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How 405 Freeway gridlock became the iconic image of an L.A. Thanksgiving

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Traffic on the 405 Freeway crawls along during the Thanksgiving holidays in 2017.
(KTLA)

If Norman Rockwell were living in Los Angeles in 2019, his artistic contribution to the Thanksgiving canvas might not be Grandma placing a giant turkey on the dining room table to the smiles of her extended family.

Instead, he might rent a helicopter and get to work capturing a river of red-and-white lights as pre-holiday traffic snakes along the 405 Freeway.

For several years now, that image of monster traffic on the 405 — glowing, unmoving, both beautiful and toxic at the same time — has become the dominant image of Thanksgiving in L.A.

Traffic has always been bad before the fall holiday, since the dawn of the freeways. But Thanksgiving gridlock as a meme appears to have started in 2016, when a video of the 405 from KABC-TV (Channel 7) went viral.

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Since then, the world has come to associate the holiday with traffic in the city. Consider these headlines:

  • This Los Angeles Thanksgiving traffic jam is the most epic Mannequin Challenge ever (Mashable)
  • Hellish Los Angeles Thanksgiving Traffic Jam Will Make You Glad You Live Elsewhere (Drive)
  • L.A.'s Thanksgiving traffic nightmare is here (L.A. Times)
  • Epic 405 Traffic Jam Terrorizes Los Angeles Drivers (Wrap)
  • These Completely Insane Photos Of LA Traffic Will Make You Super Excited To Travel For Thanksgiving (BuzzFeed)
  • Rush hour traffic for Thanksgiving in LA looks like a living nightmare (Metro UK)
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Thanksgiving holiday traffic at Los Angeles International Airport in the 1970s.
(Los Angeles Times)

Generations ago, newspapers and public officials crusaded against the increased number of traffic fatalities around the holiday weekend. The Times urged motorists to not drink and drive, to slow down and to make sure their cars were in running order.

“Over the Thanksgiving holiday some dozen human beings in this area will be killed in traffic accidents unless the statistical rate of slaughter is abated. The list, which, on the basis of past records, the County Coroner may regretfully have to tabulate, will include elderly men and women, those in the prime of life,” The Times wrote in a 1946 editorial.

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As Southern California’s suburbs spread and the freeway system was built out, people were driving more during the holiday week. And there was more griping about gridlock.

By the 1950s, turkey and traffic were getting equal billing.

“L.A. Pauses Today for Thanksgiving: Prayers Will Mingle with the Roar of Traffic,” read one headline. The story quoted a traffic judge as saying: “So far we are running neck and neck with 1949 traffic death figures. To stay on the safe side of the traffic toll in this photo finish, we’ll have to put a special effort at Thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving traffic on the Hollywood Freeway in 1960s
Thanksgiving traffic on the 101 Freeway in the 1960s, from Los Angeles Times archives.
(Los Angeles Times)

When the 101 Freeway opened in 1940, it was the focus of Thanksgiving gridlock photos. But by the 1970s, that photogenic interest shifted to the 405 Freeway, at least in the pages of The Times.

In 1969, Times columnist Richard Buffum wrote about an ill-fated attempt to get from Orange County to Hollywood.

“In not-so-quiet desperation, I stewed for nearly 3 hours early Thanksgiving Eve in a massive freeway tieup,” he wrote. “My intention was to travel from Costa Mesa to Hollywood, where I was scheduled to play the fool — a clod-hoppered clown — in the annual Santa Claus Lane Parade of stars. I never made it. Oh I reached Hollywood eventually. But the parade was half over.”

He ended up going to a bar.


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