An Aria for L.A.’s Oldest Freeway

An Urban Opera About the Concrete River That Is the 110

“People are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles.”

That’s the first line from Less Than Zero, Brett Easton Ellis’ infamous 1985 novel of alienation that paints a grim portrait of L.A. When I read it, I thought, “Well, not on every freeway”; but when it comes to Pasadena’s Arroyo Parkway, Ellis has a point. You’d have to be nuts—or suicidal—to roll fearlessly from a stop sign at the end of an entrance ramp directly into traffic zipping by at 60 mph.

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The Arroyo Parkway is the oldest section of the 110 Freeway, which, in turn, is the oldest freeway in Los Angeles. What makes the parkway scary is precisely what makes it historic. It is a relic of a slower era; construction began in 1939. It marks the transition from stoplight-interrupted travel to what a 1939 promotional piece called “six glass-smooth miles to downtown.”

“Six glass-smooth miles.” The phrase haunted me. It hinted at a shimmering future, paved by technology. A hopeful future, advanced through engineering. A future that in just a few years would be mocked by the deadly high-tech weaponry of World War II.

The phrase also haunted Emmy Award-winning composer Laura Karpman, who was commissioned by the Los Angeles Opera and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009 to write an opera pegged to the freeway’s 70th anniversary in 2010. Shannon Halwes, my former writing partner and a lyricist with whom Laura had worked, stumbled upon the phrase when she was searching for articles about the freeway. The three of us teamed up for the project and felt those words needed to be sung. This is how “six glass-smooth miles” found its way into the first aria in One-Ten, Laura’s multimedia opera about the freeway that had a workshop performance at the Pacific Asia Museum and the California African American Museum in November 2009.

The line was included in a duet sung by a pair of star-crossed lovers before their hope for a future together was crushed. They sang it in a darkened car near the freeway construction site–the sort of place where couples have sought privacy from parents since the automobile was first invented.

Laura asked me to join her opera team, I think, because I was obsessed with L.A. history. I had just published Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, a memoir of my difficult rocket-engineer dad and a cultural history of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where he had worked. When one spends months digging through archives and interviewing retired people, one tends to inhabit the past. It’s tough to re-enter the present, so often I didn’t. At dinner parties, I would nerd out about things I had investigated: the development of solid-propellant rocket fuel and the McCarthy-era persecution of JPL’s leftist rocket pioneers. At social gatherings, I became so dull that people ran away from me. But Laura realized that for a venture grounded in history, an encyclopedic bore might be useful.

Laura wanted to explore the idea of the freeway as a river that moved through time and space from its beginning in Pasadena to its terminus in San Pedro. The opera followed this river through the history of the regions it traversed. Because the 110 runs along the city’s eastern edge, skirting Hollywood, our story distinguished itself from shopworn depictions of L.A. that only focus on Tinseltown. The dreamers of our opera were not movie-makers, but Caltech scientists, artists linked to the groundbreaking Pasadena Museum when the legendary Walter Hopps was its director, and African-American jazz musicians who performed on South Central Avenue.

Laura astonished us with the beauty, tenderness, and sheer inventiveness of her melodies. We didn’t have a full orchestra, just a lone accompanist. But, as you can hear in the workshop recordings, the soundscape is enriched with traffic noise, ambient conversations taped during informal discussions of the freeway in different neighborhoods, and clips of historical recordings. To evoke the vernacular of the past, Laura often quoted found text–for example, a gossip column in The California Eagle, an influential African-American newspaper. In collaboration with the filmmaker Kate Hackett, Laura created movies that showed, among many images, freeway signs going by, promotional drawings of the freeway, and people commuting. This allowed the audience to move through time visually. But to get this opera right, we had to get the characters right.

Just as many types of cars merge together on the freeway, we wanted our cast to represent the diverse ethnicities that make up Los Angeles. We also wanted our characters to have grown up in the same neighborhood, which would have been unusual in 1939. Our story thus began in Boyle Heights, which was one of the few areas in L.A. that did not have racially restrictive housing covenants intended to bar people of color from buying property in largely white neighborhoods. The jinxed couple that sang the first duet lived next door to each other: Lew Zellman, an aspiring Apollo engineer, and Susan Tanaka, a budding painter. Today they might have led a charmed life. But interracial marriage was illegal in California until 1948. Worse, when the U.S. entered World War II, Susan was sent to a relocation camp, where–like real-life Japanese-American sculptor Ruth Asawa–she learned to draw from the Disney animators interned with her. The other main characters were Oscar Gutierrez, a jazz instrumentalist, and Shirley Norman, an African-American journalist hired by the real-life Charlotta Bass, who ran The California Eagle from 1912 until she was pressured to sell it in 1951.

Laura and I put a lot of our fathers into Lew Zellman. Her dad–now a cardiologist in Beverly Hills–grew up in the close-knit Jewish community in Boyle Heights. My dad the rocket engineer lived for the space race.

I made Susan Tanaka my kindred spirit. After her internment, she lives all over the world, gaining recognition as an artist. But her strongest works draw upon memories of her West Coast childhood. “On the other side of the planet / I drew the neighborhood
 I couldn’t wait to leave” she reflects in a bittersweet aria set 30 years after her love duet.

Like Susan, I fled my native Southern California for college and a job on the East Coast. But the subject matter of my two best-known books–Forever Barbie and Astro Turf–pulled me back. In the late 1990s, I moved back here from Manhattan to research the book about JPL. I didn’t plan to stay. But the city captivated me. It was so different from Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s. What had once seemed an entertainment industry ghetto was now a hub of art and culture–home to important museums, revolutionary architecture, and a major opera company. The city’s ethos had evolved. Like the freeway, L.A. was ever-changing, molded by time’s river into a bold new metropolis. Most astonishing, downtown, which had largely been abandoned in the 1960s, was becoming vital again.

In 2007, I bought a loft there, eager to be part of downtown’s transformation. I live near where the 5 and 10 freeways merge, not far from the Sixth Street Viaduct, a beautiful but structurally unsound bridge over the Los Angeles River. The entire bridge area has been reimagined in a $140 million plan to connect my neighborhood with Boyle Heights and make the riverbank into a landscaped waterway instead of a concrete scar. The project has stirred conflicts over money, land use, and aesthetic vision, with enough drama and heat for another urban opera.

The first community meetings were cacophonous. But as interest groups were forced to coalesce around a single idea, they grew more harmonious. And after years of construction din, auto horns, and the cursing of detoured motorists, the project will culminate in a surprising, mellifluous finale—one that merges L.A.’s present-day car noise with the sounds of its future: pedestrian footfalls (on a special, elevated walkway) and the whir of bikes (in a designated lane).


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