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The 110 revisited

December 30, 2007 |  1:31 pm


Photograph by the Los Angeles Times, July 23, 1939

He looks out from the bridge as if he is gazing toward the future. Not that this is what the photographer intended. Like The Times "Scout Car," a new 1939 Oldsmobile, the unidentified fellow in the suit and two-toned shoes was added as visual interest to an otherwise static shot of Southern California's first six-lane "superhighway" being built from Los Angeles to Pasadena.

But what did our friend see when he looked away from the camera and faced Orange Grove Avenue? The future of transportation? The ultimate solution to the region's intractable problems with congested streets? Did he, or anyone, ever envision long lines of cars backed up on the Orange Grove off-ramp at the evening rush hour? How about freeway signs, shrouded in an attempt to protect them from graffiti?


Photograph by the Los Angeles Times

The year after that picture was taken, 1940 Rose Queen Sally Stanton, aided by Gov. Culbert L. Olson, cut a ribbon just east of Fair Oaks in South Pasadena, opening six "glass-smooth miles" of the Arroyo Seco Parkway from the Figueroa tunnels to Glenarm Avenue. The era of the Southern California freeway had begun.


Photograph by the Los Angeles Times

Cheryl Walker at the 1938 groundbreaking for the Arroyo Seco Parkway.

But our story doesn't begin with our friend on the bridge, nor with the Dec. 30, 1940, ribbon-cutting. Nor does it open two years earlier, when 1938 Rose Queen Cheryl Walker started a tractor at Sterling Place and Arroyo Boulevard in South Pasadena to move the first mound of dirt for the "speedway between Pasadena and Los Angeles."

As The Times noted in March 1938, the groundbreaking was the culmination of a 20-year effort. Indeed, even a little research reveals plans for a landscaped route along the Arroyo Seco as early as 1907.

With the 70th anniversary of the groundbreaking a few months away, and a large folder of Times archival photos on my desk, I've decided to use the Pasadena Freeway as an instrument to examine the larger question of traffic and transportation in the Los Angeles region. Is traffic a new problem that can be easily fixed with a few more buses or a couple of toll roads? Or, like the line from "Alice in Wonderland," has it taken all the running we can manage to stay in the same place over the last century?

Like most Southern Californians, I have a personal relationship with this subject. The Pasadena Freeway is literally my backyard and my house was moved from Sterling Place to make way for the project. (And yes, although I personally oppose the 710 extension, I'll make every attempt to write about it impartially).

More than that, with the exception of a few years when I lived in the San Fernando Valley, I've used the Pasadena Freeway nearly every day since 1988. As I tell my fellow commuters, driving a freeway is like running a river; you learn where the rapids are and where you are likely to get caught in an eddy. After seeing dozens of three-car pileups in the same sharp curve, I have learned to slow down and say a little prayer for people who speed on by.

Today, despite years of tinkering, the freeway is as outdated as our friend's two-toned shoes and his 1939 Oldsmobile, which had a 230-cubic-inch, six-cylinder engine, a 120-inch wheelbase and weighed a bit more than 3,000 pounds. The builders could have never imagined a dressed-out Hummer H2 with a 133-inch wheelbase and a 393-horsepower V-8 that weighs as much as pair of 1939 Oldsmobiles. And yet the highway continues to serve its intended function: moving cars between Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles.

One might say that the freeway was conceived the first time someone mounted a horse and rode to town. I don't plan to go back quite that far. Nor do I intend this to be a linear history of the Pasadena Freeway. For that, I'll post Patt Morrison's marvelous 1990 nondupe on the freeway's 50th anniversary. Instead, over the next few months I'll be revisiting some of the locations in the old photos to see what lessons we have learned--and perhaps what lessons have eluded us. (Note the absence of a center guardrail in the 1939 photo. A bloody lesson to be sure).




Photograph by Larry Harnisch / Los Angeles Times

And like the Pasadena Freeway, this will be built in chunks and strung together, then modified as I see what works and what doesn't.

Hope you enjoy the ride.

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