Los Angeles Hearts Freeways

stack.jpgAs part of my ongoing series on Transportation in Los Angeles (which started when I debunked the #1 myth: that the auto industry killed the Red Car), I would like to remark on another facet of Los Angeles’ transportation history: the cloverleaf inspired interchange called The Stack in downtown. The Stack was such an icon of downtown Los Angeles’ progress that it was depicted on postcards. And Charles Phoenix found a gorgeous slide of it to feature on his site some time ago.

But how did freeways become such a symbol of Los Angeles in the 1950s? There actually was a state-level circumstance behind the funding for the Stack: a 1947 state bill called the Collier-Burns act:

From the Caltrans history page:

    Collier-Burns Act: In 1944, the California Highway Commission recommended a major post-war construction program. Senator Randolph Collier, known as “the Father of the Freeways,” successfully directed this bill, which consolidated county road administration, required that the state maintain highways in cities, increased gasoline and diesel fuel taxes from 3 to 4.5 cents per gallon, increased automobile registration fees and weight taxes on trucks, created funds for all highways and excess motor taxes, revised apportionment of revenues from fuel taxes, and divided state highway construction funds between southern and northern California, with 55% and 45% to respectively.

Eric Avila, in my much-used copy of Popular Culture and the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, quotes Collier as saying, “…Los Angeles county…they haven’t been getting much back, so they are entitled to a great deal of consideration.” And the Collier-Burns act is actually self perpetuating, in which “automobile usage financed freeway construction and freeway construction encouraged the use of automobiles.” This wasn’t just a bill to fund freeways, but a very extensive bill, allowing for a massive expansion of the freeway system – with more of those expansion dollars designated for Los Angeles than for anywhere else in California.

And so, thanks to a 1947 act by pro-freeway state politicians, we have the Stack, the Symbol of Los Angeles. The interchange wasn’t just depicted in postcards – the Stack was even depicted in miniature in Disneyland. Disney recruited ARCO to financially support the Autopia, as part of the Tomorrowland “preview of the future”. When I get on the Autopia now, I just think that I’ve stood in line to be stuck on the 405 (only with leg cramps). But at the time, it was a glimpse of progress, of Los Angeles’ future. Avila suggests that Disney may have been the first to truly recognize the role of the freeway in Southern California.

Like it or not, the concrete behemoth born out of Europe’s autobahns is one of the most distinguishing symbols of Los Angeles – and has been for over fifty years. And while the Stack wasn’t directly connected enough to the demise of the streetcars for me to have included it in my original post, it is definitely parented by the same love of automobiles that took riders off the Red Cars. And makes me wonder – how psychologically dependent is Los Angeles on freeways? If a symbol of the city in its still-formative years is a four-level interchange, what does that mean for the city’s self image?

2 thoughts on “Los Angeles Hearts Freeways”

  1. I believe its official name is now the Bill Keene Memorial Interchange, but I think the most common name for it is still the Four Level (at least, that’s the one I always hear).

    Nice pic.

  2. Jillian – I’m a certified ‘road geek’, and love to hear discussions about roads and highways. Hope you’ll continue posting more.

    It is indeed called the ‘Bill Keene Interchange’, after the weather/traffic reporter. This was the first four level interchange in the country (refernce: cahighways.org)

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