Shifting Lanes: The Demise of the Southern California Autotopia

Tropics of Meta

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To understand the City of Angels, Joan Didion once wrote, one needed to immerse oneself in the freeway experience or, as she put it, “the only secular communion Los Angeles has.”1 Between 1968 and 1979 Didion published three books — two collections of non-fiction essays: “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” in 1968 and “The White Album” in 1979; and one work of fiction: “Play It as It Lays” in 1970 — that depicted a modern Southern California, buffeted by “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” but grounded by its highways and relaxed by its pools. Southern California combined the elemental extremes of nature with the rigidity of the decade’s car-centric urban planning. For 1960s and early 1970s Californians, the car provided solace in an age of discomfort; but soon after the liberating effects of the freeway appeared increasingly diminished.

Prior to the age of gridlock, few writers captured the essence…

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