Hitting the Books: How Los Angeles Became a “Freewaytopia”

Some 515 miles of freeway runs through greater Los Angeles, connecting its 10 million residents from Silmar in the north, all the way to the coast of San Pedro. Since the opening of Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940, they have proven to be vital to the region, but their construction has not gone without significant social costs – neighborhoods have been destroyed, residents displaced, entire communities split by extensive transportation infrastructure. In his latest book, Highway: How highways shaped Los Angeles,, author Paul Haddad takes readers on a whirlwind tour through the history and knowledge of the extensive highway system in Los Angeles. In the section below, we take a look at the 110 Harbor Highway where the first helicopter live traffic updates took place.

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Over the next four years, the Harbor Freeway began to merge. Press releases came out with each new ramp that came online: Olympic. Washington. Slauson. Almost all were accompanied by the theatricality that defined that era. One of the dedications was a handsome model named Ann Bradford, who wore a belt adorned with the words “Miss Freeway Link” – certainly one of the more awkward female honors the Chamber of Commerce dreamed of. Even the old enemy of the highway, Kenneth Hahn, could not resist not attending the opening of 124th Street. At the ribbon-cutting on Sept. 25, 1958, Hahn boasted that the highway — which now stretches ten miles — was already the second busiest in LA after the Hollywood Highway. When completed, he said, it will carry more traffic than “any street, highway or highway in the world.”

The huge popularity of the Harbor Freeway – even in its unfinished form – has nevertheless caused growing pain for drivers. Part of Downtown proved to be a confusing grid of bridges and ramps that required a quick lane change and sudden stops. As anyone connected from the Hollywood Highway to South Harbor can attest, the maneuver requires a needle-like needle thread through three lanes within a quarter of a mile, so you don’t inadvertently leave one of the downtown ramps. The exercise of nervousness is further complicated by the arrival of drivers from the Arroyo Seco crossing the same three lanes from the other direction — from left to right — looking for exactly the exits you are trying to avoid.

Withdrawing any move is nothing but a navigation baptism for novice drivers. Some drivers can’t do that at all. Such was the case with Greg Morton, a thirty-four-year-old manager, a consultant whose torment briefly glorified him. In March 1958, south of the four levels, Morton tried to weave right off the fast lane. Suddenly his car flew into the lane and Morton panicked. He slammed the wheel to the left and found himself exhausted in the center middle, which at the time was simply a raised concrete strip with planters spaced every twenty feet. These seedlings posed a problem for Morton. He didn’t feel he could have a “starting start” to rejoin the whistling car. So, he was waiting for a traffic stop. And waited. And waited. While stranded, he tried to warn eighteen police vehicles passing by for help. Only one stopped. “You have yourself upstairs, don’t you?” the officer scolded. “Just start the engine and drive away.” Which the cop did.

Things got so bad, that Morton finally said the hell out of it. He took a beach towel out of his trunk and started sunbathing there in the middle. Perhaps this strange sight is what finally made the good Samaritan help this apparently delusional person. The stranger was a civilian on a motorcycle who promised to call for help from the phone booth. Of course, the sympathetic policeman arrived within minutes and stopped the traffic long enough for Morton to escape the median. All in all, the Highland Park resident was stranded for an hour and fifteen minutes.

When asked later about it, Morton was shaken, but accepted everything. “I would have given twenty dollars if, as it should have been, there was a phone through which I could call for help,” he said.

Maybe Kenneth Hahn was listening. Four years later, Hahn – the then district superintendent – was the driving force behind setting up home phone booths. Hahn posed for one, making an emergency call. It was on the Harbor Highway.

While call boxes would have to wait a few more years, in 1958, however, the first routine reports of helicopter traffic arrived. Prior to that, conditions on the highway took place by roving cars or sporadic flights. The KABC radio station was the first to come out of the gate Operation Airwatch. Every weekday morning and afternoon, traffic jockey Donn Reed provided the latest information on the spikes from the cockpit of the White Vortex. It was an urgent hit among drivers, and Reed had proof. One morning he asked all the drivers who saw his helicopter to turn on the lights. Six out of ten cars are.

The fact that so many passengers on board could have saved the life of a three-year-old girl passing through traffic on the Harbor Highway. Reed redirected his studio to programming to alert drivers to her presence. As the cars slowed and paused, she swerved off the highway, nothing worse for wear and tear.

Not surprisingly, Harbor Highway recorded most of the traffic updates. By 1958, more than 318,000 vehicles were passing through The Stack daily. That same year, the Dodgers began their inaugural season in Los Angeles after moving from Brooklyn. Home games were played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum while the team waited for their permanent playground at Chavez Ravine. Built for the 1932 Olympics, the Coliseum football field was not intended for baseball, just as its dense neighborhood of Exposition Park was not suitable for battalions of cars that obstructed its streets from spring to fall. The parking lots around the Colosseum could only accommodate 3,400 vehicles, forcing most drivers to pay for parking on people’s lawns or finding parking on the street. One fan from Phoenix who flew in to catch the game then had to walk twenty-four blocks to find a taxi to his hotel — a longer trip than a plane ride.

Traffic congestion around the Colosseum supported on the Harbor Highway mile or more in each direction. The delays led to a stereotype of Dodger fans that persists to this day: “The fans only arrived in the third inning,” noted sports writer Rob Shafer of Pasadena Star-News. For the most part, however, the Angelenos were so in love with their Boys in Blue, that all the inconveniences were met with wit. “The only thing the Dodgers forgot to take with them when they moved to Los Angeles was the New York subway,” one newspaper scoffs. When Liberace had the courage to perform at the adjacent Los Angeles Memorial sports arena during the Dodger game, Rob Shafer swore that traffic on the Harbor Highway created “some sort of human record of collective blood pressure.”

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Naveen Kumar

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