It may be hard to imagine today, but there was a time when freeways didn’t cut through Northeast LA. The land occupied by freeways today was not undeveloped: homes had to be demolished, hillsides flatted, streets removed altogether to make way for the massive automobile infrastructure that encircles the neighborhood. Large parts of Northeast LA were erased for freeways – lost in the name of progress – leaving residents with little more than memories of a pre-freeway Northeast LA, memories which will fade as those who lived through local freeway construction continue to age and become a smaller portion of the population. Old photos and local newspapers from the area documented freeway construction in Northeast LA, but there is little physical evidence one can encounter today that shows signs of the past; things were either destroyed or preserved–very few parts of the urban landscape were only partially destroyed for the freeways.
Maps offer good indications of how things used to be; looking at a map, one can see streets currently bisected by freeways, mentally ”connect the dots,” and visualize how the streets used to run uninterrupted before the freeways arrived. However, every now and then, if one looks closely, one will notice subtle hints in the urban landscape – in addition to what maps and street names offer – from the time before freeways came to Northeast LA. In northern part of Glassell Park, close to the neighborhood’s border with the city of Glendale, there is a fascinating hint of the past, which now sits as a scar from the 2 Freeway’s destructive path through the neighborhood.
Just east of where it intersects with Avenue 42, Palmer Drive abruptly terminates with a concrete wall because beyond that is the 2 Freeway.
The concrete wall abutting the freeway is bare– literally a blank slate. While it offers evidence of the freeway’s existence, it does not show anything of the community’s past or offer any indication of what was there before the freeway; what was there before the freeway has been completely removed.
However, between this blank wall and the home on the north side of this little cul-de-sac there is a physical hint of the pre-freeway era– a “stairway to nowhere.”
It looks private since the adjacent resident places their trash bins in front of it, but the stairway, according to Zimas, is public.
If one looks on at the stairway from an aerial view online, one sees the stairway actually goes on for quite a while before suddenly ending.
Because the stairway is public, it presumably led to somewhere before the freeway was built and sanborn maps from the decades before the freeway’s construction reveal this to be true.
A sanborn map of the area around Palmer Drive before the freeway, dated 1930. Note the stairway connecting Palmer Drive and Round Top Drive. Image via: UC Berkeley sanborn map collection
Today, this portion of the 2 Freeway acts as a border between Eagle Rock and Glassell Park, physically dividing the two neighborhoods and offering few points of contact between them.
A map of the area around Palmer Drive as it exists today. The stairway is just east of the intersection of Palmer Drive and Avenue 42. Mendocino Ct serves as a good point of orientation when comparing this map with the one above. Image credit: Google Maps
Before the freeway was built, there was no physical border between present-day Glassell Park and Eagle Rock– the two blended together through a windy network of hillside streets and stairways as can be observed in the sanborn map above.
It is interesting to wonder how this part of the neighborhood would be if the freeway had never been built. Although this part of Northeast LA is still a desirable area due to the many historic homes and hillside location, it would probably more desirable had the freeway never been built since some of the charming homes that remain are plagued by freeway noise and pollution.
Many people, especially realtors, still debate where Eagle Rock ends and Glassell Park begins in this part of Northeast LA, but the 2 Freeway is a commonly agreed as the informal border; this divide would likely be far less certain had the area been protected from the freeway construction.
Today, walking in the area one is forced to follow a few select streets to get anywhere. Had the freeway never been built, the walking experience in the area would probably be more popular and pleasant – similar to the popularity of recreational walking in the hills of Mount Washington and Silver Lake – as there would be more more paths to choose from, more ways to approach and navigate the area.
Would Northeast LA, or perhaps Glassell Park specifically, be better off today had the 2 Freeway never been built?