One of the oddest stretches of Los Angeles is that area just northwest of Downtown that is bisected by the Hollywood Freeway: handsome, peeling Victorians facing out onto concrete retaining walls; old churches divorced from their flocks; strange, remote cul de sacs almost energized by their sudden isolation from great chunks of neighborhood that no longer exist. The Hollywood Freeway was built half a century ago, but the community it passes through still seems severed, incomplete, in a way that those neighborhoods that grow up around freeways rarely do.
Pretty much everybody likes freeways, it is safe to say; nobody but a fool wants a new one through their hometown. It is not an accident that the Beverly Hills Freeway never got past the planning stage. And though legislation mandating the completion of the last six-odd miles of the Long Beach Freeway, through South Pasadena and El Sereno, has just been approved by every relevant state body, there is no shortage of South Pasadenans ready to shackle themselves to the bulldozers, should they ever come.
I've taken a lot of walks lately along the path of the proposed freeway extension, down quiet streets shaded by trees grown together into dense green canopies, past neat, modest bungalows, and I try to imagine what the area might feel like split by eight lanes of superhighway. All along the route are little pockets of bulldozed land, half-acre oblongs of dead, brown grass scattered among the well-kept lawns. It's not improbable that the drowsy quality tying these neighborhoods together reflects their having lived under a half-century-long death sentence, that postmodern condominium developments have been kept away by the fear that, someday soon, the freeway might actually be approved.
South Pasadena residents, by and large, are not the kind of people you'd expect to find allied with the Sierra Club--a friend who toured open houses last weekend reported that four out of the five homes she visited had copies of William Bennett's "Book of Virtues" prominently displayed on their coffee tables--and it is occasionally disconcerting to hear Mercedes-driving South Pasadenans suggest that the answer to the area's traffic problems lies in mass transit. It is the kind of small, solid Midwestern town you can imagine Elmer Gantry living in, or practically any character from a Booth Tarkington novel, except that South Pasadena is only 10 minutes from Downtown L.A. It is a pure Norman Rockwell stage set. The producers of "Back to the Future" filmed here when they wanted to evoke small-town America, and that fact is duly noted in nearly every Chamber of Commerce brochure.
I am distinctly a latecomer to this debate. There exist Alhambra officials who have been pushing the freeway since late in the Truman Administration, South Pasadena families who have been fighting it through three generations. It is impossible to be neutral: Either you mourn the loss of the cherried-out Craftsman bungalow your great-aunt used to live in, or you're an underemployed master electrician who wouldn't mind a few years of steady freeway work. One side sees a struggle between family-loving South Pasadena PTA members and greedy development dollars to the south, the other as between ordinary working people and wealthy suburbanites desperate to keep internal-combustion fumes off their petunias. And when you click on the news radio at the point when the helicopter person starts talking about a major chemical spill or an overturned truck full of cows, it's better than even money that the incident occurred on the truck-choked Long Beach Freeway.
But freeways that were cut through living urban fabric transformed much of East L.A. into sterile overpass. The new Century Freeway took 30 years, cost a mint, evicted gadzillion families and shaves only five or 10 minutes off a trip to the airport from Downtown--provided that the Harbor Freeway is flowing well, which it usually isn't. Does America's insuperable freedom include the liberty never to take a surface street?