Invisible Trajectories

writings: ON THE ROAD

How do roads function in the Inland Empire? In a region where almost two-thirds of the entire land area is paved, it would be safe to say that roads are not merely conduits to destinations, but places in themselves.

Whether we like it or not, the road is the focus of our lives. In this land of ubiquitous motoring, face-to-face contact is limited. But the freeway, arterial road, and neighborhood-street are still the places where one can feel the vibrations of the everyday. As much as downtown and Main Street were the symbols of urban life in the early twentieth century, the band of asphalt on which we now travel has shaped our lives in ways that we are just starting to understand.

The road has simultaneously pulled us apart and brought us together. In the 1950s and 1960s roads were “placed” in the landscape by highway engineers to provide ideal viewing spots and easy access to once unattainable recreation areas. “Placing” roads this way also caused great disruption. The Interstate Highway System plunged through numerous minority neighborhoods and destroyed communities. The road has brought hope to some and despair to others, but no matter where we live the road has changed American life for even the most remote communities.

Our system of roads has evolved like chocolate layer cake, with new roads superimposed onto existing paths and routes, making an already complex system even more complicated. The late Reyner Banham, referring to the layers of Los Angeles’s mobile history, used the term “Transportation Palimpsest” to describe the city’s stratums: footpaths covered by rail lines, and rail lines covered by freeways. In the Inland Empire, as in most of America, our present transport system is only the latest layer. With much of our transportation history hidden under asphalt, we have little way of knowing how we arrived at our present state.

The system of interstate highways certainly disrupted existing communities of Los Angeles, but in the Inland Empire the highways sprawled out in anticipation of the development to come.

Freeways were not the whole story. The strip and shopping mall became the new focus of American life. The arterial road, or main drag, evolved during the 1950s, becoming the locus for the new “drive-in culture” that historian Kenneth Jackson would so eloquently write about in his seminal book from 1985, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Writing a few decades earlier, John Brinkerhoff Jackson declared “roads and streets…can no longer be identified solely with movement from one place to another,” which led him to a romantic interpretation of the new highways:

The large-scale sweep of the new interstates with their cloverleafs and overpasses and their steady, uninterrupted flow, reminded us of the visionary displays of the road of the future in the Futurama of the 1939 World’s Fair bypassing the city, heading out into the green countryside where housing developments and trailer courts spoke of young families starting out in life.

At the time Jackson was writing, gridlock had yet to take hold of the nation’s hinterlands, edge-cities, and first-ring suburbs.

The Inland Empire evolved in tandem with the automobile. And though its earliest town centers sprouted up around trolley lines, the contemporary citizen has a stronger bond with sound-walls and diamond lanes. Anthony Hoete, of What Architecture, sees our road system as “increasingly standardized for reasons of safety and recognition,” resulting in “a generic condition, paradoxically connecting places, yet disconnecting the road user from his or her immediate location...” The highway standardization Hoete mentions is the norm in the Empire. Endless freeways cut swaths through dry vegetation and low-density development. Only rooftops can be seen from the freeway, and the socio-economic conditions of those on the other side of the wall can only be guessed. Increasing speeds only intensify the separation between the road user and nearby residents, and the predominance of single-driver car use keeps the experience of moving through the landscape a solitary one to say the least.

Our transport system, according to Robert Harbison, is the place,
and the discontinuities associated with it “practically cancel the sense of the city as a self-contained whole.” While the I.E.’s transport system may appear expansive and connective, one could easily argue that its freeways link the far-flung nodes, thus keeping the region working as one large integrated circuit. But systemic connectivity does not equate to higher levels of human interaction. Many of the recently sprouted towns, like those in the Moreno Valley, are effectively non-places tied into a growing network of blurred spaces. These spaces are designed to be either moved through quickly or to function as transitional dormitories. Here the homeowner, renter, and consumer are equally rootless.

Of course, we must avoid romanticizing the city street of days past, since Southern California living has almost no connection to the lifestyles and movement patterns of the European city-dweller who lives mostly as a pedestrian. It is imperative to see the Southern California road as something that is still evolving, with a shifting set of needs. Our roads are as varied as we are, and to lump them all together is not only lazy, but also foolish.

So what are the roads and freeways in the Inland Empire? Our roads, largely incoherent to the outsider, become second nature to those who’ve learned to navigate them at a young age, but they are still elusive to us. They lead somewhere but never everywhere. Do our roads and freeways define us by sectioning us off into our own neighborhoods, municipalities, and counties, or do they do something else, that we’ve yet to decipher?