Sorry all you Royalphiles, but the biggest news in southern California this month actually has nothing to do with Will and Kate’s west coast holiday. What is twisting the heads of Los Angelenos and their neighbors near and far is the anticipated closure of miles and miles of the I-405 freeway next weekend to demolish the Mulholland Bridge.
The demolition is an ambitious component to scheduled improvements for the Sepulveda Pass, where one of the earliest commuters was Gaspar de Portola, commander of the first Spanish land exploration of California in 1769. Accompanied by a hundred mules and sixty-three fellow travelers, Portola marched down the Sepulveda Pass on a mission northward to find Monterey Bay.
The Sepulveda Pass looks a little different now than it did when Portola passed through. Even on a good day, the I-405 is hopelessly clogged, but the mind boggles at the horror of shutting down a stretch of road traveled by well over 300,000 cars on a daily basis. The famous intersection of the I-405 and I-101 freeways has been labeled the busiest in the United States, so it’s no exaggeration to refer to the upcoming July 16-17 closure as “Carmageddon”. (For all you trivia buffs, the title for busiest freeway in North America actually goes to Ontario Highway 401 in Canada, according to Wikipedia and other sources.)
While everyone in LA is trapped at home as Mulholland bridge goes bye-bye, they might want to relax with a copy of Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles, which, despite its turgid title, is a fascinating read.
As a transplant to California, I must have seen the exit for Mulholland Drive hundreds of times with no thought of the history behind its name, but true Angelenos know William Mulholland as the crusty Irish immigrant who prevailed in the fiercely-fought battle to build the Los Angeles acqueduct and bring (or steal, depending on how you look at it) Owens River Valley water to the burgeoning, thirsty community of Los Angeles in the early 1900’s.
Sadly, Mulholland’s legacy is also inextricably linked to the catastrophic 1928 failure of the St. Francis Dam near present-day Santa Clarita. Hundreds of people were killed in the path of the horrific flash flood triggered by the crumbling dam. Bodies were washed through the torrent to wash up on beaches as far away as Oxnard and San Diego, and continued to be discovered as late as the 1970’s. Mulholland, a larger-than-life local hero, was held responsible for the tragedy and died a broken man.
When Gaspar trekked the Sepulveda Pass the residents were comprised mostly of scattered tribes of Indians. When William Mulholland arrived in Los Angeles in 1877, 9,000 souls resided in the City of Angels. At the time of Mulholland’s death, population had swelled to more a million and today, nearly four million people drink from the water Mulholland diverted from the Owens River Valley.
When the Mulholland Bridge was completed in 1960, it earned the desultory title of “a bridge to nowhere” since, at the time, it was scarcely used. Things change, don’t they? Juan Gaspar Portola has come and gone and so has William Mulholland. Paradise has been duly paved, they put up a parking lot called the I-405 and now it’s time for a remodel. Stay far, far away on July 15-16!
“Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”
– Joni Mitchell “Big Yellow Taxi”