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Happy 75th Birthday, Arroyo Seco Parkway!

The Arroyo Seco Parkway, facing south in the late afternoon.
The Arroyo Seco Parkway, facing south in the late afternoon.
waltarrrrr/Flickr Creative Commons

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75 years ago today, December 30, 1940, the first Freeway in the United States opened to cars, changing the way Los Angeles would get around forever.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, would design one like it today. It’s curvy and it’s swervy. Its entrances and exits are fubsy little five-mile-an-hour kiddie-car ramps.

The median is so narrow you feel you could stick your hand out the car window and high-five the drivers going the other way.

In its day, the Pasadena freeway was hot stuff.  Imagine – finally being able to drive all the way from Pasadena to downtown LA in the time it took to smoke a cigarette.

On New Year’s Eve 1940, the Rose Parade queen and the governor of California tugged at opposite ends of a red silk ribbon, and, voila. The first freeway in the west was open and running.

But not very fast. The speed limit was 45 miles an hour, the lanes were a foot narrower than modern freeway lanes, and the whole concept of a freeway was so unfamiliar that early on, people actually stopped their cars right there on the freeway to pick up passengers and let them out.

Teddy Roosevelt had visited the beautiful, wild Arroyo Seco in 1911 and said it would make “one of the greatest parks in the world.”

Well, it ended up not as a park, but a parkway. You still drive it the way Fred and Ginger danced – gracefully, dipping and gliding and weaving along. The urban critic Reyner Banham got it right on this one when he wrote about freeway driving as a kind of exalted awareness that some of us find almost mystical.

Long before it was a freeway, it was briefly a two-wheeled route, an elevated wooden bikeway maybe a couple of miles long, which opened on New Year’s Day in 1900.

A couple of days before the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened for cars 40 years later, the chief of the Kawies tribe, which had lived in the arroyo for centuries, smoked a goodwill peace pipe with the head of the state’s public works department.

Less than a year after the freeway opened, we were at war. A fake airfield was built alongside the parkway, using logs for airplanes, in hopes that enemy bombers – which in fact never materialized – would bomb that instead of real defense plants.

Seventy-five years on, the original name, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, is back. It evokes another time, and a pioneering roadway that was built for looks, not so much for speed -- a leisurely, scenic journey.

Which is good, because on a roadway built for 27,000 cars a day, not the 122,000 it now carries, sometimes that’s just about the only way you can drive it.