Bumper to bumper traffic on the westbound Santa Monica Freeway in 1970, four years after its opening. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
FROM THIS EPISODE
Studies have shown that living near freeways can lead to all sorts of negative health outcomes, from asthma and heart attacks to pre-term births and even autism. There’s actually a phrase used to describe freeway-adjacent housing: black lung lofts.
A view of the 405 freeway from a University Village apartment. Photo by Avishay Artsy.
DnA producer Avishay Artsy lives just a couple hundred feet from a freeway, at University Village. It’s a UCLA housing complex that runs along Sawtelle and Sepulveda Boulevards on either side of the 405 freeway. University Village was built in the late 90s. But the city of Los Angeles continues to approve developers’ requests to build apartments and condos near freeways. This is because it is so hard to build housing anywhere else.
Several University Village residents are now part of an air quality study that began in December. The students have monitors in their apartments as well as on the roofs of their buildings, and they can go online and track pollution levels in real time.
Avishay spoke to Dr. Yifang Zhu at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, who is leading the air quality study at University Village. He also spoke to his neighbors, who say they chose to live here because it’s the only affordable option near UCLA, and they’re counting the days until they can move away from the freeway. They say that tracking pollution levels has already changed their behavior.
Jill Jami, textile designer
Shekib Jami, UCLA biomedical researcher
Juliana Espinal, doctoral student in Hispanic literature
Theresa Cheng, emergency medicine resident at UCLA
Yifang Zhu, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health
Amanda Wagner, doctoral student in environmental science and engineering at UCLA
LA keeps building near freeways, even though living there makes people sick
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California officials say housing next to freeways is a health risk — but they fund it anyway
Freeways were originally conceived as part of a vision for a better tomorrow.
The Futurama exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair “opened people's eyes in an unprecedented way to the possibilities of what was believed to be the future at the time,” said Alexandra Szerlip, author of a biography of Futurama’s designer, Norman Bel Geddes.
“Traffic was a huge problem,” Szerlip said. “I think more people died on the roads in America from vehicular accidents than had than American soldiers had died during World War One.”
Los Angeles went crazy for freeways. They enabled people to drive until they reached land where they could buy an affordable house and a large yard and they were embraced for several decades.
Some people even found them beautiful, like the British architecture critic Reyner Banham, who wrote about the “autopia” of Los Angeles.
Banham’s book “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” came out in 1971. A decade later a young man named David Brodsly published a book called “LA Freeway: An Appreciative Essay.” He wrote that the "L.A. freeway is the cathedral of its time and place" and driving along it offers an almost spiritual experience.
But by the time “LA Freeway” was published in 1981, many Angelenos were losing patience with the system.
Pollution and congestion were rising and in 1985 construction began on the region’s first subway.
In 1994 photographer Catherine Opie exhibited a series of freeway photos, taken in early morning weekend hours.
“And for me it's literally an iconic landscape, as much as Egypt is in relationship to the pyramids,” Opie said.
But other artists made work to register their protest.
UCLA urban historian Eric Avila teaches Chicana and Chicano studies and wrote the book “The Folklore of the Freeway.” He took us to Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, which was divided by the 5 freeway.
David Botello, “Wedding Photos - Hollenbeck Park,” 1990.
Avila described the painting “Wedding Photos-Hollenbeck Park” by David Botello, made in 1990 (see image above). It depicts a photographer setting up a wedding party in front of a willow tree in Hollenbeck Park. “But the photographer’s using that willow tree to block the image of the freeway. Because a wedding party does not want a freeway in its official wedding portrait. But the painter is making the freeway apparent, and its unsightliness in Hollenbeck Park, even though the photographer is not,” Avila said.
As early as 1957, residents of Boyle Heights spoke out against the construction of the freeways, which now cover 10 percent of the neighborhood.
“It was targeted for its racial and ethnic diversity. It was described by the federal government as hopelessly heterogeneous, and in this report by the Homeowners Loan Corporation, it said this would be an ideal location for a slum clearance project, and that slum clearance project was highway construction,” Avila said.
Eric Avila has spent many years studying how communities deprived of political and economic resources and opportunities turn to culture -- visual art, performance, music -- to express resistance. And he says that’s why freeways started cropping up in Chicano art.
“The inclusion of the freeway in Chicano art is a reflection of daily life. But it's also an effort to domesticate or to make oneself at home in this inhuman landscape, this toxic landscape of freeways, to imbue the freeways with color, the kind of color that that reflects traditional patterns of Mexican culture, which is a sharp contrast to the colorlessness of the concrete that the freeways are built of,” he said.
With all the complaints about traffic jams and the push for multimodal transit alternatives, you might think we’ve gotten past the era of building new freeways in Southern California.
But there’s a new freeway coming to the region. At least that’s the idea.
An eight-lane stretch of asphalt has been proposed to connect the rural desert cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, in far northern LA County, with those of Victorville and Apple Valley, in the San Bernardino County.
This is a 63-mile long freeway would run east to west in the High Desert. It would run parallel to -- and maybe even replace -- the 138 freeway.
The 138’s official name is Pearblossom Highway, but it has a gruesome nickname: Blood Alley. The twisting two-lane highway has narrow shoulders and no divider between opposing lanes of traffic. It is one of the country’s deadliest roads.
Metro characterizes the High Desert corridor project as “multimodal” because it would incorporate a train to Las Vegas and a bike lane.
The environmental group Climate Resolve is suing, and the project has a hefty $8 billion price tag attached.
Reporter Jennifer Swann went to the site of the proposed freeway to see what people there think of it.
Deb Hill and Moldy Marvin at Littlerock Grill. Photo by Jennifer Swann.
Is the High Desert Corridor the last gasp for freeways? Or will they always be part of our lives?
Seleta Reynolds heads LA’s Department of Transportation and says that as transportation changes -- with the advent of electric vehicles, driverless cars, and drone delivery -- we should change how we think about freeways and their costs.
“If we don't figure out a way to optimize what we have, which is a huge massive capital maintenance burden, then I'm not sure I'd buy that freeways will be here in a hundred years, because we won't have the dollars to continue to invest in them and maintain them,” Reynolds said.
She points to some projects that are re-envisioning the freeway structures, such as the Hollywood Park project to create a park and deck the freeway at the 101 in Hollywood. Another project would rework the stub of the 2 freeway in the Silver Lake and Echo Park area. Landscape architect Chris Reed worked with his students at Harvard on a concept to turn the spur of this unfinished freeway into an elevated park filled with plants, paths for cyclists and pedestrians, and a rainwater capture system.
Stoss Landscape Urbanism's proposal for the 2 Freeway spur includes
paths for pedestrians and bicyclists and a rain capture system.
(Chris Reed / Stoss Landscape Urbanism)
He says that in addition to separating communities and spewing pollutants, freeways also exacerbate storm water runoff.
“It was an exciting speculation to say, look, let's just take a piece of infrastructure and turn it on its head and allow it to become this vibrant space for ecology, for culture, for people in ways that just aren't possible right now,” Reed said.
But could interventions like this steer us away from freeways in the future?
“It's hard to imagine L.A. without the automobile and without the freeways because L.A. is a 20th century city and the automobile is a 20th century invention,” said Eric Avila, author of “The Folklore of the Freeway.”
“In so many ways the identity, the politics, the economics, the landscape, the environment of L.A. is based upon the automobile.”
Bridges and Walls is supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency. And special thanks to NPR’s Story Lab.
Follow this series at KCRW.com/BridgesandWalls
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