The freeway sign arrived in Los Angeles five days after I did. It appeared out of nowhere, a valiant attempt by one of its citizens to help drivers make sense of their city, just as I appeared in a silver Subaru, valiantly attempting to make sense of what were apparently not called "highways" but "freeways." Not that you should ever refer to them that way, I was constantly reminded. "Just say the number," a friend sighed — the route number, which I kept forgetting should always be prefaced with the word "the," a colloquialism my plain-speaking Midwestern brain couldn't register. Nor could I comprehend being strapped into a car for hours a day, the sheer inhumanity of a Sigalert, or a sweeping six-lane interchange as vast as the Pacific Ocean.
I remember, for example, the first time I tried to head north on "the 5" from downtown, when I missed the exit completely, sailing obliviously towards Pasadena. The second time I found myself frantically crossing dashed line after dashed line, like Frogger, in a last-minute attempt to relocate from one end of the 110 to the other. Even once I reached the exit, I was still in danger: The 5's on-ramp twirls violently to the left like an unfurling banana peel, and it sneaks up far too fast for anyone operating an automobile, especially a non-local. I sped uncontrollably up the 5's incline, panting all the way to Burbank.
An artist named Richard Ankrom had the same experience, and so he did what any fed-up Los Angeles driver would do: He created a simple directional tool to help drivers prepare for the 5's poorly marked hairpin exit. He designed and sewed a Caltrans uniform, cut the shield-like "5" shape as well as a "NORTH" from sheet metal, and affixed reflectors to match the existing system. He even gave the signage a nice dusting of L.A. smog sheen so it wouldn't look glaringly new. On August 5, 2001, in broad daylight, he hoisted a ladder onto Gantry 21300, walked onto a catwalk above one of the city's busiest arteries, and installed his own freeway sign. The collage of six time-lapse photos at the bottom of this post shows how he did it. (There are more on Ankrom's site.)
Maybe Angelenos really are too busy text messaging against the steering wheel and applying mascara with the help of the visor mirror to pay attention to the view out their windshields. And perhaps we do have a bit of a bureaucracy problem with our state government. Either way, no one noticed it for nine months.
Ankrom eventually leaked the story to the Downtown News, stunning millions of duped commuters and effectively coming clean to Caltrans. But Caltrans knew Ankrom was right. For eight years, the sign remained. Christopher Knight reviewed it for the Los Angeles Times as if it was a public art piece. A video and an exhibition were created of Ankrom's work, and he was featured on every news outlet you could imagine, from local to international. And every time I saw the hand-applied NORTH 5, I felt like the ultimate L.A. insider for knowing the story behind it.
To me, it was Los Angeles's Single Greatest Secret. It became my single favorite L.A. thing to share with people. Most people who lived here had never heard the tale, so like a cultural ambassador, I felt it was my duty to tell them. I worked it into a review I wrote for Print Magazine about a book on effective wayfinding systems. When giving people directions I would point it out like a landmark. ("Be sure to look at the sign as you're heading north on the 110...no, no don't go north on the 5, look at the sign.") Anyone lucky enough to be in a car with me while heading northbound on the 110 would get the full narrative, which I had timed perfectly to a grand reveal as we sailed under the glittery, counterfeit characters.
Last night, I stumbled upon a story in the LA Weekly that said the sign had been removed on the day after Thanksgiving. Not only had Ankrom not been notified that his signed, dated handiwork was being removed — he actually found out on a local blog — his sign, his art, had been sent to an aluminum recycler. He spent eight hours trying to find out where it went, only to find these stacks of freeway signage, pressed into neat cubes and readied for their voyage to China.
But there is a somewhat happy ending that should give Ankrom some sense of satisfaction. His work wasn't really gone: Caltrans had "accepted" Ankrom's suggestion, as it were. When they replaced the sign during scheduled maintenance, they did it with a shiny new sign that did, indeed, include his edit.
Ankrom called his piece "guerrilla public service," and that it was: His action quickly and seamlessly alleviated millions of headaches for those who were able to make their transition to the 5 somewhat less hairy. (Can you imagine how long it would have taken to petition Caltrans the old-fashioned way?) He very likely saved a few lives. But I see Ankrom's work as more of a "public service performance." It's an act of faith that's present in some of my favorite urban interventions of today — the premeditated social choreography of Improv Everywhere, the commuter-appreciation art of Jason Eppink, the toy horses tethered to curbs that make up Portland's Ponies. These are celebrated not for their specific improvements of local policy, but for those little moments of unbridled, unexpected delight that they deliver to the residents of a city, who are undercaffeinated and undercompensated, head-down and heartbroken, propelling themselves towards another dreary day of work. Alerting those people to an incredible experience they're simultaneously sharing with millions of other people a year? And to reward those who paused long enough to pay attention? Now that's public service.
I don't remember how I originally found out about the sign. But the reason I hadn't noticed the erasure of Ankrom's work is because my life changed so much in the eight years since it was installed. I'm no longer in possession of a car, no longer making daily six-lane negotiations with angry SUVs, no longer commuting twelve miles each way to a job I don't love. I think I had to be that person — trapped and terrified — to get the swell of pride I felt every time I headed home on the 110. As I came around that bend in the freeway, the shadows of skyscrapers growing long across the ocean of asphalt, I'd always grow giddy. I'd fidget in my seat, peering into the cars around me, wondering who else was in on L.A.'s Single Greatest Secret. I would smile as I sat, paralyzed by my fellow Angelenos, in crushing rush-hour traffic.
Alissa Walker is a writer for GOOD, a collaboration of individuals, businesses, and nonprofits pushing the world forward. Since 2006 they've been making a magazine, videos, and events for people who give a damn.
Timelapse photo by Jim Payne. All photos from Richard Ankrom's site.
This story originally appeared on Good.is on January 9, 2010 at 9:00 AM EST.