Friday, October 17, 2008

The Death (and Rebirth) of Century Boulevard

(Note: This blog entry contains hyperbole. [Special thanks to the unknown flickr photographers from whom I stole pics 1 and 2])

This morning I drove to work on my new favorite street, Norton Avenue. It provides a convenient non-maddening "shortcut" from the Larchmont area to the 10 freeway. For a while I had been using Wilton Place as a shortcut. Wilton was a shortcut that I "discovered" in 2006. Apparently I wasn't alone. When people at work found out where I lived, they lowered their voice and asked me if I "knew about Wilton?" Yes, I assured them. They nodded in approval. But Wilton is dead now. Nothing can save it. There are too many cars. There are too many abrupt changes - from straightaway to curve to school zone to straightaway. Wilton Place is now the worst street in Los Angeles. Every morning there's a car illegally parked in the right lane, next to one of those ugly apartment buildings, likely belonging to someone who got lucky and spent the night but didn't know about local parking restrictions. Every morning, there's an angry man (not me) tailgating unnecessarily past the elementary school.

Norton Avenue, which extends from 3rd Street to Pico is my new morning home. (Note: Norton starts up again on the south side of the 10 and if you go far enough you'll find where the body of the Black Dahlia was found.) Then, it's just a short hop to underrated (on weekdays only) Western Avenue to the freeway.

I said that "nothing can save" Wilton Place. I'm wrong about that. Let me tell you a story about Century Boulevard, the main road from the 405 freeway to LAX.

In the eighties and nineties, Century was a busy street. One of the busiest I had ever seen. On my first trip to Los Angeles as an adolescent, I remember being awed by the wide boulevard lined with fast food restaurants, billboards, and sex shops as the family trundled along at eight miles per hour in our rental car (likely a Taurus).

Eventually word got around that everyone took Century to get to the airport, that Century was a permanent traffic jam. At mid-90s parties from Long Beach to La Verne, from Simi Valley to Santa Monica, word got around: Take Sepulveda. Take Lincoln. When it finally opens for traffic, take the 105. Hell, take IMPERIAL. But don't take Century. I distinctly recall a former co-worker named Patrick telling me in his New York-tinged Trinidiadian lilt "Only stupid fools take Century."

If you go to LAX via the 405, the most direct route is to exit Century and head west to the airport. It's always been that way and will always be that way. The laws of geometry cannot be changed. But the traffic-savvy southern Californians heard these cautionary tales about this particular road to perdition, this Hotel California of boulevards. Everyone heeded the advice of Patrick and other self-proclaimed traffic experts. They abandoned Century Boulevard. Eventually even the stupid fools abandoned Century.

Even Larry David went along with the crowd. In season 1 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in The Baptism episode, Larry and Cheryl had to hurry to the airport. Cheryl wanted to go the logical, geometrical route (405 to Century). Larry wanted to take Lincoln from Santa Monica. Knowing that he married a woman who didn't like to be disobeyed, he asked Cheryl for "Lincoln Approval."

That was a long time ago. Today? No one uses Century. It's a Ghost Boulevard.  If you wanted a clean surface to eat off of, I would suggest having a picnic on the asphalt of Century Boulevard, perhaps near the intersection with Airport Boulevard. If you were a homeless person and needed a safe, well-lit place to sleep, I would point you to any of the crosswalks on Century between the 405 and the bomb-sniffing-dog-security check. No one uses Century anymore. Nobody. Oh sure, there's the occasional hotel bus and the random sex shop counterperson. And there's me. But that's about it. These days Century Boulevard near LAX is a beautiful well-maintained palm-lined boulevard, with wide lanes of pristine asphalt the only thing that separates one from the ticket counter and baggage check.

Where did everyone go? The masses are inching up and down Sepulveda at six miles per hour, losing their cell reception as they get stuck at the light in that creepy tunnel beneath the runway. From the south, they ride the 105 west to Sepulveda, creating a westbound traffic backup on the 105 for miles, all the way back to Prairie. From the north, they take Sepulveda or Lincoln. You know what Lincoln Approval gets you these days? Twenty minutes trying to get past the stoplights at Venice and Washington. All because of that new Costco, in my opinion.

What is the lesson of all this? Information will spread. Shortcuts will be shared via word-of-mouth. Secret traffic blogs will tell you secret traffic routes, imploring you to keep it to yourself. Nothing lasts forever. Norton Avenue will not last forever. Not because of what I'm writing. My hit count is so small (and half of you are in Wisconsin) that I doubt what I say will make a difference. Eventually, Wilton Place will get back to 2006 levels. The universe may be infinite but human behavior patterns are not.

Maybe this weekend I'll head to Century Boulevard. I have no flights to catch, no people to pick up. I just want to roll down that road, approaching the relaxed Pacific vista, remembering the California that was (and still is if you work hard to find it). I'll blast that Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks album from 1995 in my CRV, sipping pink lemonade, fanning myself with a vintage 1959 Dodgers pennant and staring up at the palm trees wondering which frond will fall next, hoping no one's picnic gets ruined.

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