Reading L.A.: David Brodsly's 'L.A. Freeway'
As far as polarizing subjects in Los Angeles go, freeways have long ranked near the top, perhaps trailing only Shaq-Kobe and the question of where the Eastside really begins.
Most of us love to complain about our freeways -- about the bad air and gridlock they produce, mostly, and to a lesser extent about the way they cleave neighborhoods in two. Others -- a smaller group, admittedly -- have praised the freedom they enable and even the beauty of their form as monumental urban objects.
But rarely has a writer looked at them in as much depth, and with as much clear-eyed restraint, as David Brodsly does in "L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay," his 1981 book and the ninth title in our yearlong "Reading L.A." series.
As Brodsly puts it in his prologue, which is titled, after Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Freeway," the book "is neither a diatribe nor a paean. Sometimes I hate freeways and sometimes I actually love them, but that is not the point. The point here is simply to spend some time thinking about a subject that most of us take for granted. ... My hope was to understand the freeways, not to judge them."
For Brodsly, Joan Didion's famous observation that driving on the freeway ranks as "the only secular communion Los Angeles has" doesn't go quite far enough. He calls the Southern California freeway "the cathedral of its time and place." And he spends a large portion of the book exploring the details of that cathedral as an architectural historian might, tracing the development of seemingly every major freeway, extension and spur. He also explores the symbolic, communitarian and political importance of the freeway in diffuse, ever-changing Los Angeles.
"The freeway system supplies Los Angeles with one of its principal metaphors," Brodsly writes. "Employed to represent the totality of metropolitan Los Angeles, it is the city's great synecdoche, one of the few parts capable of standing for the whole."
He quotes the architect Charles Moore: "It is interesting ... to consider where one would go in Los Angeles to have an effective revolution of the Latin American sort. Presumably, the place would be in the heart of the city. If one took over some public square, some urban open space in Los Angeles, who would know? ... The only hope would seem to be to take over the freeways."
Brodsly, who grew up in San Pedro, the son of parents who "would religiously listen to SigAlerts at breakfast," began the research for "L.A. Freeway" as part of his undergraduate thesis at UC Santa Cruz. It was published by UC Press when Brodsly was in his mid-20s. He went on to work for the city of Los Angeles, and later moved to the Bay Area, where he works in public finance. He never wrote another book.
For most of "L.A. Freeway," Brodsly maintains a scholarly detachment in examining how various freeways were planned and paid for. But occasionally he drifts into Banhamesque reverie. ("Driving the freeway can create a rare, and distinctly urban, moment of joy when the car drives well, the freeway is uncrowded, and there is a good song on the radio.") And at several points he directly takes on the relationship between freeways and L.A.'s civic character.
Brodsly argues that the freeway system has radically "democratized transportation" in Southern California. He quotes an essay from the New York Times magazine making the case that in Los Angeles "the freeway allows you to create your own life. Your community is formed not by geography or community but by common interests."
At the same time, Brodsly acknowledges the way that the freeway keeps us cocooned in our cars, within sight of but apart from our fellow citizens. And he links that separation to the one produced by zoning and the popularity of the single-family house. "Protected by the detached single-family home and the detached private automobile," he writes, "the Angeleno can maintain his daily life remarkably free of intrusion. Thus Los Angeles is able to maintain its facade of a garden patch of urban villages, a metropolitan small town, without ever compromising the anonymity that is a hallmark of city life."
Elsewhere Brodsly suggests that the freeway ranks as an even more separate and detached sphere than the house. "More than any other ecology in Los Angeles," he writes, "more than any single comprehensible place, the freeway is a private space."
Brodsly's research for the book in the late 1970s and early 1980s came at a fascinating historical moment for Los Angeles, as the growth of the freeway system began to slow, and as the region took on the task of building a comprehensive public transit system, including its first subway. The subway, of course, proved politically controversial, even explosive, and its construction was largely put off -- and we wound up increasing our reliance on the freeways rather than starting the process of weaning ourselves from them.
Today we've arrived at a similar crossroads -- or maybe it's the very same crossroads, one we've been idling in front of for three decades. We are no longer building new freeways; the freeway system as a whole now qualifies as both crucial infrastructure and historical artifact; and we continue to struggle to build and pay for a subway. Even as we grasp intellectually that a city arranged around freeways is an outmoded city, hardly a model in any sense for future urban development, we can hardly fathom giving up our practical and emotional relationship with private mobility, especially given how accustomed we've grown to covering huge swaths of Southern California on a daily basis.
The result is that much of Brodsly's text reads as if it were pulled from a fortune cookie inside a time capsule.
-- Christopher Hawthorne
Upper photo: An L.A. freeway interchange from above. Credit: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times
Middle photo: The 110 Freeway. Credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times
Lower photo: An interchange at night. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times