Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

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Sale of First Ford Model T, 1908

In his description of the California landscape, Donald Meinig (1979, 170) reminds us that “the East built the cars, but California taught us how to live with them”. ·Undoubtedly, California has provided America’s unequaled model for automobility. The automobile has stamped its identity, indeed a distinctive lifestyle, upon the California scene and few corners of the Golden State have escaped its influence. Today, more than 18 million automobiles and 6 million trucks are registered in the state (California Department of Motor Vehicles 1999). In Los Angeles, 90 percent of daily commuters utilize their automobiles and the figure is even higher for Sacramento and San Diego (Kenworthy and Laube 1999). More than 165,000 miles of roads crisscross California (including more than 4,000 miles of freeways), and state residents travel a combined 150 billion miles on them every year (Caltrans 1998)! Even more fundamentally, the automobile has shaped a lifestyle focused on individualism, convenience, consumption, leisure, the outdoors, and mobility Bottles 1987; Meinig 1979; Preston 1971). It is a lifestyle not without its hazards: almost 2.5 percent of all deaths in Los Angeles are caused by traffic accidents (Kenworthy and Laube 1999).

The roots of this commitment to the car can be traced to 1908, the year Ford Motor Company introduced the popular Model T. While the Duryea brothers in Massachusetts had already fashioned America’s first gasoline-powered vehicle in 1893, it was another 15 years before Ford initiated the mass production of inexpensive automobiles destined to revolutionize American culture, particularly in California (Flink 1988, 1-55; Palen 1995, 43). The result was a fundamental reshaping of the California landscape: houses sprouted garages and carports, urban thoroughfares became grand promenades oriented around automobile traffic, trucks revolutionized agricultural, commercial and industrial activities, and even the state’s atmosphere (“smog”·became a part of the Los Angeles vocabulary in the 1940s) and vegetation (millions of California’s trees have been damaged or killed by automobile pollution) were forever altered in the process (Krim 1992, 125; Williams 1983).

California’s highway network reveals an omnipresent signature of the automobile’s legacy, and the roadscape has become an ever more important visual element on the California scene (Abbott 1993, 123-29; Banham 1971). As cars multiplied after 1908, a series of federal and state initiatives laid the groundwork for the construction of an integrated auto highway network across the state (Caltrans 1989; n.d.; Jake1990;


Palen 1995, 46-7). In 1909, the first bonds were issued to create a state highway system and in 1921 a department of public works was established, including a division devoted to highways. Indeed, California highway engineers led the nation in the creation of better concrete roads and pioneered the use of raised concrete curbs to slow road erosion and add highway safety (Flink 1988, 170). At the national level, Federal Highway Acts in 1916 and 1921 established a commitment to aid states in building roads, and this led to the widespread paving of California’s major highways between 1925 and 1940. After World War II, California’s Collier Burns Act (1947) increased gas tax expenditures on state roads and the Federal Interstate Highway Act (1956) laid the groundwork for today’s long-distance routes across the state.

The resulting network of roads penetrates every portion of the state and has vastly extended the automobile’s shaping influence. Many rural residents were actually early adopters of the automobile as farmers reaped the advantages of lessened isolation (Flink 1988, 132; Jakle 1990). Indeed, the mobility of cars and improvement of road surfaces made many of California’s agricultural hamlets unnecessary and basically hailed the founding of additional farm towns in the state (Preston 1981: 167-68). Today there are fewer small communities across much of California’s agricultural Central Valley than there were 75 years ago. The automobile and commercial trucking have allowed farmers the freedom to travel farther and faster, thus bypassing the need for small er service centers. Elsewhere, the growing road network revolutionized tourism (Flink 1988, 169-187; Jakle, Sculle and Rogers 1996; Nash 1972). Cars were allowed into Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in 1913, initiating an era of automobile tourism that annually brings millions to California’s scenic attractions. The state’s mountain, desert, and coastal landscapes are closely tied to nearby cities, auto campgrounds and motel units have multiplied by the thousands, and entire communities (from Cambria and Fort Bragg on the coast to South Lake Tahoe and Big Bear Lake in the mountains) cater to the mobile needs of the state’s car­driving recreationalists. Today, Californians also own more than three million trailers and haul them anywhere and everywhere to enjoy the state’s outdoor amenities.

Most dramatically, automobiles have refashioned the state’s urban landscapes (Figures 12 and 16). Simply the amount of urban land devoted to the automobile is staggering. For example, including highways, space-extensive parking facilities, and a myriad of auto-oriented businesses, roughl y 50 percent of the cent ral Los Angeles landscape is directly tied to the automobile (Birdsall, Florin and Price 1999, 353). The automobile has also redefined fundamental characteristics of urban geography. Because the easy mobility of the automobile has contributed to urban


sprawl, most automobile-orientcd California cities are less than half as densely populated as their eastern American counterparts (Hirdsall, Florin and Price 1999, 352-54). The automobile has hastened the decline of many downtown businesses at the same time that it has stimulated the rapid decentralization and suburbanization of urban residences, industrial activities, and retailing establishments (Bottles 1987; Flink 1988, 143-44; Foster 1975; Jakle 1990; Longstreth 1997, 1999). Indeed, the suburban California commercial strip has become a model for the nation. Lined with gas stations/convenience stores, fast food franchise restaurants, supermarkets, enclosed malls, and chain-store retailers, all with their oceanic parking lots, these urban corridors, pulsing with nonstop traffic and pockmarked with unending signs and billboard are the quintessential landscape signature of the automobile in California and the world

Figure The automotive landsca pe of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Photograph provided by California Deportment of Transportation.

beyond (Banham 1971; Jakle 1990; Jakle and Sculle 1994; Kling, Olin and Poster 1991).

Freeways are the other ubiquitous imprints of auto culture in urban California. When Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. proposed a freeway system for Los Angeles in 1930, little did he realize he was laying the groundwork for a landscape feature destined to alter not only the Golden State, but much of America (Bottles 1987, 216-20). Indeed, the completion of California’s first freeway in 1911 (the six-mile Arroyo Seco Parkway near Pasadena) as well as the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges in San Francisco during the same period assured the ongoing centrality of the automobile in the state’s two largest metropolitan areas. Seen as a solution rather than as a problem when they were created, many of California’s urban freeways are today among the nation’s busiest with average daytime speeds of less than 20 miles per hour now the norm in Los Angeles (Banham 1971; Birdsall, Florin and Price 1999, 352-54; Bottles 1987, 19-20; Flink 1998, 140-45).

Finally, auto-related industries have transformed major portions of the state. The first Ford assembly plant appeared in Long Beach in 1911 (Shallit 1989, 119). Subsequently, localities such as Van Nuys, South Gate, Oakland and Fremont were fundamentally altered by the presence of space-extensive automobile assembling facilities (Morales 1986; Nash 1972, 321-22; Rubenstein 1992). Associated new and used car lots occupy thousands of additional acreage. California’s petroleum industry also received a huge stimulus from growing demands for gasoline and engine oil (Bottles 1987, 199-200; Nash 1972, 321-22; Shallit 1989, 109-25; Viehe 1981). Large oil fields in localities such as Long Beach (Signal Hill), Whittier, Santa Barbara, and the San Joaquin Valley witnessed tremendous growth in direct response to the automobile’s never-ending appetite for fossil fuels, and oil production remains an important part of the state’s economy·

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