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Gridlock City

Lynell George is a Times staff writer.

Lurching out of a Westwood Village parking structure on a recent weekday evening along with, it seemed, the entirety of Los Angeles, I finally experienced what could only be described as an urban motorist’s meltdown.

Until that moment I had thought I was impervious to such things, given my secret stash of alternative routes, my bottomless inventory of navigational Plan Bs. I’m a native; I’ve been negotiating this for years.

This particular evening, I’d just emerged from a tedious late-afternoon meeting on Wilshire Boulevard and was heading to an early business dinner in Santa Monica. Though I was cutting it close, my destination wasn’t more than six miles away. In magic MapQuest time, a mere eight minutes.

But upon exiting the parking structure, I confronted a scene that had the effect of plowing into a brick wall: row upon row of crawling red taillights fanning westward along Wilshire, mounting gridlock aggravated by synchronized-for-another-era traffic lights. I felt a sensation I suspect was much like drowning or suffocating. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. Why not both?

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In my case, there was no ranting or swearing. No flogging of the steering wheel, though plenty of that was going on in the drivers’ seats around me. Instead, I found myself strangely quiet. Removed. Something just took over: As soon as I could snake out of the inching flow, I maneuvered into a paint-faded right-turn pocket, headed way, way north on a hidden bougainvillea-edged residential street abutting the 405 and then west to the city’s edge--the ocean. I turned south on the Pacific Coast Highway to the California Incline and then drove east into the crush of Santa Monica. On paper it was absurd, if not insane: To make a dinner meeting near the Third Street Promenade, I drove more than twice the necessary miles.

But it was easily worth it: I got there in half the time it would have taken if I had toughed it out on Wilshire. The biggest plus: For once I did not arrive in a catatonic or murderous state.

Roundabout is the new shortcut--well, that or scratch another destination off my ever-shortening list.

It doesn’t matter what hour of day, what day of the week, whether school is in session or a big Laker game is on TV. It can be a SigAlert or a mattress on the road or no discernible cause, as is the case more and more. Moving through Los Angeles has become increasingly nasty.

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At some point during the last five years, traffic for Angelenos became like weather in places that have seasons--occasionally pleasant but often so miserable that you wished you lived elsewhere.

Gridlock has become not just the stuff of small talk, but a topic likely to dominate an entire evening’s conversation. Radio updates now tell us not just where the jackknifed big rig has lost its load, but just how long to the minute (or hour) your commute will extend because of it. You can have traffic alerts sent to your cellphone or PDA and preview the traffic flow on your computer screen.

And we’ll need all this assistance because it’s only going to get worse: The Public Policy Institute of California projects that overcrowding will cause travel time in the state to increase by as much as 48% by 2025.

We already spend an immeasurable amount of time stuck on transition roads and interchanges and suspended overpasses, caught between places we raced from and maddeningly close to places we are desperately trying to reach. Driving in L.A. is more than a chore; it’s torture. Disoriented and hemmed in, we barely have energy for the essentials. “It’s gotten so bad in the last three or four years,” says one Pasadena resident, “that I only go to Hollywood for a night of clubbing twice a year. And when I do, I get a hotel room. It’s an hour and a half to get there and not even 20 miles away.”

The problem isn’t the mileage, the sprawl of this place. It’s the time, the psychological wear and tear. The problem is deeper than road rage and crumbling infrastructure and implausible commutes to the exurbs. The very texture of our lives has been altered.

One of my more geographically compatible friends (I work near where she lives in Angelino Heights) admitted over drinks that she’d recently come to a disconcerting realization: She visits a friend who lives in Seattle more frequently than she visits another who lives in the South Bay. “It’s been three years since I’ve seen her because she’s in Manhattan Beach!” Quite simply, she says, “there’s no easy way to get there.”

A friend who also lives in the Silver Lake area told me that he never goes to the Westside. His definition? “Nothing west of Hancock Park, pretty much. It used to be La Cienega, but that was 10 years and another mall ago.” Whatever he needs, he’ll pick up nearby. “Or I just don’t need it that bad.” It’s not worth it to him to sit in a ball of rage, sweating and swearing in front of his sons.

“I just sent an Evite to 50-something people for a sort of after-work get-together,” says Scott A. Reynolds, a Pasadena-based jury consultant. All but six responded with regrets. The six, of course, work nearby. The rest messaged back, “Can’t get there from here.”

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Some parts of the city already seem inaccessible. I know a script supervisor who has amassed thousands of city miles shuttling from location to location. Even with the odd hours of the typical movie call, she still encounters horrendous traffic just about everywhere, a deciding factor in her travel decisions away from the job. She even changed her psychiatrist and gynecologist because getting from Highland Park to UCLA became unbearable.

“I don’t go farther than Los Feliz unless they make me go there for work,” she says. “They’re not freeways anymore. They’re park-ways. You just sit.” When she’s not screaming “Who are you people?” she finds herself fantasizing: “What we really need is a nice earthquake.”

Still they come. But not with-out double-checking, says a Los Feliz real estate agent. Before they part with the down payment for their million-plus starter home, prospective buyers sometimes have a request: “They want to find out if I’ll make their commute for them--test it to find out just how long it will take. Because if you’re going to spend a million dollars on a house, maybe you want to be able to spend some time there.”

It starts small, but before you know it you are inhabiting a different set of routines. “It’s been so long since I’ve felt like I can really participate in the city,” says Pilar Perez, a friend who lives in Santa Monica.

We’ve not only stopped going to old stomping grounds and seeing people we like or even love, we’ve stopped making room for discovery. And it’s too early yet to know all that we’ve lost. Our patterns have changed, and that cramps not just our style but also our imaginations.

I too have found myself tweaking things. I’ve slowed down on midweek get-togethers west of La Cienega (unless it’s not too far from the off-ramp; then it’s negotiable). There’s a friend who lives in Fullerton that I haven’t seen since the ‘90s. I have other rules: Seldom Hollywood on a Saturday night. Nowhere near the Beverly Center after Thanksgiving or before the first of the year. Stay as far as possible from Highland Avenue during Hollywood Bowl season.

I tend to run errands in clusters and group those with visits to friends who live near my destination points. It’s been a long time since I’ve paid a visit to the Farmers Market, which, given how long it takes to crawl up Fairfax any day of the week, might as well be as far away as Joshua Tree. I can’t tell you the last time I went to the beach just to go to the beach, instead of it being some incidental backdrop on journeys elsewhere. The irony of my recent Westwood experience was that Wilshire to the ocean used to be my favorite surface-street excursion. Sometimes I’d even make it an end-to-end adventure, from the beach all the way to downtown.

Long gone, too, are the days of James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, when Angelenos could zip to Glendale, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Laguna, Lake Arrowhead or San Bernardino to admire wide boulevards, pepper trees, sage and manzanita, then head back to Hollywood for drinks and dinner, maybe even a show. Nowadays, just getting from Santa Monica to Westwood can take upward of 45 minutes. Altadena to downtown with one street closure thrown in--an hour and 15. Try La Canada to Brentwood--if the roll of the dice isn’t right--and two hours isn’t out of the question.

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I used to love to drive.

All over. At all times of day or night, but particularly at night from sunset to dusk, then into twilight, just to see the terrain change with the light, landmarks become shapes, jutting silhouettes. I liked how one neighborhood simply unfolded into--or barged into--the next.

A ride east along Wilshire or Pico, or north along La Brea or Crenshaw, was like making your own movie, a chance to see the interconnectedness of the city. There was the mineral smell of San Pedro, the salt on skin after spending a day poking around the ruins of Pacific Ocean Park, the Jordan almond colors of Leimert Park bungalows, the mournful sound of the last freight trains that ran down the center of Exposition Boulevard.

Driving had its rituals and its talismans--the new pack of AAA maps, a roll of copper pennies for the meters. I still have a vivid vision of my grandmother’s friend Nancy stowing her big pocketbook on the floor of her Oldsmobile before opening up her glove box. Inside there weren’t maps, a smashed box of Wash’n Dris or broken sunglasses, but gloves, driving gloves. She put them on with a snap, ready to slip deep into the arteries of the city. I think I wanted a pair of driving gloves even more than a car. They signaled a different sort of license, a freedom to wander.

As a native I feel spoiled. I grew up when sweeping back and forth across the grid was just part of city life. Taking a ride with no real plan or destination was a perk of a region offering so many contexts different from your own. I love L.A.'s expansiveness. You can get lost in it, with your very understanding and expectations of the place turned upside down.

What will it mean to be an Angeleno without negotiating those expanses? What will L.A. become if we can’t move through those layers that make it an “epic” city, as urban historian Norman Klein calls it?

Just the other day, someone told me they’d heard something on talk radio that summed it all up for him: When the host punched in the next caller with his rote but sunny “Hi there! So where’re you calling from?” the woman on the other end of the line said after the briefest of pauses, “Oh, I live on the 405.”

When I was growing up here in the ‘70s, this was the future that local TV news-anchor-turned-politico Baxter Ward often railed about, pressing for a transit system with the fervor of a televangelist. Instead, Angelenos married their cars; the rail-wary predicted empty “ghost trains.” Most of us thought it couldn’t come to this.

Mark Tarczynski, first vice president at commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis, says that about 687,000 additional cars hit the road each year in Los Angeles County. A native of Chicago, Tarczynski specializes in land and building sales in downtown L.A., where he’s lived for 18 years. When he settled there, downtown was mostly a ghost town after dark. But now he’s got the edge: “It takes me five minutes to walk to work. I feel sorry for those people who drive to work. Gritting their teeth. Dealing with 24/7 gridlock.”

“Caltrans has said they are done building freeways,” Tarczynski adds. “You have static supply and rising demand ... and it’s going to get worse and worse.”

It’s true: We’re stuck. And, like Tarczynski, more and more of us are opting to stay within the borders of our neighborhoods for catching a movie or eating a great steak, browsing in a bookstore, shopping for organic vegetables. Trek across town for a concert or to go to a museum? Who needs the hassle? Who has the time?

There is nothing like watching a neighborhood long thought down for the count begin to thrive. And that, it appears, will be the region’s next wave. If there is an upside to gridlock, it’s that L.A. might become less car-centered and more community-based.

But what essences are we losing?

In recent months, I’ve helped too many old friends carefully wrap and box their seashells and their china before packing them into moving crates. I’ve strategized with others, maps spread out on tables, trying to figure out what they need in a livable city and where it might be found. These are L.A. natives and self-described “lifers” who can’t quite comprehend living somewhere else but also know that the life they had here is gone, and that it can’t be replicated anywhere else.

Their moves are motivated by many factors: Some mention how expensive it is, others how they can’t find the right job. But all say they feel hemmed in. That old L.A. wandering spirit is beyond endangered. It’s already a relic.

Still, for me, it’s difficult to contemplate an L.A. where you can’t be a nomad, where you can’t get lost at home. So I’m stubborn. I still get in the car with a pile of music, a Plan B and set the intention: “I can get there in 20 minutes.” And miraculously, sometimes for no discernible reason, I do.

Sailing west on the 10 some days just before nightfall, a touch of the sea in the air, I’m hit by an intoxicating sense of nostalgia. But for the most part, I worry. Because you can’t paste a feeling in a scrapbook or take its picture. I’m not sure what will happen to that L.A. sense of latitude with so many of us searching desperately for the nearest offramp.


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