Since the time of Hitler, the legacy of our freeways has been one of brutality and death
By Lionel Rolfe 08/31/2006
I don’t know why it took me some six decades of living in Los Angeles to realize the fatal and most intrinsic flaw of the place. What was the thing that most marked Los Angeles as being hopelessly beyond redemption? Was it just Hollywood, where they manufacture splendid mediocrity? No, there is something beyond Hollywood that symbolizes the corruption and seediness of the place: freeways.
Freeways are something beyond mere ways to drive from one place to another quickly. In fact, the freeways often don’t take you from one place to another quickly at all. Before there were freeways, you could actually get from one place to another more quickly by riding the fast red trolley cars on tracks that the freeways replaced. The trolley cars could get you from Pasadena to Redondo Beach, for example, in much less time than it takes today by the freeways.
Freeways were born out of the mind of Adolf Hitler, who created the Autobahn system in the early 1930s as a way to move military equipment around and to provide employment.
The Pasadena Freeway, originally known as the Arroyo Seco Parkway, was completed in 1940 — the first freeway in the West.
From the very beginning, freeways were great kluges. They were created by the purveyors of the automobile age because they were selling a way of life based on the burning of oil and gasoline, entrapping the city in a new way of living that was manifestly worse than the one it was replacing in almost every way.
Sometimes, when I’m merrily driving along a freeway, zipping from behind one giant truck alongside another I realize what great insanity freeways are. And what a low regard they have for human life — either living it or keeping it.
One’s life depends on the vagaries of iron chariots, driven on concrete and asphalt by people so crazy it boggles the mind when you realize what’s happening.
It’s amazing there are as few deaths on the freeways as there are, and believe me there are plenty. I have a job where I report on them every day, though oftentimes there are so many I can’t keep up with all of them.
The freeways of modern California are very much like the Coliseum of ancient Rome, where slaves were made to joust with gladiators, lions and other beasts, and where Romans went to be entertained. We’re not entertained by freeways in quite the way Romans were by their lions and Christians, but they are the focus of our existence. We live in fear of them, we curse them, they drain us emotionally and physically and destroy our health in many different ways. Not only is there the real fear that you will be crushed when some 10-ton monstrosity changes a lane without its driver checking the mirror, there’s the ghastly air we breathe because of the freeways.
People are under the illusion that Los Angeles is defined by Hollywood. But I think the truth is that the freeways are really what is most Hollywood about Los Angeles. They are the roads that go to nowhere.
Freeways are a dangerous, inefficient and stupid way to move goods and people about. They destroy everything within sight of them, and a freeway can be seen from almost everywhere in the Los Angeles Basin. Los Angeles is blighted by its freeways.
They are poorly maintained, maybe because it’s more than what could ever be properly maintained. We are at the mercy of every psychotic human urge there is, for those urges particularly come out when people get behind the wheel. It probably is only logical that freeways would become shooting galleries where people who want to terrorize the denizens go to hunt down their prey. They are truly the roads of death. They are our battlefields.
Everything else has been created by them, Hollywood most of all.
I finally realized what freeways are all about: They’re great viaducts of steel and pulverized rock on which we drive our chariots of metal from one end of Los Angeles to another. They are Roman-style monstrosities memorializing brutality, violence, screeching metal, death and, most of all, incredible inefficiency and the need for a totally militaristic infrastructure all over the world.
They are monstrous and require a system of imperialism to keep them going. They are totally the opposite of civilized. Cars don’t glide along ribbons of steel the way trains do, gently rocking from side to side, their horns mournfully piercing the night and our dreams. The nation’s history that was shaped by trains is much more elegant and advanced than that produced by automobiles, buses, trucks and airplanes.
Cars spew their sooty crap into the air, and the attendant freeways carve out huge swaths through neighborhoods where people could be living. They desecrate everything within miles on either side. Their tendency is to push everything else in the world out. Gardens, trails, trees, parks, promenades and places where people walk are gone — all replaced by an ugly, rancid automobile landscape that is barbaric to the depths of its iron soul.