Slow down and watch out for mood swings while driving on L.A.’s “bipolar parkway”

Frowny median (above); smiley median (below) | Photos by Martha Benedict

Motorists driving on the Arroyo Seco Parkway in recent months have seen several notable changes to L.A.’s first freeway,  including a new concrete center divider stamped with sections of a line that swoops up and then down. What is the undulating pattern supposed to represent – if anything? Officials with state highway builder Caltrans said the decorative median – part of a $16 million safety improvement project – was inspired by the arches in the bridges over the parkway (commonly known as the Pasadena Freeway), according to Northeast L.A. residents who attended an agency presentation in 2009.

But Caltrans’ decorative touch has fallen flat with some neighborhood preservationists, who say the median  motif  median resembles nothing more than six miles of alternating frowny and smiley faces. Activist Martha Benedict, who was at the Caltrans meeting in 2009, said the frowny-smiley design prompted one neighborhood council leader to dub the freeway the “bipolar parkway.”

Benedict was among a group of historic preservationists and Arroyo Seco Parkway advocates who had opposed Caltran’s improvement project because it destroyed some of the highway’s original features, including decorative walls and curbs designed to resemble stonework.  Benedict, a member of the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council,  for one was no fan of the median motif she saw in 2009. But the end product that now lines the middle of the parkway is even clunkier than originally presented, looking like pieces of elbow macaroni.

“The swoops are much shorter and further apart than the design originally presented,” said Benedict (who contributes photos to The Eastsider) in an email. Meanwhile, the stamped stone pattern on the edges of the freeway also failed to reflect the detail and tinted stone originally proposed by Caltrans. “Rather than emulating the look of mosaic/broken concrete with stains to emulate different rock components, the side barriers resemble dried mud.”

Benedict and others were so offended by the design that they tried to pressure Caltrans to stop the stamping along a portion of the parkway. “We were told they would, but then they did it anyway.”

Damaged historic features. Photo by Martha Benedict

Is Caltrans’ decorative touch that bad?  Benedict and other preservationists think so. But what troubles them even more are some of the highway’s historic features that were reduced to rubble. Still, last week, the National Park Service announced that the Arroyo Seco Parkway had officially joined the National Register of Historic Places.

“The Parkway defines the community. It is unique,”  Benedict said. “Yet this resource was defaced and destroyed in ways that had little to do with safety and more with expedience and ease of maintenance for Caltrans.”

Related posts:

  • Caltrans seeks to make L.A. first freeway a national monument after demolishing historic features. The Eastsider
  • Is Caltrans running over the history of L.A.’s oldest freeway? The Eastsider


  1. I never could understand what they did. With modern technology, It should be easier to make things beautiful than it was in 1939, which makes us wonder: Why didn’t they?

  2. I would hope that CA could do better in the decorative freeway wall department. Every time I drive thru AZ or NM, I marvel at their artistic walls………colorful and stunning. It’s concrete landscaping at its best and also low maintenance!

  3. This abomination from Cal Trans bothers me way more then the solar panels on the hillside above Broadview Sanitorium. The parkways shoddy construction is particularly disturbing.

  4. You mention $16 million, I thought the cost of this refurbishment was more like $150 million. In general I think they have made the freeway much uglier than it was; what a huge waste of money except for the re-pavement when it’s finished. All they needed to do was look at the stretch of the 101 near Universal Studios with its decorative walls or the 5 in Orange County around Disneyland. Sad indeed that we have to drive by such an ugly concrete monstrosity for years to come. Who is responsible for this mess at taxpayer’s expense?

  5. Awesome story. Every time I drive down the freeway I can’t believe how bad a job Caltrans did. It looks cheap, like they used inexpensive materials and artwork from a kindergarten class. The swoops in no way conjure up bridges in my mind, and the concrete stamp pattern looks repetitive and tacky….the whole thing is a mess.

    Thanks to Martha for helping bring this important issue to light!

    Mark Legassie
    Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council

  6. It’s an insult basically. Caltrans said, oh you want arty farty. There you go. Enjoy!

    Great, now we’re stuck with it. It’s a monument to lack of pride, creativity and ownership. Perfect for this day and age.

  7. I agree with Martha. The stamped motifs don’t begin to approach the quality of work accomplished in earlier decades. The Parkway “improvements” are tacky and make for a claustrophobic drive.

  8. Freeways are ugly. They’re not made to be routes of artwork for you to gaze upon during your commute. No matter how many “beautiful” castings one might put on the walls they are roadways designed to get you from point A to point B so you can spend as little time commuting as possible, they’re not designed to be art galleries. The Arroyo freeway updating was done to make this otherwise very dangerous freeway safer. How many times have you narrowly missed a piece of lumbar sticking out of the center divider? How many times have you thought if I get a flat on this freeway there’s no place to turn off, and how many times have you see cars run off the freeway into the arroyo?(I’ve seen it twice). The freeway is hands down safer than it was before and if one persons life is spared from a nasty car accident due to the improvements then it was a success.
    Now, I actually agree that the castings on the wall are bad, but caltrans has no money to have an artist design intricate details for a wall you shouldn’t even be focusing on (eyes on the road)! Besides if Michealangelo himself came and carved out a beautiful relief along the entire freeway the avenues are still going to tag all over it.

  9. What I just noticed yesterday (and most object to) is the newly poured apron of concrete surrounding the three surviving fan palms in a formerly green spacious median area. Why? Before renovations began, at this time of year, drivers could find purple lupine and California poppies growing along the freeway’s roadside to brighten their 5 mile-per-hour morning commute. Now it’s only asphalt and concrete. Didn’t anyone bother to think that covering all those areas only contributes more rainwater onto the roadbed which will lead to more accidents like the two I witnessed on Tuesday, February 15th? When in doubt during this project, Caltrans simply removed trees and poured concrete. And we will live with this for the next 30 years……

  10. Clearly, CalTrans’ efforts to “re-historicize” the Arroyo Parkway have fallen flat, and, clearly, CalTrans only gave lip service to the members of NELA who thought they were being heard. As for adding safety, the Stalin-era walls help (over the years, I have heard many cars hit the Arroyo bottom), but absolutely nothing was done to mitigate dangerous exiting. In fact, the Ave 43 northbound offramp is even tighter, as witnessed by the new scars on the new “rocks.” We can still call that off-ramp the Montecito Heights IQ test. At least we’ve preserved some history!

  11. El Batmanuel-

    The attitude at Caltrans is that Northeast did not “deserve” a project that both enhances safety and increases the quality of LA most historic parkway. It is ironic that Caltrans was willing to restore the name of the Arroyo Seco Parkway to this strip of concrete, but then proceeded to to pave over and obscure the parkway elements. It’s bipolar alright, but not just because of the smiley/frown motif.

  12. When these first appeared, I didn’t see them as “smiles” or “frowns” but instead they brought to mind the big two-handled lumberjack saws you’d see in cartoons as a kid. Lumberjacks, saws, removing trees . . . and the Arroyo greenbelt don’t go together well; it seemed like someone’s idea of a back-handed, inside joke. While I don’t know art, I think when something sends you a message that’s pretty far from what the area’s about, then somebody missed the mark — a LOT!

  13. As far as safety goes– haven’t you always noticed how drivers tend to freak out when driving next to a cement block? they drive way to far to the right of the lane…i bet this is going to cause accidents.

    As for aesthetics, sooo ugly. the pressed cement rocks on the 210 near the eastern end (pomona?) are waaaay better.

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