Rush hour on Western Avenue just south of Sunset Boulevard in 1906. The same year, two miles east on Sunset, construction began on our house. (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library)
Armchair LA historians like my native self will always helplessly suffer from the malleable clay that underlies our city’s shifting landscape. That’s what happens when you live in so sprawled a city of reinvention and make believe built upon such a seismically active place that’s populated predominately by imports and led by a succession of movers and shakers with less regard for Los Angeles’ past than in recreating its future in their own image.
From that you get a vast freeway system that lifts us above street level (or digs us in below it) but does more to deny us our visceral and spiritual connections to the city than to elevate them. Built then with what one can only (and naively) hope were good intentions, the gridlock of torturous commutes today ultimately brings shame upon those with such a short-sighted and ultimately obsolete idea of destroying neighborhoods and embedded mass transit systems for the romanced ultra-modern notion of commuters individually wisking themselves freely and speedily to their crosstown destinations.
Can you blame them? Idealistically, sure: they suck, bigtime! But in fairness, put me in that situation and I doubt if it were up to me I would’ve had a better idea. Could you imagine in the 1940s suggesting we upgrade an aging rail system and expand other forms of mass transportation when the population was booming and increasingly spread out — not to mention that there was the virtual promise of a car in every garage?
The automobile defined the future then in much the same way the personal computer did today’s future. So to me, the freeway was as inevitable as the information superhighway. Would you have said no to the internet in favor of growing the US Postal Service? Good luck with that!
Having lost so many personal landmarks throughout my life here I’ve long viewed my birth city as built up on a continuing series of striations. We raised a school complex on top of the historic Ambassador Hotel. We covered the length of our river with concrete. We actually considered not restoring the Central Library after arson fires in the 1980s. To torture another analogy along those lines, Los Angeles is very much like a many-layered painting created by a community. Just as Picasso or Pollack might be tempted to “improve” upon a Van Gogh if given the opportunity, so have our leaders always been tempted to do the same for us and our city. The current result is something less than a work of art.
We live in a city where the destination is always more important than the journey. Where the there is more relevant than the getting to it. As such, we are an ignorant citizenry. We call Silver Lake and Echo Park the “Eastside” because so many of those living nearer to the sea than civic center see it as east of Western Avenue, not knowing or caring that thoroughfare marked the westernmost expansion at one point.
I can remember in 2003 when I finally got the opportunity to move out of the San Fernando Valley and into Silver Lake. I told friends of mine that I was thrilled to be back on the Westside after almost 20 years away, and their eyes went wide with indignation.
“Silver Lake is not the Westside!” they exclaimed. And philosophically that is very and thankfully true.
But historically, it is to me. And always will be.