Navigating LA

By Levi Clancy for לוי on
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If an Angeleno from any of valleys spoke to a foreigner, they may say I'm from Los Angeles for the sake of simplicity.

But in LA itself, one would always specify what specific town they are from. These regions each have their own cultures and histories. Indeed, folks from Santa Clarita or Antelope Valleys refer to LA proper as LA, like it is far away, a place for daycations, events, hearings visiting your adult children. The exception is the people who live outside of LA proper because you get a lot more house for your money or the school district is great but work or go to school in the city. The freeway traffic jams every morning and evening; the friend who takes a Metrolink train daily to a good private school; a co-worker at LA City Hall who lives in Santa Clarita (You live all the way over where?).

With the emergence of cars, came the cultivation of automobile touring in Southern California. Printed guides opened up the state to wheeled exploration -- but what exploring could be done on a dizzying, inefficient patchwork of dirt roads?

The rapid improvement and expansion of California’s road system positioned California at the forefront of the automobile revolution. More cars across a vaster area could explore an accurate, usable system of modern roads. This example was a national model for the potential of car-oriented potential. It also had other positive impacts that aided other industries: for example, agricultural distribution systems had to realign now that items could traffic much faster (in cars and on paved roads) from the farm to the grocer.

While California as a whole swung itself open to the automobile, Los Angeles led the urban model. It became a leader in car-adapted urban infrastructure and design, as in the 1920s construction began on a city-wide vast grid of large boulevards to allow automobile throughput. This was a dramatic departure from the predominant model of designing for trolleys. The city was at the edge of a new frontier that would be reflected in all subsequent urbanization of rural/agrarian land. Incidentally, commercialization -- from eye-catching, kitschy architecture to electrified, blazing signage -- also erupted across Los Angeles and eventually the entire nation, to capture the attention (and time and money) of passing motorists. Law enforcement, driver licensing and vehicle registration were also trailblazed by California.

Far outside the city, another type of ground was being broken -- or, in this case, not broken. California’s mineral and salt flats were flat, smooth, vacant, expansive and perfect for racing (and of course the dry, mild weather was integral, too).

These flats became an incubator for enthusiasts to gather and challenge each other to ever new heights. The United States emerged as a contending leader in the global race for speed. As racing tracks began to be built, California of course had its fair share: of 24 tracks in the United States in 1910, seven were in California.

California fueled the automotive burst that changed the nation -- not just socially, but literally. Los Angeles was a significant oil-producing region. Also, the design and implementation of gas stations was pioneered at this intensely motorized hub.

In the 1930s, the idea gained traction to implement intersection-less parkways with no stop lights and no stop signs. These parkways could even be works of art, as was the Arroyo Seco Parkway that bridged Los Angeles and Pasadena in a glorious way (a significant improvement over the descent into ((and subsequent ascent from)) the Arroyo Seco canyon, and the shoddy, low bridge that might have been at the whim of flood levels). An entire new realm of possibilities shined out from California to the entire country. A system of beautiful parkways with scenic vistas and gorgeous Art Deco tunnels became a new dimension of automotive transport.

Post-WWII population explosion in Southern California prompted the rapid subdivision of Los Angeles’ valleys into suburban tracts. Homogenous “California Ranch” homes with large garages and wide roads became the standard of suburban development henceforth. This was car culture at its most entrenched: it shaped how life was structured; it modified how homes were envisioned, as cars needed their own home too (a private garage); and it was a mutually reinforcing cycle of highway-accessible residential suburbs and ever-farther housing developments.

As the subsequent decades unfolded, Los Angeles has emerged as a driving force in automotive development. From research centers like CalTech (and elsewhere in the state, Stanford); to design forces such as the Art Center, the first industrial/mechanical design university; to taste-changing cultural waves such as car placement in famous television shows and movies -- California as a whole drives the automobile, as the automobile drives the state.