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Most Failed Transit Projects Don't Have An Exhibit, But The 710 Freeway Extension Does

The 710, Before Present exhibit assembles records and artifacts documenting decades of battling against the extension of the 710 freeway. (Credit: Julia Paskin/KPCC)
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For 50 years, Caltrans and San Gabriel Valley residents have been fighting over a plan to build a connection between where the 710 Freeway ends in Alhambra to the 210 Freeway's fadeout into Pasadena. The archival installation 710, Before Present highlights Southern California's ever-evolving relationship to transit and neighborhood.

The exhibit recently moved from its initial location in Pasadena to a new home in the office of a newspaper in South Pasadena.

When you walk into the intimate storefront of the South Pasadenan on Mission Street, the first thing you notice are the many maps adorning the walls.

The archival exhibit almost looks like the command center for a big operation. Route sketches, city planning documents and newspaper clippings give the impression that all this effort led to the construction of something really, really big.

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The installation includes maps from various stages of the planning process where you can see where the 710 could have been built. (Julia Paskin/KPCC)

But it didn't.

That's the twist behind 710, Before Present. After decades of planning, proposing, protesting and re-planning to build an extension between the 710 freeway in Alhambra and the 210 in Pasadena, there isn't one -- no traditional freeway as was once proposed, nor an underground tunnel, per the most recent plan.

Instead, the exhibit captures the story of a project that never came to fruition. But all the work, both for and against the 710 extension has made a lasting impression without having to be built. The extension may be the most infamous local transit project that never actually was. 710, Beyond Present captures the phantom imprint of the route and how it shaped the communities it would have changed -- or even destroyed.

A threat spanning generations

The couple behind the exhibit, Tim Ivison and Julia Tcharfus, have a personal connection to the 710 saga. Their own home sits along the proposed route, so the freeway's construction would have most certainly meant their home's destruction. Ivison's grandmother first rented the house from Caltrans in 1968.

"She's lived through the whole arc of this story and all the different layers of resistance," Ivison said in an interview with KPCC's Take Two during a tour of the exhibit. The first iteration of the exhibit was actually installed within Ivison and Tcharfus' home as a site-specific work. Today, portions of the exhibit have found a new temporary home at another spot along the proposed route, in South Pasadena.

Fighting for the survival of South Pasadena

In the beginning, the only community opposed was South Pasadena, which pitted them against the city of Alhambra, where residents were once very much in favor of the extension. The most popular plan was to run parallel to Meridian Avenue. That path would have bisected and effectively dissolved South Pasadena as each side absorbed into the neighboring cities of Los Angeles, Alhambra and Pasadena.

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"For the last few decades, the issue has been discussed as 'closing the gap,'" Ivison said. "But there's a lot of people here who don't think of it as a gap and think of it only as their community."

The Meridian route would have split South Pasadena in half and dissolved the city. (Photo by Julia Paskin/KPCC)

And that's why you can see so many different proposed routes illustrated in the exhibit. Communities tried to think of ways to allow the extension without destroying their particular neighborhood.

"But as time went on and environmental and historical preservation issues came forward, they decided they didn't want it at all," Tcharfus added.

The 710's importance to the ports

To understand the history of the 710 freeway, you have to start first with the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach, where a good portion of imported goods enter the U.S. Containers are moved off the cargo ships and onto trucks that make their way northeast on the 710 heading to various warehouses and distribution points. That makes the freeway an incredibly important link in the American supply chain. It also means that trucks and every other vehicle have to wend their way through the cities of Alhambra, South Pasadena and Pasadena before hopping on the beginning of the 210 freeway to continue east.

"The whole 710 conflict allows us to look at the whole arc of how we've imagined, dealt with and understood the freeways as a part of living in Los Angeles, or indeed a kind of alternative to that that might be our future," explained Ivison.

The 710 isn't just about residents. It's also a key road for transporting imported goods. (Photo by Julia Paskin/KPCC)

An audio 'anti-tour' of the 710

L.A. historian Norman Klein created an audio tour for the exhibit, but with a unique approach. Instead of exploring a city by highlighting what is in it, he showcases what is not. That's why he calls it an "anti-tour."

"He takes people on a journey of Los Angeles where he points out things that are missing," Tcharfus said. "But in this case, his anti-tour focused on something that was never built but still has a presence that you can see and feel."

Klein describes how businesses and homes evolved along the route of the 710 and its proposed extension, both in hopes and in fear of the project's completion. In this way, the non-existent 710 has made its mark simply by threatening to exist for so long.
When the battle over the 710 kicked-off in the early 1960s, the freeway had a lot of power as a concept.

"They were still seen as magnificent, modernist symbols of progress," Ivison said. "So, to be against the freeway was to be against progress."

The 'Zombie' Project

Fifty years later, residents still attend community meetings to beat back the 710 extension. The latest proposal to build an underground tunnel to connect the two freeways died down but perhaps not forever. Ivison describes the project as a zombie, not quite alive and not quite dead. While the tunnel project was defunded, language remains on the books offering the tunnel as the most viable plan. Residents won't be happy until those phrases truly disappear from the record forever.

710, Before Present will be at the South Pasadenan's building now until August 15, 2018. After that, the curators hope to take the show on the road and also intend to build an online archive.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.

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