The distance from the Eastside of Los Angeles to the west has always been the same, but until the end of World War II, it was a leisurely excursion, a daylong, horse-drawn journey there and back, a Red Car ride to the beach, a slow drive along surface streets.
The war, as it changed so much, changed all that, too. The wartime machinery created the peacetime demand for freeways.
By war’s end, 280,000 people a year were beginning to flock to what was rumored to be the land of milk and honey. Many had been here before, such as servicemen en route home from the war.
There was almost nowhere for them to live. In 1947, 1,500 of them camped out in MacArthur Park to protest. One veteran carried a sign reading, “Foxholes in 1945--Rat Holes in 1947.”
Builders soon began answering the demand with thousands of homes, settling the city more densely and widely than it had ever been.
Transportation had to match the population and real estate boom, and in the same year as the MacArthur Park protest, the state Division of Highways began buying up property along the route that was to become the Santa Monica Freeway.
It would take nearly a decade and $98.5 million to purchase 4,129 parcels of land from churches, banks, markets, homeowners and even a railroad. Almost 15,000 people were displaced by the freeway--more than 10 times as many as were bought out when Chavez Ravine was cleared to build Dodger Stadium.
One hundred property owners sued the state; only two ended up in court. Most residents along the freeway’s path--and most civic leaders--were elated that the hoped-for Santa Monica Freeway was finally going to be built.
Still, one apartment building owner played a game of dodge ball for years. His two-story building, purchased along with the land by the state, was sold back to the owner at a state auction. The owner moved the apartment house farther west.
Two years later, the state wanted that land, too, and agreed to move the apartment house again, still farther west. Even that “final resting place” was eventually nicked in one corner by the freeway’s ultimate right of way.
In 1957, with legal obstacles cleared, construction crews began to build Los Angeles’ first east-west freeway, starting with the bridge that spans the Los Angeles River.
From the Santa Ana Freeway Downtown to the ocean, the 17-mile freeway would eventually cost more than $210 million, or $12 million a mile, compared to $5 million a mile for the older Hollywood and Harbor freeways.
On Jan. 29, 1965, thousands of Angelenos--mostly Westsiders waiting for the linkup--stood watching as the 4.6-mile section of the Santa Monica Freeway from Vermont Avenue to La Cienega Boulevard was dedicated.
(In fact, a completed freeway was several months away, when the final sections, at the San Diego Freeway and the McClure Tunnel onto Pacific Coast Highway, were opened.)
The dedication was zestful, even though the freeway was not finished. Instead of the usual ribbon-cutting, a tire dangling at the end of a 150-foot-long rope secured to the hovering Goodyear blimp tore through the ribbon just west of La Cienega Boulevard as a Dixieland band played.
A few days short of 29 years later, a section of the freeway just east of the ribbon-cutting site was destroyed by the Northridge earthquake.
Even before the quake, the freeway had not had an easy go of it, and neither had its commuters. With 270,000 cars a day, it became the nation’s busiest--and the site of controversy, innovation and bad jokes.
Among them was the diamond lane brouhaha of 1976. As an effort to relieve congestion and encourage car-pooling, a single lane--painted with diamond shapes--was reserved for car-pools but was generally ignored.
During the oil crisis, one of the first (and by definition terrible) electronic puns appeared along the freeway: lighted message signs warning motorists “Don’t Be Fuelish!” (Such signs, without the effort at humor, are now common on freeways.)
And there was the failed try at adding a name to the 17-mile Santa Monica Freeway.
Caltrans Director Adriana Gianturco wanted the Santa Monica to become the first link in the “Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway,” another nickname for the coast-to-coast highway that drivers in four time zones know as “the 10.”
The name never caught on beyond the California border because Arizona refused to join the salute. In fact, the name never got beyond a lone $1,300 sign near Santa Monica’s 11th Street bridge. (This was the second time Gianturco’s reputation had been injured in a freeway mishap; the diamond lane also was her idea.)
And the freeway has been immortalized in more low-key mode, a country-Western song that goes: “Santa Monica Freeway . . . sort of makes a country girl blue-oo-oo-oo.”
Since Jan. 17, when “the Medium One” broke the 10, that girl would have been downright sad.