This aerial photograph, taken from an aircraft on October 1, 1962, shows the Los Angeles neighborhood of West Adams in transition. Known for being the residence of many middle and upper class African American Angelenos, many of its stately homes were destroyed when the highway commission’s bureaucratic knife sliced through the stomach of the neighborhood. This image captures the beginning of the construction of Interstate 10 in mid-City Los Angeles, showing in high resolution detail the area between Arlington and Vermont Avenues (east to west) and Venice Boulevard to 38th street (north to south). The image was taken by a private photography company, Teledyne, Inc., at the request of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Having access to this image is extremely valuable to my project, given the visual prominence of the clear-cut left behind by demolition crews when they prepared a way for the freeway. Crucially, the outlines of old plots of land and even the trees of the once-esteemed Berkeley Square remain visible, allowing me to trace the recent presences of buildings alongside the future of the concrete river that replaced them. This aerial image provides a detailed overview of what was gained and lost when the freeway arrived in West Adams, giving an insightful window into the impacts of construction on the neighborhood’s built environment.
The belt of absence that foreshadows the freeway’s future path serves as the focal point of the image. It is not in the true center of the image, but the way it streaks horizontally across the entirety of the frame makes it impossible to miss. Considering the image’s scale is approximately two miles by two miles, it is easy to understand the magnitude of the freeway’s intrusion. Upon zooming in, thanks to high-resolution detail, it is possible to see that while most of the houses have been destroyed along the route, clusters of trees and other landscaping remain. The demolition job was not finished. Further analyzing the demolished segments reveals the parallel lines of palm trees lining the scattered remains Berkeley Square, a once-regal private drive. Berkeley Square’s former residents included Bishop Charles Manuel Grace – a famous Black preacher-turned-cult leader, Dr. Ruth Janetta Temple – an eminent Black physician who served as the first health officer of Los Angeles, and Dr. Perry W. Beal, a Black man who would go on to serve as president of the regional Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Association. By analyzing the demolition path alone, one can deduce much about the West Adams neighborhood right before the freeway’s arrival and can see the status of construction in October of 1961.
The image is both tied together and chopped up by strains of color and texture. The freeway’s course, presenting as a light grey, is presumably dirt. This light tone matches the light grey streaks of neighborhood streets. This textural similarity portends the freeway’s future purpose as a thoroughfare for vehicles, the sheer size at which it looms in the frame providing context for the amounts of cars that will plod across it, tracked in its cement lanes. Both the light grey streets, and the lighter grey clear-cut chop the image into parcels of land. Clusters of trees appear throughout the image and paying attention to these darker tones draws my eye toward the square section of winding paths and headstones that comprise Angelus Rosedale Cemetery. Central Los Angeles’s dearth of parks makes this one of the few green spaces in the frame, and upon further investigation, in the neighborhood. The cemetery, large in comparison to the homes but still small in the overall frame, stands out in stark contrast to the streets and to the freeway’s path.
The utility of this image is limited by its absences. The massive scope of the aerial shot, despite presenting impressive detail, fails to capture the neighborhood at a human level. The camera’s eye floats so high that even the outlines of cars are nearly indiscernible. Humans themselves are certainly not visible, neither therefore are their comings and goings. I cannot see the storefronts, sidewalks, or stop signs that defined the neighborhood’s day-to-day life. Movement of any sort is not depicted given the scale of the freeze-frame. Wind rustling through trees and trucks whizzing down surface streets have been blurred out by pixels insufficient to capture such detail. An absence of a different sort is the homes destroyed in the demolished zone. While I have turned to local preservation websites to learn about some of these individual plots of land and their former occupants, this image itself does not dredge up the stories or scenery of its now-displaced human ecosystem.
The image’s capacious contents hold space for implications about Los Angeles, but also allude to trends in the postwar American urban environment as a whole. The 1960s saw the expansion of freeways in cities throughout the country and in rural areas to connect states and regions by automobile. The details of this image reveal the status of not just West Adams as its built environment was thrown into disarray by the freeway, but function as a prism to understand the impact of freeways on cities more broadly. The outlines of former dwellings and the shells of once-esteemed private drives provoke questions about the cultural and sociological disruption brought about by America’s turn to the automobile as its preferred method of transit. The size of the freeway’s cut foreshadows the number of cars that will pass through a space once inhabited by human beings. One can better understand the intensification of urban greenhouse gas emissions in the form of car exhaust and can more clearly see the material upheaval imposed by highway transit when analyzing this image of one neighborhood in Los Angeles. Considering federal funds were earmarked to build highways around the country, and knowing those efforts continued into the 1960s makes the contents of this image representative of broader trends in postwar urban America.