FROM B. Alexandra Szerlip
Freeways used to symbolize freedom. Not anymore. 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.
Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of 20th Century America Do you feel overwhelmed by huge technological change? Well, imagine how folks felt when they saw Futurama, a model of a Utopian future city shown at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The huge model displayed cars racing down seven-lane automated highways between suburban homes and high-rise office towers, floating airports and experimental farms. Shot of Futurama's interior (1939 New York World's Fair) Six hundred visitors at a time flew on a simulated airplane ride across this vision of America circa 1960. General Motors sponsored the immersive exhibit which cost today's equivalent of $90 million and attracted around 27 million people during its two-season run. The designer Norman Bel Geddes created Futurama. Born in 1893, he was a ninth-grade dropout who went on to become a towering innovator of the early 20th century -- shaping products, advertising, stage design, buildings, aircraft, dance clubs and cities. His designs ranged from an Art Deco cocktail set to the bright orange, round-cornered Patriot Radio, a streamlined ocean liner, the Palais Royal nightclub in 1922, and plans for a pilot television studio for NBC in 1954. Photo of B. Alexandra Szerlip by Adam Keker But he never got his due, says writer B. Alexandra Szerlip, and was upstaged in design history by near contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Raymond Loewy. So she decided to correct the record by writing a book about him, called The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America . The book traces the journey of a penniless man who made his way from the Midwest to New York, armed with the gift of drawing and plenty of grit.
Farewell LA freeways, but what takes their place? San Gabriel communities have fought for years over a long-planned 6.3 mile extension to the 710 Freeway, connecting it to the 210. Last week the Metro Board killed it off for good and Mayor Eric Garcetti called it a sign of times, noting that “Los Angeles has moved on from freeways.” LA Metro Rapid Line 760 at Flower Street and Wilshire Boulevard in Downtown Los Angeles. Photo by George Instead, miles of new mass transit is planned for the region, along with improved streets for pedestrians, cyclists and cars, all paid for by Southland voters most recently through Measure M. But it turns out Angelenos are not using the transit they have paid for. Ridership has dropped, especially on LA-area buses. We look at why, how the humble bus could deliver a better experience, and why freeways -- once part of an optimistic vision for the future -- have reached the end of the road.
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