From the air the route of the proposed Century Freeway looks straight and logical. However, on the ground it seems to meander arbitrarily, dividing neighbors and neighborhoods. Driving along its path, it's hard to know exactly when you're crossing it; in some areas houses appear occupied and the activity associated with Southern California suburbia is intact. Yet, nearby tree-lined streets are evacuated, with driveways leading nowhere. Remains of boarded-up houses, with sections missing or gutted, await demolition or removal. It's hard to imagine that people once had called these not-so-ancient ruins home, so eerie is the effect and so powerful the forces impinging on this scene of devastation. Is all this inevitable?
The Pacific Electric Car system, spanning much of Los Angeles by the early 1900s, gave the City of Angels one of the most extensive public transit systems in this country. Begun by Henry Huntington as a way of making land more accessible to developers, the P.E. was a network of over 1100 miles of electrified lines crisscrossing the L.A. Basin.
Unlike eastern cities, which developed transit schemes through pre-existing urban centers, Huntington's system created the basic layout of Southern California. Land development and urbanization followed the tracks. But the Big Red Cars, as the street cars were affectionately called, were never envisioned as a conduit for mass transit. Problems arose as communities the line serviced grew too rapidly and became too dispersed. The system became unprofitable to run. In addition, climate, topography, discovery of oil, and political influence favored the development of the automobile and the bus as primary means of transport.
The initial impetus for the rail lines ended up contributing to their demise. As cities grew more congested, increased auto traffic made it more difficult for the large trolleys to maneuver. Travel time and accidents increased and, by the early 1950s, support for needed improvements had rapidly declined. Driving a car was, at the time, simply more economical, very convenient, and reflected an American dream of independence and mobility.
As reliance on the personal car grew, the demand for better roads increased. As early as 1937 the Automobile Club suggested a system of freeways running above or below the city streets, thereby eliminating cross-traffic problems. Early planners envisioned every resident living not more than one-quarter mile from a freeway on-ramp. The Century Freeway was to be part of this vision, this network of super-roads.
The master plan showed the Century Freeway running 17 miles east-west, from Norwalk and Downey through heavily suburban areas to the vicinity of the Los Angeles International Airport. Studies done as early as 1958 indicated six possible routes. Yet it wasn't until 1965 that Ralph and Esther Keith, two of many home owners caught in the path of the proposed freeway, were informed by Caltrans that they would have to give up their home.
The Keiths decided to sue the State to block construction and their own eviction. Not only were they trying to save their home, but Mr. Keith (a Senior Meteorologist for the Air Pollution Control District) realized that added traffic would only increase air and noise pollution, not reduce it as the State had suggested.
With help from the Center for Law in the Public Interest, the Keiths (and other plaintiffs, including the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and the city of Hawthorne) succeeded in obtaining an injunction prohibiting any further freeway development along the Corridor while the State revised its Environmental Impact Statement. What the State said would take six months to revise turned into seven years. In 1981 the Final Consent Decree was issued and the moratorium on construction was lifted. Home owners not only had bought additional time, they had managed to gain some concessions.
Among the most important stipulations of the Decree was the establishment of the Replenishment Housing Program whose job it was to relocate and rehabilitate or construct at least 3700 housing units for the over 8000 units destroyed. Funds for this would come directly from the State Gas Tax and the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Never before had highway money been used to help displacees of freeway projects!
A shortage of funds has reduced the planned freeway from eight lanes to six and, ironically, Mrs. Keith's home no longer lays in its path (Mr. Keith died in August, 1982). However, Caltrans wants to build a frontage road to ease traffic flow during construction and Mrs. Keith's home is in the right-of-way, so she must sell her home to the State within two months. Even though her home is now paid for, after the sale to Caltrans she will have to pay $650 per month in rent until construction starts if she wants to remain living in her home until the bulldozers level it in late 1984.
Victwa Shakespeare is a Re-renter, one who rents a Caltrans owned house within the Corridor. She and her four teenage children have resided there since 1973, and for seven years the neighborhood had remained a nice place to live. In 1980, however, Caltrans decided not to re-rent houses as they became vacant, anticipating forthcoming construction. Instead, the houses were boarded up and abandoned. Local gang members soon claimed them as part of their "domain."
The street has now become a center for gang violence. The windows of Mrs. Shakespeare's home are nailed shut against intruders who have repeatedly robbed and harassed her family. Her children won't even venture into their own backyard after dark. Of the forty-two houses on her block, thirty are boarded up. Her few neighbors are moving out within the next few months.
While Mrs. Shakespeare is trying to relocate, she wants to stay within the confines of the Corridor in order to remain eligible to receive new housing later (as stipulated under the Decree). Therefore, she must rely on Caltrans officials to find a suitable location for her. She has been waiting for three years.
Early residents of Southern California, while encouraging growth, wanted to maintain their ideal of the small Midwestern town. They disliked eastern city patterns and so envisioned a new concept for Los Angeles: not a dense city center fed by surrounding urban areas, but a series of small adjacent towns where people could live and work in close proximity. Southern California, for many newcomers, became "a dream come true." But all too soon, this dream of living and working in the same small community gave way to the tedious commute - not only to and from downtown, but incorporating a multitude of alternate paths created by the commuter's own particular needs.
It seems we are now coming to an end to this system of "connect and grow," not due to any philosophical or ecological enlightenment, but rather because the prevailing system of freeway networks has become too expensive to construct and maintain.
The Century Freeway is becoming an example for future highway projects. Caltrans, which, in the past, preferred routes through low and middle income residential areas (rights-of-way were much cheaper to buy), is now finding its purchasing costs soaring. As now estimated, the Century Freeway will cost $2-3 billion for 17 miles of road! Also, both State and Federal governments are balking at having to spend highway funds for housing for the displaced residents. The master freeway plan or "grid" as yet is only fifty percent complete; however, due to the massive costs involved, the Century Freeway will probably be one of the last to be built in the State.
First the Pacific Electric Car and now the freeway system - built initially to connect the far-reaching extremes of the suburban explosion, this system now threatens the very residents it was built to serve. These photographs are of lost neighborhoods, suggesting something of the lives of the people who once lived in them. The images suggest the decay of community in L.A., hinting that State and Federal agencies, in their blind exercise of power, must share responsibility for the demise of the traditional community, the abrogation of individual rights, and the dimming of the American Dream.

Jeff Gates