The true story of L.A.’s freeways, and a judge who changed everything.
By Hillel Aron, July 2011
Hillel Aron’s “The Last Freeway” was published in Slake in 2011 and appeared as a Longreads Member Pick in September 2013. It’s a story about a city (Los Angeles), a freeway interchange (where the 105 meets the 110), and a man (Judge Harry Pregerson). Aron explains:
“Well, my friends Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa had this great quarterly called Slake, and I wanted to write something for them, so we sat down and talked about it… I think maybe I pitched it to them, I can’t remember. I’d was just always fascinated by freeways, growing up in Los Angeles, and I loved that Reyner Banham book, The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. When I was kid, I was completely enchanted by that 105 / 110 interchange, the carpool lane one, which towers above the city. It’s basically like a rollercoaster. Actually it kind of sucks—since I wrote the piece, they’ve turned that carpool lane into a “toll lane,” so normal carpoolers can’t use it anymore without one of those fast pass things. At any rate, I did some research and it turned out that (a) the 105 was the last freeway built in Los Angeles—the end of an era, really. And it was so tough to build that it basically set a precedent of not building freeways anymore. And (b), there was this nutty judge who turned the whole thing into a New Deal-style public works program to benefit the communities that were being bisected by this massive beast of a freeway. And he also ordered them to stick a train in the middle of it, which didn’t quite go to the airport, but that’s a different story…”
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 through 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.”
The language of design, architecture, and urbanism in Los Angeles is the language of movement … and the city will never be fully understood by those who cannot move fluently through its diffuse urban texture.The automobile didn’t always dominate Los Angeles transportation. The city’s legendary sprawl was created not by car, but by railway. Before the railroad, downtown Los Angeles was little more than a pueblo with a couple markets and a few thousand people. It may never have become much more were it not for a small group of wealthy Angelenos led by the banker Isaias Hellman and the lawyer Henry O’Melveny, who managed to persuade the Southern Pacific Railroad to run its San Francisco–to-Yuma line through Los Angeles—instead of a more direct route through the high desert—before hooking east. Within a couple decades, five railway lines cut through downtown Los Angeles. Banham writes that by 1880, “The railways had outlined the form of the city and sketched in the pattern of movement that was to characterize its peculiar style of life.”
—Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies
If pieces of the transcontinental railway formed the city’s skeleton, its arteries were the track laid down by the Pacific Electric Railway, a fleet of 1,250 Red Cars spread over 1,164 miles of track. Services ran from Santa Monica to Riverside, from San Fernando to Orange. At its peak in 1925, it was the world’s largest interurban railway system.
But from almost the very beginning, the Red Car competed against the automobile. In 1938, the Automobile Club of Southern California laid out a grand new vision for Los Angeles. It called for more than 400 miles of “the world’s first great Elevated Motorways System” and the gradual phasing out of the railways in favor of bus service.
The first freeways in Los Angeles were built in the early 1940s, the Arroyo Seco Parkway and the Cahuenga Pass Freeway. They converged in the heart of downtown and formed the world’s first stack interchange. Sure, there was traffic. But freeways were seen then as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Looked at today, Los Angeles’s 1958 General Plan does indeed read like a dystopian vision of concrete and shadows, calling for 1,500 miles of freeways through Greater Los Angeles. Santa Monica Boulevard would have become the Beverly Hills Freeway. Laurel Canyon Boulevard would have turned into the Laurel Canyon Freeway, and continued all the way through the portion of La Cienega Boulevard running toward LAX that still feels like a freeway (the only part of the proposed system that got built). Pacific Coast Highway would now be the Pacific Coast Freeway. And the Santa Monica Mountains would be home to no fewer than six elevated motorways. You were never supposed to be more than four or five miles from a freeway.
“There was always a vision of L.A. as big pockets of high activity centers,” says Frank Quon, deputy district director for Caltrans. “You can call it urban sprawl—it’s just a large area with major business-type centers. So that network would tie it all together. And it was a very good vision.”
But it was not to be. Just as the freeways seemed poised to take over the sky and blot out the sun, freeway revolts ignited in San Francisco. A 1964 rally in Golden Gate Park drew some 200,000 people to protest the proposed extension of the Embarcadero Freeway along the waterfront. The folk singer Malvina Reynolds sang her moderately well-known folk song “Little Boxes,” a polemic against suburban development. In New York, a freeway revolt pitted urban theorist Jane Jacobs against Robert Moses, midcentury New York’s master urban planner, often said to have been the most powerful man in New York City. Over the next twenty years, backlash against freeways would spread all over the world: Sydney, Montreal, London, Detroit, and even Los Angeles.
“We’d just opened our operation,” says John Phillips, who cofounded the center when he was twenty-eight.
Esther and Ralph Keith, a couple living near the proposed 105-405 interchange, sought an injunction in federal district court against the Century Freeway’s construction. They argued that state and federal agencies had failed to comply with environmental, housing, and civil rights laws. The legal theory was bold for its time: the freeway proposal was discriminatory and didn’t afford residents in the “blighted” neighborhoods the same considerations as better-off neighborhoods. Three other families, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the NAACP, and the city of Hawthorne joined the Keiths.
Keith v. Volpe became the center’s first case. John A. Volpe was the state’s secretary of transportation.
“Caltrans was bullying everybody, paying too little for their property, using strong-arm tactics to get them out,” says Phillips. “Esther and Ralph Keith would not sell.”
By then, President Nixon had signed two bills into law that would have dire consequences for public-works projects: the latest Federal-Aid Highway Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The first required the state to provide adequate replacement housing before it bought homes from people to make way for highways. The second required in-depth environmental studies, subject to review, for any public-works project. Government projects would never be the same.
“Congress will pass laws with great fanfare, and then there’s nobody to enforce them,” says the center’s John Phillips. “Who’s gonna sue the U.S. attorney? Who’s gonna sue Caltrans? Well that’s what we did. We didn’t set out to stop the freeway, per se.”
The plaintiffs had two main complaints: that the government was providing inadequate housing to displaced residents and that no environmental-impact study had been performed.
Had any other judge been selected to hear the case, our story would have been different. But as fate would have it, the randomly selected judge was Harry Pregerson.
Pregerson was and is a practical man, and by all accounts he was driven less by ideology than by the desire to find solutions. He took two months to reach his decision. On July 7, 1972, he issued a preliminary injunction to stop all construction and involuntary selling of property along the Century Freeway corridor, pending environmental-impact reports. It was a bombshell. For the first time, the building of a major freeway had been halted by court order. The L.A. Times reported:
Pregerson went further than many experts, including the center’s lawyers and state officials, expected. James A. More, director of Public Works, parent agency for the Division of Highways, said he was stunned by the ruling.
“It’s very serious … not only with respect to the Century Freeway but also as it might affect others in California.”The state was forced to hold hearings on noise and air pollution, revise its housing program and consider myriad construction alternatives, including abandonment of the freeway. An unnamed attorney for the Center for Law in the Public Interest was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying, “This may mark the end of the freeway era in the Los Angeles metropolitan region.”
The judge’s ruling on the injunction led to a federal consent decree, which Pregerson oversaw, and for the next seven years both sides battered away at each other in negotiations. Pregerson wrote in a 2007 Southwestern University Law Review essay, “The Freeway with a Heart”:
In consent-decree litigation, these people are going to be with you for the next five, ten, or fifteen years, maybe more. So in addition to being judge, you have to be a psychologist, a diplomat, and, at times, a babysitter.In the same issue of the law review, Southwestern University law professor Christopher David Ruiz Cameron wrote in his essay “Harry Pregerson, the Real Mayor of Los Angeles”:
Most judges would have avoided the headaches that followed, either by leaving the parties to sort out the environmental issues on their own or by dismissing the lawsuit altogether. But Judge Pregerson saw and seized the opportunity to address the larger social implications of a massive public works project, one that would eventually cost $2.2 billion. Why, he wondered, shouldn’t the freeway corridor in traffic-snarled Los Angeles include a rail line for public transportation? Or a carpool lane to reduce smog? And why shouldn’t some of the lucrative government contracts and high-paying jobs that it would take to build the project go to the people who actually live there? And for that matter, why shouldn’t their children have day care while their parents were at work building the new freeway?It was this kind of “judicial activism” that would later enrage conservatives. Even mainstream journalists describe Pregerson as a “New Deal liberal,” a title that the judge doesn’t seem to like very much.
“I don’t think of myself as a New Deal–style liberal,” he tells me. “I think being a judge has given me an opportunity to help working people, improve the city.”
Pregerson has wild, sagebrush eyebrows. He wears a pair of half-moon spectacles, a brown bomber jacket, cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a Stetson, making him look a bit like an old Charlton Heston—only with a BlackBerry clipped to his canvas belt. He has a firm handshake and a serious demeanor. When I mention that he never seems to be smiling in any of his photographs, he deadpans, “I’m a very serious guy.”
He is eighty-seven, or as he says with a wry smile, “four score and seven years old.” His memory is astonishing. He grew up in Boyle Heights and he remembers the name of the Japanese kid he carpooled with to UCLA in the 1930s, though he can’t remember the name of the driver who picked them up in a Model A Coupe. He remembers the city before the freeway, before they pulled out the train tracks. He remembers how the city sounded.
“There was no freeway then. There were trains, and you could hear the trains whistle, you could hear the roosters crow,” he says. “At noon, the gas company downtown blew a whistle. You could hear it all over the city. That was their lunch break. We walked to school. We had the yellow car, but it cost three and a half cents, and why waste three and half cents when you could walk? It took about an hour, but it was fun because I’d walk with my friends.”
Pregerson was the only kid from his graduating class at Roosevelt High School to go to UCLA. He says it wasn’t because he was the smartest, just the only one whose family could afford the $25-per-semester tuition. In college, he joined the ROTC and eventually enlisted in the Marines.
“The worst thing that could happen was for the war to end before I could participate,” he says. “We were all anxious to go. I know it sounds strange. Times were different. There were 10 million people in armed services. Everybody wanted to get involved.
“I took French because I thought I’d go to France like my father did and I could talk to French girls. But I never got to France.”
The judge doesn’t seem to like talking about the war. When I ask how it was, he answers, sarcastically, “It was a great time.”
I persist and finally he shuts the kitchen door and pulls down his pants. On each of his upper thighs there are two small pinpricks, like a needle might make on a sofa cushion. He starts talking.
“We went from Pavuvu to Okinawa. That was April 1, 1945, that was the landing,” he says. “We had a battalion of 1,000 men, and then replacements. People would move in and be dead by five o’clock.
“It was thirty-three days before I got injured. I got hit by a dumdum bullet, an explosive bullet. I’m lucky because of penicillin. … I’m lucky because I lived.”
“Some judges really stand on ceremony,” says Felicia Marcus, one of Pregerson’s former law clerks. “If you’re in his court and you have something to add, he’ll let you say it. I swear to god, if the janitor walked by and wanted to say something, he’d let him talk. The focus is always on getting to the right answer.”
Like his hero, the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, Pregerson has always had a knack for consensus building. His skill at bringing together divergent parties—Caltrans, neighborhood residents, and unions—and forging a compromise was the key factor in getting the Century Freeway built. According to the L.A. Times, Pregerson was known to open negotiations early in the morning by telling all parties, “Gentlemen, I just happen to have brought my lunch with me and it could be a long day. I’m not sure yet when you’ll be able to eat.”
The Century Freeway’s final consent decree, filed in 1979, included a housing program, jobs program, jobs training program, affirmative-action program, and a child-care program, all under the guise of a freeway project that somehow also had to have a train running down the middle. Even for a legislative body, these initiatives would have been bold, but for them to come at the behest of a district court judge was unheard of.
The agreement called for 3,000 single-family homes and 1,200 multifamily buildings to be constructed in neighborhoods along the freeway corridor. The 25,000 displaced residents living in the corridor would be able to buy houses at below-market rates. Sixty-five percent of the workers on both the freeway and the housing would be minorities; 10 percent would be women. Nearly 5,000 locals went through an apprenticeship program and were given construction jobs. Perhaps most astonishingly, the consent decree called for the construction of day-care centers for the families of employees.
“That’s why it was an unprecedented decree, that’s why people studied it and have done dissertations on it,” says John Phillips. “This whole panoply of benefits under the guise of a freeway changed and transformed the community.”
What was originally envisioned as a ten-lane freeway would now be eight lanes, and one of them on each side would be reserved for high-occupancy vehicles, the city’s first carpool lanes. And just as the Cahuenga Pass freeway had the Red Car running down its middle, the Century Freeway would have the Green Line, Los Angeles’s first light rail system to be approved in more than thirty years.
“My dream was to have, at every off ramp, a parking lot so people could come here and park their car, and there would be a child-care center,” says Pregerson. “You’d go to work on light rail. We were gonna have all kinds of social services—parent classes, day care, substance abuse, preschool.”
It was a new vision of transportation in Los Angeles, conceived in a court of law.
***About a month after the consent decree, President Carter nominated Pregerson to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. During the Senate confirmation hearings, Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson asked Pregerson what he’d do if a decision in a case involved an instance of case law or statute that offended his conscience. Pregerson answered:
I was born and raised in this country, and I am steeped in its traditions, its mores, its beliefs, and its philosophies; and if I felt strongly in a situation like that, I feel it would be the product of my very being and upbringing. I would follow my conscience.Pregerson was eventually confirmed, even though this exchange, as well as some of his later decisions, earned the wrath of conservatives everywhere. Despite his promotion, the judge continued to personally supervise the freeway programs set forth by the consent decree.
Finally, in 1981, construction began on the Century Freeway. First, the remaining homes had to be bought and torn down, including the home of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson at 3701 West 119th Street. It was the house where the Wilsons recorded their first song, “Surfin’,” and became the Beach Boys. The house of Ralph and Esther Keith was also torn down—unnecessarily so, as it turned out, and so it was eventually replaced by another house. Ralph died in August 1982 and never saw his house torn down. Esther moved to another house a few blocks away. She viewed the final consent decree as a failure, and didn’t attend the freeway’s opening.
Jeff Gates was a photographer who started taking pictures of the torn-down houses in the Century Freeway corridor in the early eighties. When he showed some of his photographs to Esther Keith, one in particular caught her attention. It was a boarded-up house with a sign on it that read “Sorkness Fotos.” It must have been a business with a house in the back, thought Gates.
“When Esther saw that photo, she started to cry,” he says.
The owner of the house, explained Esther Keith, had committed suicide after being forced to move.
“She and her husband had really tried to stop this freeway, and they failed,” says Gates. “Even though there were concessions that were won because of it, she still was bitter about everything they went through.”
Gates moved to the East Coast in the eighties. When he returned to Los Angeles shortly before the 105’s completion, he was struck by its beauty. “From a sculptural vantage point,” he wrote in 1995, “the interchanges of the 105 [with the 110 Freeway] are some of the most amazing pieces of public art I have ever touched.”
The legacy of the Century Freeway is more than just a spectacular interchange and a good way to get to LAX from downtown. It’s more than a movie about a runaway bus, and it’s more than a few thousand houses torn out from the ground.
New freeway construction is now a virtual nonstarter in this city. The Long Beach Freeway, or the 710, was supposed to run all the way north to Pasadena, meeting up with the 210. That project is held up by a tangle of court proceedings, environmental reports, and “meetings with the community.” The judge handling the case just so happens to be Harry Pregerson’s son. There is a small chance the project will go through. One of the ideas being floated is a tunnel under South Pasadena, most likely prohibitively expensive.
“We don’t build brand-new freeways anymore,” says Frank Quon of Caltrans.
In 1980, Los Angeles residents finally voted for public transit with their wallets by approving Proposition A, which added a half-percent sales tax to pay for a rail system. The Blue Line, a light rail system running to Long Beach, opened in 1990. And shortly before the 105 opened, the city’s first two subways began service: the Red Line and the Purple Line.
But the same sort of neighborhood activism, or some would say NIMBYism, proved as good at holding up rapid transit as it was at stalling freeways. Construction of the Red Line was delayed for ten years following protests, not to mention a methane gas explosion and the fact that Hollywood Boulevard was sinking—the ground that the MTA was tunneling through turned out to be soft and powdery, causing it to depress.
It’s a pattern seen over and over again during the past two decades: city proposes plan, community fights plan, city scales back. Before Los Angeles can build its utopian “subway to the sea,” it must first endure hundreds of meetings, reports, public comment periods, alternative plans, reports, votes, protests, and counter protests. Transportation projects in Los Angeles have become obscenely expensive, not to mention tedious.
The social programs set up by Pregerson’s consent decree, meanwhile, have had an unambiguously positive legacy. Take, for instance, the case of Century Housing, the public-private partnership formed to build homes for displaced residents living in the 105’s path. What was supposed to be a temporary company was turned into a permanent nonprofit, after the judge dispatched Allan Kingston, then the CEO of Century Housing, to Washington, D.C.
“We got permission from old man Bush to take all the assets, the buildings, the money, and roll it all over into a nonprofit, rather than selling things off,” Pregerson says.
Today, Century Housing is one of the biggest providers of affordable housing in the United States. Since it was privatized in 1995, it has built or preserved more than 13,000 homes.
Pregerson continued to find opportunities for social progress in public projects. Among the judge’s hallmark achievements was ordering the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant to upgrade after spilling raw sewage into the ocean for years. Completed in 1998 after eleven years and almost $4 billion, it was named one of the top ten public-works projects of the twentieth century by the American Public Works Association, leading Pregerson to become known as the Sludge Judge.
“It’s arguably one of the biggest environmental wins in our nation’s history,” says Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, which helped bring the case to court. “They were one of the worst polluters, just horrible. Now there’s been a 95 percent reduction of sewage solids dumped into Santa Monica Bay.”
On the kitchen table in Pregerson’s office sits a framed photograph of himself as a younger man, looking a bit like Touch of Evil–era Charlton Heston, alongside his best friend, the former Central California Democratic congressman James Corman. The judge notices me looking at the photo.
“One time Corman said, ‘Harry, you’re not a judge, you’re a social worker,'” he says. “I said, ‘Thanks, Jim, that’s a great compliment.’
“Judges can do that if they want to.”