I grew up with the Southern California freeways. Coming back from a long trip and leaving the placeless airport, the freeways were always the first part of home I encountered. They are dirty and congested, but I always picture them white and lined with palm trees.
Los Angeles was formed around its roads and cars, both physically and culturally. The city grew up at the center of dirt trails, often made by the Spanish or Native Americans, that were covered by railroads and then freeways. The cultural influence of the automobile on the city includes the Los Angeles-based art movement called Finish Fetish. Characterized by vivid colors and highly polished surfaces, Finish Fetish employed the methods and technology of car customization in its art.
Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote an article in 1984, “The Automotive Basilica,” about the freeways. He describes the freeways as Los Angeles’ version of a cathedral. Cathedrals can be considered public art not because they were the work of a single artist, but because they embody the values of an entire culture. Knight writes, “The freeway is a work of public art that has arisen out of a collective faith in the value of freedom to be independent, coupled with the corollary freedom to be alone.”
Cathedrals were once a place of communion for a whole city; freeways are where all of Los Angeles’ residents converge. Car travel is one of the few means of transportation that is usually solitary, and a daily commute might be the longest time of privacy and solitude a person experiences. This is a distinctly American form of solitude.
Freeways are less about being alone, and more about being independent, because they allow for mobility. Residents can cross huge distances every day, going where they want when they want. Even things as mundane as freeways reflect the values of the society that created them. We don’t just want mobility, we worship it.
Featured Image: The Harbor Freeway through Downtown L.A., 1964 in a photograph by “Dick” Whittington. No copyright.