What’s in a Name? Our Roads’ Romantic Alter-Egos

That which we call a Cahuenga by any other name would be as slow

Foothill, Garden Grove, Gardena, Orange, Marina, Riverside. These lush terms, the names of our cities, with their associations of the elements of paradise – water, air, earth, flora – serve as reminders that we live in a beautiful place. And yet, our city was constructed on contradictions and misnomers. For these alluring terms are also the names of perhaps our bleakest bane of existence – our freeways.

In pragmatic fashion, Angelenos call our freeways almost exclusively by their numerical designations: the 10, the 5, the 101. However, looking at the 1930s, when traffic engineers were developing a radical new concept to address our city’s growing population and deepening addiction to motor-vehicle transit, the soon-to-be unveiled freeway/highway/parkway carried a romantic connotation, one of freedom and independence.

In a series of posts, we’ll take you through the etymology of L.A.’s freeways, starting with the oldest ones:

L.A.’s first freeway that still exists was the Cahuenga Pass Freeway. Cahuenga is a Spanish version of the native Tongva word kawengna, which means “place of the mountain.” Built at a cost of $1.5 million (equivalent to almost $25 million nowadays), , the two-mile, eight-lane superhighway opened in 1940, replacing a narrow, winding road that navigated hilly farmland between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. The state later incorporated the Cahuenga Pass Freeway into the Hollywood Freeway, now known as the 101.

The Arroyo Seco Parkway also opened in late 1940, and was a $6 million (approximately $98 million today), 6.8-mile road that didn’t enforce a speed limit for years. Otherwise known as the 110, this freeway travels between Pasadena and Los Angeles, through Highland Park along the Arroyo Seco River. Meaning “dry stream” in Spanish, explorer Gaspar de Portola came upon this weak Los Angeles river tributary in 1770. Of all the rivers he’d explored in his travels, this one had the least water – hence, its name.