Photos: When Southern California’s Freeways Were New (and Empty)

The Southland’s freeways hardly inspire optimism anymore. Glance at the shoulder of a slow-moving freeway and among the weeds you’ll see shards of plastic and twisted metal — the accumulated detritus of a dozen high-speed crashes. They may (occasionally) be convenient, but whether it’s their shabby appearance, the way they balkanize communities, or simply their soul-crushing traffic, it’s hard to feel good about the freeways.

But there was a time when Southern California’s freeways were new, and feelings were different. Despite local opposition to specific routes, the freeway system as a whole enjoyed widespread political support. L.A.’s infatuation with the automobile hadn’t yet waned, so it was only natural for the city to embrace these new monuments to car culture. They provided an alternative to the ageing electric railways and traffic-choked boulevards. They promised to improve life in the decentralized city. They represented the region’s best hope for the future.

The images above and below — many of them produced for publication in the Los Angeles Times, Examiner, and Herald Express — reflect the unbound optimism of the time. Sure, the concrete is freshly poured, the landscaping is trimmed, and the shoulders are free of debris, but the photographs themselves represent a deliberate celebration of the freeway. Their composition emphasises open pavement and gently curving lines, implying speedy and graceful travel. And in many of the images, the freeway lanes fill the frame at the expense of the surrounding landscape — a subtle but reassuring message that these superhighways have conquered the long distances of the famously sprawling region.

The concrete practically glistens in this 1958 photograph of the San Diego Freeway (then CA-7, now I-405), looking south at its junction with the Ventura Freeway. It’s also from the USC Libraries’ Examiner Collection:

Here’s a newly opened section of the Hollywood Freeway (US-101) in 1958, courtesy of the USC Libraries’ Los Angeles Examiner Collection:

From the Metro Transportation Library and Archive comes this 1954 photo of the Hollywood Freeway (US-101) at Vermont:

Here’s the Arroyo Seco Parkway (CA-110) in 1940, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald-Examiner Collection:

Here’s an early view of the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) at 1st Street in Santa Ana, courtesy of the Orange County Archives:

And here’s a view of the same freeway further south at El Toro in 1964, also courtesy of the Orange County Archives. That commodious median has since been converted into several additional traffic lanes:

Here’s another early view of the Santa Ana Freeway at El Toro Road, also courtesy of the Orange County Archives:

In 1951 dignitaries including California’s lieutenant governor celebrated the opening of the Hollywood Freeway from Silver Lake to Western (courtesy of the USC Libraries’ Examiner collection):

A view of a newly opened stretch of the San Diego Freeway through the San Fernando Valley in 1958, courtesy of the USC Libraries’ Examiner collection:

A view of US-101’s “Downtown Slot” segment shortly after its 1951 opening, also courtesy of the Examiner collection:

Here’s another shot from the Examiner Collection, showing the opening of the San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) in 1956:

Here, courtesy of the Inglewood Public Library, the mayor of Inglewood proudly stands in front of the newly completed San Diego Freeway (I-405) in 1963:

Here’s the 1966 opening of the final stretch of the Santa Monica Freeway, courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives:

Top image: an early view of the the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) at Bristol in Santa Ana, courtesy of the Orange County Archives.