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Slake: Los Angeles—The Last Freeway—A City And Its Stories

The Last Freeway

By Hillel Aron

I have a recurring dream that begins with me driving on the stretch of the 105 Freeway that flows like a giant tributary from LAX toward its convergence with the 110, where commuters offload for the high-rises of downtown Los Angeles. In the dream, I’m driving in the carpool lane on the gentle incline toward the massive interchange and everything is fine. But suddenly the car-pool lane rises as the narrow two-lane ramp veers left at the pinnacle and the rest of the 105 drops away. High up in the air, with the city stretched out before me, I fail to make the turn. My car smashes through the barrier and I hurtle off the side of the interchange into the expanse below.

The object of my nightmare had an official name: the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange. The interchange, with its 130-foot-tall octagonal pillars adorned with art deco–style finishes, stands resolutely against the backdrop of city and mountains—a true monument to L.A.’s passion for movement.

My nightmares weren’t all that original. Even before the first commuter traversed any of the 105’s seventeen miles, the interchange starred in a climactic scene in the film Speed, alongside Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, and a bus that can’t stop. In a heroic twist on my dream, Reeves drives the bus over an unfinished section and lands it safely on the other side. Since this dramatic debut, the Harry Pregerson Interchange has become nearly as iconic as the Hollywood sign.

The Century Freeway, as the 105 is known, opened to great fanfare on the morning of October 15, 1993. Governor Pete Wilson arrived in an open-top, vintage white automobile. The USC Trojan Marching Band played, accompanied, naturally, by the USC Song Girls. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) sponsored a 10K fun run and bicycle race across the freeway for everyone involved in the project.

The festivities followed a difficult twenty-year gestation that managed to absorb many of the social and political conflicts of the time, not to mention $2.2 billion of federal and state funds, a class-action lawsuit, and a federal consent decree. Officially, the freeway was named after Glenn Anderson, the Democratic congressman from San Pedro who fought for the project. But the true architect of the 105 was a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge named Harry Pregerson. He had just turned seventy when the freeway opened, and by then had spent more than two decades supervising the project, sorting though a tangle of competing interests and playing midwife to L.A.’s last freeway.

Although competing theories about urban planning were part of the long battle, it was about more than just the best way to move people through a sprawling megalopolis. The freeway became a focal point for resistance to paternalistic urban renewal, but then, ultimately, an example of socially responsible civil engineering. When the rubber finally hit the road on the 105, Judge Pregerson’s ruling ensured that central planners could no longer impose public-works projects on communities without residents having their say.

As Carlye Hall, one of the lawyers who sued Caltrans over the freeway construction, told the Los Angeles Times, “There has never before been a freeway that had so many social programs attached to it, and this never would have happened without Judge Pregerson.”

This is an excerpt of an article originally published in Slake No. 3. To read the entire story, purchase or subscribe at shop.slake.la.

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