage.

The Santa Monica, built by straight-line '50s and '60s engineers, slashed through Mid and West Los Angeles without regard to the social and economic impact on neighborhoods and individuals. Thousands of homes were torn down and thousands of families were forced to move. Neighborhoods were divided, odd dead-end streets were created.

Worse yet, the freeway added to the racial segregation of an already badly divided Los Angeles and Santa Monica. In fact, the highway created a vast new racially segregated area, "South of the Santa Monica Freeway."

And, as we saw Monday, it was not even given the strength to withstand the powerful earthquakes that are a predictable part of Southland life. I talked to a team of University of California researchers, who showed me twisted steel bars and support columns crushed into the shape of mushrooms--evidence, they said, of how the old freeway builders failed to prepare.

The freeway will recover, but not before it leaves another miserable legacy for L.A.: many millions of dollars lost in traffic delays and the astronomical price of restoring it to health.

When I visited the ruins, I could see restoration would be months away.

Graduate students Dawn Lehman and Sylvia Mazzoni of the UC Berkeley Earthquake Engineering Center showed me how sections of the overpass had separated and crashed downward. Eighteen-inch bars embedded in concrete support columns failed. As Caltrans associate bridge engineer Pete Elliott told me: "The earthquake lifted the bridges up and the bridges came down, crushing the columns like they were aluminum beer cans."

I walked under a portion of the collapsed overpass that had not hit the ground and reached up and touched it. Scores of cracks covered the surface. I climbed the embankment to the empty freeway. One section of the overpass was 3 1/2 to 4 feet higher than the one I was standing on.

From that vantage point, it was easy to see the vast amount of land the freeway occupies, something not apparent to the preoccupied, car-bound commuter.

It was the need for such huge tracts of land that disrupted long-established neighborhoods during the 1960s. Construction required a broad swath of land from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica. In one stretch alone, from Vermont Avenue to La Cienega Boulevard, more than 2,000 structures were removed and about 10,000 people displaced.

In some places, the freeway route devoured poor and middle-class African-American neighborhoods, displacing their residents. The highway also sliced through other neighborhoods, lowering property values.

White residents moved away. The freeway became a physical barrier, separating whites and blacks.

This was the result of a state highway policy that dismissed advocates of neighborhood preservation as unreasonable.

As a young reporter in the state capital, I had observed the process. State rights-of-way agents prowled neighborhoods, buying houses under threat of eminent domain. L.A. was a prime target, the center of a contemplated freeway network that had one goal: Move goods and people as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

The state highway engineers were supported by local business people, the auto club, politicians and construction companies. This combination, known as "the Highway Lobby," reigned supreme in city councils and in the Legislature, where its leading spokesman was a crusty old senator, Randoph Collier, known as "the Father of California's Freeways."

West Hollywood was to be ripped apart by a freeway between Los Angeles International Airport and the Ventura Freeway. Another route across the Santa Monica Mountains would have cut through Beverly Hills.

But not even the Highway Lobby could touch Beverly Hills. In one of Sacramento's great confrontations of the '60s, the lobby lost, and the state killed the Beverly Hills Freeway and the West Hollywood Freeway along with it.

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