Slow Road Movement

Renewing L.A.'s Arroyo Seco Parkway gets back to the beauty of the commute.


The early days of the Arroyo Seco Parkway

Credit: Arroyo Seco Foundation

To many southern Californians, the Arroyo Seco and Charles Fletcher Lummis are all but inseparable. The Arroyo Seco (Spanish for "dry stream") is a small river flowing west from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Los Angeles River, a canyon along which people live and work, and a decaying parkway also known as the Pasadena Freeway. Lummis (the "u" is short) was an early California go-getter who lived along the creek, agitated for its preservation, and helped father the local artistic movement known as the Arroyo Culture.  Signs on the parkway direct you to his house, a California historic landmark, just off the Avenue 43 exit.

Nicole Possert, founder of a group called Scenic Arroyo Seco, which advocates restoration of the parkway to its original luster, has cited Lummis several times while driving me up and down the route's 8.2 miles of divided highway between Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles. In her view (and in this she is hardly alone), the Arroyo Culture strongly influenced the way Southern California looks today. So it comes as a surprise when she remarks, "He'd be turning in his grave if he knew we were connecting him with restoring the parkway."

She goes on to explain that although Lummis was an unabashed champion of the Arroyo Seco, he envisaged it as a regional or national park, not a high-speed traffic artery. Automobiles spoiled his plan, which gave way to the idea of a scenic route linking several municipal parks. And by the time the parkway was actually built, from 1938 to 1953, even that beauty-based concept had been watered down and the road had all but turned into a freeway; indeed, it is considered a precursor of California's freeway system. For most of its history the Arroyo Seco has led a dual life, but typically its traffic-moving function has trumped its aesthetic values.

Aside from the discomfort it may be causing Lummis' remains, Possert's cause raises an interesting question. Can a heavily used road be restored and appreciated for its beauty and history? Yes, say partisans of the Arroyo Seco Parkway and a scenic road to the south, the Cabrillo Parkway in San Diego. It takes ingenuity and money, they acknowledge, but an urban parkway can be both safe and a pleasure to drive, getting you where you want to go while also giving you an uplifting aesthetic experience. How Caltrans, the state transportation agency, reacts to the idea of taking parkways back to their roots is determining whether preservationists can make good on their claims.

For more of this article, look for the March/April 2007 issue on newsstands or e-mail us to purchase a copy. 

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