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Rearview Mirror

1940

Free to Move About at Speed in the 'Instant City'

December 24, 2006

This week in 1940, California Gov. Culbert Olson and the 1941 Rose Queen presided over the official dedication of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, which in 1954 became the Pasadena Freeway. When the late John Gregory Dunne moved from New York City to Southern California, a local radio station had adopted a slogan: "The freeway is forever." Dunne wrote in an essay in 1978 that the slogan was "the perfect metaphor for that state of mind called Los Angeles."Singular not plural, freeway not freeways, the definite article implying that what was in question was more an idea than a roadway. Seen from the air at night, the freeway is like a river, alive, sinuous, a reticulated glow of headlights tracing the huge contours of a city seventy miles square. Surface streets mark off grids of economy and class, but the freeway is totally egalitarian, a populist notion that makes Los Angeles comprehensible and complete. . . .

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Driving the freeway induces a kind of narcosis. Speed is a virtue, and the speed of the place makes one obsessive, a gambler. The spirit is that of a city on the move, of people who have already moved here from somewhere else. Mobility is their common language; without it, or an appreciation of it, the visitor is an illiterate. The rear-view mirror reflects an instant city, its population trebled and retrebled in living memory. Its monuments are the artifacts of civil engineering, off-ramps and interchanges that sweep into concrete parabolas. There is no past, the city's hierarchy is jerry-built, there are few mistakes to repeat. The absence of past and structure is basic to the allure of Los Angeles. It deepens the sense of self-reliance, it fosters the idea of freedom, or at least the illusion of it. Freedom of movement most of all, freedom that liberates the dweller in this city from community chauvinism and neighborhood narcissism, allowing him to absorb the most lavish endowments his environment has to offer--sun and space.

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Source: "Eureka!" in "Quintana & Friends," by John Gregory Dunne, E. P. Dutton, 1978. Reprinted with permission of the author's estate.

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