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Hollywood Freeway Spans Magic and Might of L.A. : Culture: Route linking Downtown, Tinseltown and suburbia turns 40. Some call it city's ultimate freeway.

December 19, 1994|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Pasadena was the first and the Santa Monica is the busiest, but the Hollywood Freeway, which turned 40 this year, has always been the most L.A.--a telegenic mix of glamour, grit and gridlock. Just its route--through the movie capital of the world--assured it fame. So too did the old movies and TV shows that featured the freeway with City Hall, then the tallest building in town, in the background. And nary a foreign car, freeway call box or Botts' dot in sight.

The freeway helped shape how others saw Los Angeles. At home, it shaped the way we saw ourselves, creating a new urban nexus, accelerating development of the San Fernando Valley, delivering the promise of Downtown jobs and rustic homesteads to suburbanites of the growing city.

The freeway also has provided two generations of commuters with a chronicle of the changing metropolis. Motorists have seen the old Downtown give way to the new--the once towering City Hall dwarfed by the emerging skyline of Bunker Hill. They've seen the Hollywood of legend with the Capitol Records building and the Hollywood sign looming from on high, and they've seen the New Hollywood of Universal Studios.

"I think of the Hollywood Freeway as being the ultimate L.A. urban freeway," said Joel Kotkin, a socio-economist and Hollywood Freeway commuter. "It really connects three L.A.s: Downtown, the center of commerce; Hollywood, the center of legendary L.A.; and the San Fernando Valley, the center of suburbia. . . . It takes you through more worlds faster than any freeway in L.A."

The first segment of Los Angeles' second oldest freeway--the 1 1/2-mile Cahuenga Pass Freeway--opened June, 15, 1940, by an old Indian trail used by Don Gaspar de Portola and his expedition in 1769 to reach what was destined to become the West's greatest metropolis.

The last segment of the 10-mile freeway between Downtown and the Valley opened April 16, 1954--the same year that Los Angeles suffered one of its worst attacks of smog. The freeway--mostly four lanes in each direction--was completed during the period when the Valley was experiencing its greatest population growth.

"That was a big step toward opening up the San Fernando Valley," said Guy Weddington McCreary, a North Hollywood businessman whose parents' home was acquired when the freeway was extended farther into the Valley in the 1960s. "It changed a way of living, some for the better and some for the worst."

At the dedication in 1954, Los Angeles County Supervisor John Anson Ford described the freeway as "a great entrance to one of the great cities of America" and voiced a plea that it be kept clean of rubbish and unsightly billboards. (He lost the battle over the billboards.)

"The Hollywood Freeway was really the result of a convergence of interests between developers in the Valley at the end of (World War II) and Downtown interests who wanted to keep the trade of Valley residents," said urban historian Mike Davis.

It didn't take long for the dream highway to become a nightmare for commuters, an example of almost instant unplanned obsolescence.

* A year after the $55-million freeway opened, traffic engineers lamented that it was jammed with 183,000 vehicles a day--"almost double the volume it was designed to carry" and earning it a place in Bob Hope's routine as the "biggest parking lot in the world." Today, the freeway--since widened--carries about 273,000 vehicles a day, but it has dropped to seventh busiest in Los Angeles County.

* Speeding became a problem early on. In the 1950s, speeders were sentenced to five days in jail--for driving 85 m.p.h. The problem was so bad that Police Chief William Parker announced that motor officers would cruise the freeway at 55 m.p.h., and any motorist who passed them would be ticketed.

* In the mid-1950s, the City Council was urged to ban funeral processions from the freeway. "Needless to say the processions are certainly in no hurry," one driver said. The proposal died, so to speak. Also in the 1950s, the council considered barring trucks from the freeway--as they are from the Pasadena. Petitions said the trucks pose a "traffic hazard, obstructing vision and spewing noxious fumes in the face of motorists for whom the freeway was intended." That ban too was rejected.

* The freeway was a testing ground for the latest in highway technology. It featured the engineering marvel of 1954--the octopus-like four-level interchange, still called "the four level" in traffic reports, that eventually connected the Hollywood, Harbor, Pasadena and Santa Ana freeways. It was built on the former site of the town gallows. In 1967, the Hollywood Freeway became the first urban freeway in California to experiment with ramp meters. "We used to hide in the bushes and operate it by hand," said Caltrans engineer Nick Jones.

The freeway also has developed a lore of its own.

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