The LA Freeway, Memory

From W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz
The new library building, which in both its entire layout and its near ludicrous internal regulation seeks to exclude the reader as a potential enemy, might be described, so Lemoine thought, said Austerlitz, as the official manifestation of the increasingly importunate urge to break with everything which still has some living connection with the past.

I finished Austerlitz this afternoon on the bus ride home. My afternoon class had been canceled, and at a loss for what to do, returning home seemed most appropriate. The bus stops were thick with kids getting out of high school, laughing and boasting and waiting for the next bus. I walked from Sepulveda under the freeway, noticed where the workers had come back under and patched the seams between the old section of the overpass and the new sections that had been added on to either side. No graffiti yet under the freeway, or if there had been, workers had already been back through with flat gray paint that would blend into the background.

From David Brodsly's L.A. Freeway, an appreciative essay
Such changes in temporal accessibility are in most respects much more important than spatial measures of territorial expansion in affecting the quality of the metropolitan experience. In the metropolis, distance becomes a function of time, and the expanding isochron must reflect an expansion in the individual's sense of place. Some of the resulting changes were noted earlier in my discussion of the relationship of the metropolitan area to the dwelling place. But the situation is more complex. Who knows that changes occur with a growing irreverence for distance and an increasing impatience with time. Most places then become merely points to pass through, and interaction with such a place is just an obstacle on the way toward a destination. Perhaps our destinations, the localities where we dwell, also lose their distinctiveness. The individual mobility epitomized by the freeway frees us from the constraints of the locality. Yet in doing so it may also destroy the integrity of the locality. People concern themselves less with places and more with functions, and place becomes simply the location of an institution providing a functional fulfillment. Redondo has a nice beach, Venice a good movie theatre, and Long Beach a good Mexican restaurant, but all lose their identity as coherent environments. Concurrently there is a decreased appreciation of and commitment to locality.

At the bus stop across the street from me, a boy and a girl kissed, paused to laugh, kissed again. Beside them, or just behind them, just out of their field of view, a man in an electric wheelchair waited for the bus. An old woman walked up behind the bench, paused for a moment before she sat down beside the boy and the girl.

The quotes don't really belong together, but recently, I've been trying to think about the relationship between freeways and memory. Sebald is constantly teasing out the ways in which we remember and more precisely, where we remember. The book brims over with cemeteries and ruined forts and old apartment buildings, and so much of it seems to be about our relationship in the present to our ruins. It's a concern I've come across in other places as well - most recently in Orhan Pamuk's new collection of essays.

But I'm trying to think about Los Angeles - the blessing and the curse of the city, one might say, is how relentlessly present it is. Our collective sense of history is tenuous at best and downright fraudulent at worst, and I think the freeways have something to do with that ambivalence about memory.

Memory becomes something less about locality and more about temporality - which I suppose seems simple enough, but I want to make a distinction between memory of a place and memory of a time. Driving the freeways makes it difficult to remember place; rather, what comes back is time: time spent in traffic, time spent on the phone, time spent moving from place to place.

More than that, it's the fact - sometimes terrifying - that the past leaves so little evidence of itself on the freeway. Like walking under the 405 today and seeing the fresh patches: in a couple of days' time, they'll fade and thicken with the dust of traffic and the city and we'll be hard pressed to remember a time when they were anything but what they are.


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