2010 Feb. 24: (Particulates) Freeway Close

2010 Feb. 24: (Particulates) Freeway Close

By Moss Gropen | Published Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

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Freeway Close
“It’s not for most people; I wouldn’t recommend it.” I asked Johnny and a selection of other freeway-side dwellers around San Diego County: With all the choices available in “America’s Finest City” (and outskirts), why the hell did you move here?
Johnny comes across as big-city, blue-collar, with a strong streak of intellectual curiosity and an articulate way of talking about his neighborhood and what it means to have an interstate cut right through its heart.So says Johnny — or “JohnnyCab” as he’s known via his email handle. He’s talking about his companion for 15 years, the freeway, specifically Interstate 5, at a spot just north of Little Italy. Who would voluntarily — knowingly — live right up against a pulsing, humming, fume-cloaked ribbon of concrete?
“I’ve always lived in urban areas; back in Chicago, I lived on Lakeside Drive — we called it ‘LSD.’ ” A big neighborhood guy, he is keenly aware of how his corner of town fits in with all the other places and ready to serve up a lively mini-lecture. “When the freeway was built in 1965, the area just north of here became a no-man’s land. It was already in the flight path of Lindbergh. Do you remember ‘Five Points’? It was a bustling intersection before the freeway came in.”
Johnny is also keenly aware of how, well, peculiar his neighborhood might seem to some. “It’s a dichotomy. Right behind me are million-dollar condos.” As for his place, a one-bedroom “apartment cottage,” Johnny freely admits it’s “funky.” It’s also cheap. He won’t reveal how cheap but says that he gets a “freeway discount,” with rent “well below the fair-market rate. I pay what I would for a place in the ’hood — [someplace] like University and 54th Street. And there was no credit check.” When I ask about the drawbacks, he says, “The ambient noise level is high, and there are little rubber particles in the road dust. Also, because it’s near the airport, I get a fine residue of jet fuel sprayed on my car.”
But the cabbie-cum-urban historian is undeterred. “I’m quite comfortable here. [Also] my brother — he’s a bartender — lives in one of the cottages in back of me.”
In addition to forming an island of (relatively) affordable shelter in San Diego’s high-rent seas, the 1940s-vintage cottages — a cluster set into a hill in a three-level array — are spaces where one can make a lot of noise. “In 1995 I was 27,” Johnny says. “It was a perfect fit for a young person; you could turn up your stereo all the way, do things most neighbors wouldn’t put up with.”
When it comes to freeway living, noise might be the first thing that comes to mind, but not every highway-side denizen has the same take on the topic. For some, it’s at worst a minor annoyance, hardly a blip on the aural radar screen. For others, it’s a major impediment to relaxation and recreation, not to mention conversation. Angel, who rents an apartment where the 15 freeway spits out motorists onto El Cajon Boulevard — Marlboro Avenue — says, “Before I moved here, I didn’t think twice about it, but once I got here, I realized how noisy it was. Cops are always pulling people over, and there are constant sirens.”
Like almost everything else, the health impact of noise has been the subject of studies, largely undertaken by governmental agencies. In 1999 the World Health Organization presented findings that suggested a correlation — albeit a weak one — between long-term noise exposure (levels of 67–70-plus decibels) and hypertension. More recent studies point to a similar link between nighttime noise over 50 decibels and increased risk of heart attack, the result of chronically elevated levels of the hormone cortisol. Generally speaking, it seems that (at least for the subset of the general population that is susceptible to vasoconstriction) the constant drone of freeway traffic — if loud enough — causes a rise in adrenaline levels, which in turn leads to a decrease in arterial blood flow. Long-term, annoying noise leads to stress, and with it, higher blood pressure. In addition, folks who’ve decided, for whatever reason, to be “freeway-close” end up suffering more fatigue, headaches, stomach ulcers, and vertigo.
But how close is too close? One way to gauge deleterious proximity to a freeway is to look at the locations where noise barriers have been erected or, if not actually built, requested by nearby residents. How does one go about getting a shield between one’s back yard (or front yard) and the roar of downshifting tractor-trailers? Unsurprisingly, there is a complex and numbingly bureaucratic relationship among the various federal, state, and local agencies responsible for building, improving, and maintaining freeways in San Diego County. The road to domestic tranquility is fraught with red tape and frustration.
To begin with, the feds don’t have a “number standard” — a decibel threshold — which mandates the installation of sound barriers. True, there are regulations in federal law contained under the rubric of a section entitled “Procedures for Abatement of Highway Traffic Noise and Construction Noise.” But as it happens, the specifics for barriers — set forth by the Federal Highway Administration — kick in only in cases where a state transportation department, such as the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), has requested funding for new or enlarged roadways.
For San Diegans and other inhabitants of the Freeway State who wish to knock down the decibels, Caltrans is the go-to agency. Without their OK, sounds emitted from the freeway next door, whether perceived as pleasant white noise or maddening anxiety-provokers, will go unabated. The key word here is abatement. No barrier, even the largest and most technically advanced, will blot out all, or even most, of the noise. Even so, you’ll have to wait not months but years, perhaps even a decade or more. There’s a labyrinthine process — what else would you expect for a government-run project?
If anyone can navigate the noise-weary through the red (and yellow) tape that surrounds the process, it’s Jayne Dowda, chief of engineering for Caltrans’ Environmental Division in the agency’s San Diego/Imperial branch. A longtime San Diegan with a wry sense of humor and an encyclopedic grasp of county road projects, Dowda knows noise abatement the way highway workers know orange cones. In order to get a freeway sound wall built, she says, there needs to be either a “capital project” underway or a “retrofit” scenario. These typically involve lane additions or widening; along with greater capacity comes more traffic — and more noise. If the projected decibel boost merits amelioration, Caltrans is in charge. Extant roadways can also obtain noise barriers; in these cases SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) is the lead agency, working within the framework of its “Noise Barrier Retrofit Policy,” approved in 2001.
Caltrans starts by performing an environmental study to determine the impact of the project on the surrounding area. “[Current] noise is just a small part of it,” says Dowda. “We use a computer model to forecast future noise; if it’s projected to be 67 decibels or higher in a residential area (72 for commercial zones), the initial threshold has been met. Then, we apply a two-part test: Is [the project] acoustically feasible? That is, will it produce a five-decibel abatement? If so, will the cost to build it be ‘reasonable’?”
A “yes” answer to these questions means only that Caltrans will consider noise abatement. The next step is a preliminary statement — a recommendation — followed by a public review process that, among other things, will address issues such as the visual impact of the proposed wall. At that point, if locals don’t object too strenuously, Caltrans has the green light — unless significant, unanticipated costs crop up during the final design. “If we have to dig up someone’s swimming pool, that’s a problem,” Dowda says. “Sometimes, we find that people have built onto our right-of-way.”
Even if the environmental study fails to unearth an endangered rat or lizard, and even if the community forum attracts not a single activist, aural relief isn’t just a jackhammer away. Take the 1-15 “managed lane” project. Notes Dowda: “The studies began in 1999, final approval was in 2003, and the estimated completion date is 2012. And that’s a quick one.”

No one would call the completion of La Mesa’s new noise wall — the long-planned project on the 94 freeway — quick. Although La Mesa residents clamored for it as early as 1995, it wasn’t finished until July 2009, and even then, the $2,000,000, 16-foot-high concrete edifice turned out to be only half as long — 1600 feet — as originally intended. Running along the freeway between Massachusetts Avenue and Waite Drive, its efficacy is a matter of neighborhood debate; some locals say it has made a drastic difference, while others say, “Abatement? What abatement?” But Dowda says the decibel meters don’t lie. “We measured a 10-decibel reduction from 75 to 65 decibels. That’s huge.”
Paul Walters is a fan of the La Mesa noise barrier. His house sits on the north side of the freeway, at the southern terminus of Massachusetts Avenue. By the time he moved to La Mesa, the 94 had long existed, effectively creating a row of a dozen homes, all situated at the ends of parallel streets cut off by the freeway. All were severely impacted by noise. But Walters saw opportunity. “I was a young divorced guy and tired of renting. For $36,000, it was a good deal in 1976. It needed work, and I was a good fixer-upper. Also, there was only one neighbor — two houses sit at the end of these streets — and I got a big lot, 150 by 60 feet.”
It was the lot size that sold Walters. Within a few years, he’d planted all manner of trees: apricot, avocado, banana, cherimoya, fig, nectarine, peach, and persimmon, along with a host of vegetables. For a freeway-side property, the place was looking pastoral. But all was not idyllic; at a scant 25 feet from the 94, Walters’ retreat attracted its share of interlopers, both human and animal. “I had all kinds of critters — skunks, rats, gophers — coming off the freeway. The worst were the people who hung around. They’d steal anything in my yard that wasn’t tied down, tools, ladders, even aluminum cans. But what really got me hot was when some guy came in and just whacked off whole bunches of my bananas — they’re plantains, actually, I have ten trees. So I built my own wooden fence.”
The redwood fence kept intruders out but did little to dampen the noise, which “was so bad I could tell the time just by listening to the traffic.” Aside from the constant drone, Walters said that before the noise barrier was erected, he’d also hear the tumult from frequent rollover accidents at the Massachusetts Avenue off-ramp. “There’s a sign on the freeway that says, ‘Signal 500 feet,’ but there’s a 6 percent downgrade, so people are going pretty fast. We have at least one accident every two or three weeks.”
Things have changed for the better, according to Walters, since the noise barrier went up. Looming six feet from the side of his house, a foot thick, and built of concrete blocks, it wins his aesthetic seal of approval: “I like it — it’s good-looking — beige, earth tones, and so on.” Most importantly, he notes, “It works. Sure, it reduces sunlight — there’s one woman in the neighborhood who’s always bitchin’ about that — but c’mon.” Retired since 2003, he spends a lot of time at home. I ask if he’s ever contemplated moving. “I actually put the house on the market in 1995, but not a single person came to look at it, probably because of the noise. But the noise wall has made a big difference. I’m here for good; I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Retrofitting an existing noise barrier is a dicey proposition, no matter how badly residents want it. It’s all a matter of funding. According to Dowda, there’s only enough money for three or four of the seven projects on the SANDAG retrofit list. Most people in freeway-bisected areas of town just live with the noise, even if they were there first.
Denise and Larry Arneson have lived in Normal Heights (at the edge of City Heights) for decades, in a house originally owned by Denise’s parents. It’s a 1926 Spanish revival, built long before the Southern California Auto Club promoted freeway construction, and long before the Eisenhower administration brought to fruition the network of interstates referred to as “defense highways.” But in 1979, the freeway finally came to the Arnesons’ doorstep, when the State of California started work on the long-awaited segment that would by the early 1990s allow San Diegans to drive south to the border on the I-15 without stopping at lights. As Denise Arneson tells it, living next to a freeway under construction may be even more disruptive than living next to one that’s already built.
When the powers-that-be decide to turn an old residential neighborhood into a full-fledged, high-volume transportation corridor, the impacts — aural, visual, olfactory, and aesthetic — are annoying, to say the least. For over a decade, the Arnesons endured a constant cacophony, unremitting dust, and the clogged streets that epitomize the business of building big roads. But selling the place wasn’t an option. They’d lived there too long, accumulating all the expected emotional ties.
Instead of fleeing the disruption, they documented it. Larry, a longtime hobbyist shutterbug, snapped hundreds of pictures of things like turquoise-hued, six-foot-diameter sewer pipes stacked in front of their house, and Leviathan graders and bulldozers that took over their street. If they’d thought of using a video camera, the Arnesons could have preserved for posterity other aspects of the southbound I-15 project, especially those things that made sleep well nigh impossible. After-dark construction was excruciating. “The worst thing might have been the bright spotlights they use,” says Denise. “And the pounding; we couldn’t keep our windows open on warm nights.” The couple also suffered the wrath of Caltrans’ right-of-way acquisitions. Freeways take up a lot of space, and to finish the I-15, eminent domain was invoked, resulting in a large-scale Caltrans buyout of homes in the neighborhood. Although the structures were eventually demolished and paved over, the State of California, assuming the role of mega-landlord, rented the places out to people the Arnesons described as “low lifes.” These days, things have calmed down a bit, and although Denise says, “I still don’t like it,” she notes one positive outcome. “It’s actually helped my daycare business; with the freeway access, it’s easier for parents to reach my house.”

Despite evidence that points to adverse, long-term health consequences from living next to a freeway, most San Diegans with whom I spoke said they were unaware — or only dimly aware — of the hazards. Even those who do recognize the high ambient background noise and fine particulate matter (the reality of the annoyance, not the nomenclature) are more worried about such immediate if prosaic issues as paying the rent and getting to work on time.
Damion Jackson typifies this pragmatism. A Jamaican immigrant who calls himself a videographer, he’s lived less than a half-block from the 8 freeway, near College Avenue, for two years. Although he hears at least one traffic accident a day, along with a steady stream of big trucks and siren-blaring ambulances, he likes the location. “Yeah, mon, the freeway access. You know, I can make it anyplace I want to go from here, you see. And the price is right.”
More than anything, the decision to put down roots, even shallow ones, cheek-by-jowl with the local interstate, is a financial one. The real estate mantra of “location, location, location” operates here, but inversely. Although home-buyers often shy away from homesteading next to a busy road — even a modest “feeder” surface street — renters are a different story. (Anecdotally speaking, a high percentage of local freeway dwellers seem to be renters.) San Diegans, it seems, will put up with a lot in exchange for affordable rent. It’s not just noise, though, that forms the downside of the calculus; in some cases, it’s also the quirky incident — dangerous or merely inconvenient — that one encounters near a busy highway. In the gritty, urban neighborhoods that house most of the county’s freeways, shit happens — shit not ordinarily encountered on the tame, orderly streets of places like Scripps Ranch, San Carlos, and Rancho Bernardo, to name a few.
Roxanne Lopez knows all about the inconvenience, but she won’t be vacating her Golden Hill apartment anytime soon. She says, “I thought I’d hate it, but I like it.” Lopez, who works in medical billing, moved to a small (10–12-unit) complex off 25th Street in April 2009; returning to San Diego after a stint in Fresno, she looked at a dozen or more places before settling on her two-bedroom, one-bath residence — the best deal she could find. It’s inner city all the way; the other tenants speak only Spanish, and homeless people congregate next to an adjacent overpass. Yet, she claims that she’s seen no serious crime — so far.
As one would expect, the wire-mesh fence between her place and the 94 freeway doesn’t impede the sound or exhaust residue emitted by traffic 50 feet from her front door; unless the windows are closed, she can’t hear, and the dust is fearsome. The sound of metal-on-metal from collisions is a frequent companion, as are the bellowing commands from police loudspeakers and sirens. It’s especially bad on weekend nights — she notes that it peaks around 3:00–4:00 a.m. — when the cops pull over suspected drunk drivers fresh from closing time at the bars.
Lopez says that, despite the drawbacks, her location gives her an affordable home with convenient access to not only the 94 but the 805 and 15, and the trolley stop a few blocks away. She appreciates that it’s a quick jaunt for her daughter to Hoover High School. For entertainment on the cheap, she takes in the fireworks at Petco Park from the privacy (and din) of her dwelling. To be sure, living next to the freeway has created frustration. Last summer, she was effectively trapped at home when police, having stopped a large tour bus, ordered the driver to pull over in the first available spot on the street, which turned out to be the only exit from the complex’s parking lot. Lopez, already scrambling to get to a job interview, pleaded with the officer to have the bus moved, but, she says, “He didn’t care.” She didn’t get the job — but still recommends freeway-side living. It all comes down to access and affordability.
Easy access to jobs and schools also means access to air pollution — and not just the mundane, if heavy, dust that most people mention. Indeed, if the numbers of research studies and articles are any indication, it would appear that exhaust fumes are perhaps of greater concern than noise. Photochemical air pollution, the nearly ubiquitous smog plaguing Southern California for decades, has long been thought to exacerbate pulmonary disorders and make breathing more difficult for even the healthiest; anyone who’s ever done heavy-duty aerobic exercise on a smoggy afternoon can attest to that. But the pollutant levels that give rise to “smog alerts,” “poor air quality days,” and other familiar earmarks of So Cal smog aren’t typically measured on freeway shoulders; by the time ozone, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide — the holy trinity of vehicular emissions — pass through the sensors, they’ve been mitigated (in varying degrees) by the atmosphere. People living next to a busy freeway, however, benefit from no such filtering.
When it comes to inhaling pollutants, kids, especially those in low-income families, are hit hardest by freeway emissions, say researchers. And it’s not as if the mechanism that results in respiratory distress remains unidentified. Dr. Elisa Nicholas, a pediatrician who focuses on childhood asthma, explains in an interview that “exposure to pollutants decreases the amount of allergens necessary to trigger an asthmatic response.” But she also stresses that there’s no easy solution — one can’t simply “legislate away” the problem. Nicholas, project director of the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, states that it would be counterproductive (not to mention impractical) to bar people from living near freeways. “Poor people have to live somewhere. I wouldn’t want to see displaced, homeless people. We need to further reduce emissions — we have the technology.”.
Want to trigger asthma or worsen an extant case? What about impeding lung development, and function in later life, among kids? If so, particulates are the way to go — the smaller, the better. According to the Southern California Particle Center and Supersite, “ultrafine” particles — the smallest of this class of pollutant — are the most hazardous because they are able to penetrate cellular tissue in the lungs and enter the circulatory system. The Particle Center (funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board) also states that proximity to the freeway is of vital importance in determining the degree of danger. The Particle Center’s studies — conducted in the Los Angeles area (which would seem equally applicable to San Diego) — showed that the highest concentrations of ultrafine particles occur within 50 meters of the freeway, drop to half that level at 50–90 meters out, and, after 300 meters or so, decline to the “ambient” level of the surrounding community. However, studies by other groups have pointed to wider hazard zones for the freeway-close.
Although there seems to be a general consensus among scientists that exposure to pollutants is greatly increased as one approaches the roadway, there is less agreement as to how far out the hazards extend. Perhaps the most comprehensive (i.e., largest study group and longest study period) investigation to date was a project undertaken by physicians associated with the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. Focusing on asthma and lung development, the researchers tracked 3677 children for eight years, starting at age 10. They concluded that by the age of 18, kids living within 500 yards of a freeway had, on average, a 3 percent deficit in the amount of air they could exhale and a 7 percent deficit in the rate of exhalation. (The former rate rose to 9 percent in the smoggiest areas of Southern California.) Moreover, the study revealed that the asthma rate among kids living a quarter of a mile from the freeway was 89 percent higher than for those living a mile away. As for long-term implications, the researchers noted with alarm that those who start adulthood with impaired lung capacity are, as they age, much more likely to suffer respiratory and cardiovascular diseases than the general population.
No matter how definitive or potentially frightening the studies, there seems to be little awareness, and even less concern, among those who live near the belching tailpipes. I spoke with Joey York, an affable, articulate woman who lives with her husband and children on Mariposa Street in La Mesa. York would seem to personify the maximum-exposure freeway dweller. “I live ON the 125 north,” she says. “The only thing separating us and the freeway is a chain-link fence.” She also happens to be an asthmatic — with an asthmatic child, to boot — and says that the dust is so bad that she and her husband never open the windows. If they wash their cars, she adds, “They’re filthy again within two days.” Yet, she admits, when it comes to health effects, she “hasn’t thought about it” but “would look into it.”

In many cases, freeways come to the people and, depending on one’s perspective, either bring sorely needed improvements to local transit or mercilessly slice through neighborhoods. In other instances, developers choose to build near existing freeways and homebuyers (at least initially) are happy to opt in. For an example of the latter scenario, drive south on the 163 toward downtown. Right before you get to Mission Valley, after passing the hospitals on the left (using the Mary Birch stork as a sentimental form of GPS), you’ll find, just past the Genesee exit, a curious little pocket of homes of fairly recent vintage, all of which stare point-blank at the freeway.
Viewed from the adjacent 163 (albeit at 70 or 80 miles per hour) these homes, at the southern dead end of Hanford Drive, appear to be respectable, middle-class, single-family dwellings, scarcely different, architecturally speaking, from thousands of other tract houses that pepper the county. But there’s something jarringly incongruous about the neighborhood, something that leads to the inevitable question: Who would build homes here — and who the hell would buy them? I’d pondered as much on many occasions, thinking: do kids hit baseballs or fling Frisbees onto the freeway? Do the local mutts get squashed under the wheels of semi-trucks? Do neighbors congregate to watch spectacular accidents or high-speed chases? I decided to look into it — dipping my toes into the waters gently at first — by snooping around online.
After a short time Googling “Hanford Drive, San Diego,” I discovered that one of these homes, a 1278-square-foot joint at 1850 Hanford, was up for sale for $275,000. The aerial photo showed an unremarkable dwelling situated, according to a superimposed red arrow, 50 yards from the freeway. Invited to take a “virtual tour” of the interior, I took note of the shoddy furniture, cheesy motel “art” on the walls, and unkempt bedrooms. However, I was unable to detect framed family portraits of the freeway dwellers who were, ostensibly, packing up to leave. Then it occurred to me: Perhaps they weren’t moving after all — maybe they were renters. Didn’t the sales ad mention an “investment opportunity”? Shortly thereafter, a cryptic message read, “This listing has been deactivated.”
Officially speaking, the 1700–1800 blocks of Hanford Drive are part of Linda Vista, where ramshackle, frequently decrepit houses — cheaply built during the post–World War II housing boom — are the norm. However, unlike their depressingly dilapidated cousins just to the west, and in contrast to many freeway-side dwellings in San Diego, these homes, which sold new for $80,000 or so, date only from 1984. But, as I discovered firsthand, their chronological age is as deceptive as the view from the freeway.
To get to the “new” Hanford Drive homes, one must traverse the tawdry heart of Linda Vista, which I did with some trepidation. The streets are narrow, lined with dented cars and strewn with abandoned shopping carts from nearby Asian markets. The pavement is rough and the homes rougher still — fitted, to a one, with metal bars over the windows and, in many cases, with a wrought-iron or chain-link fence in the front yard. As I approached my target, I noticed that mine was the only white face around; the locals were largely Vietnamese and Mexican.
Once there, I walked the street, checking out the ambient noise level (high) and the noise wall (low); it can’t be much more than four feet high. There were a handful of people out and about. Most were performing home repairs or working on older cars and pickups on the street. As for the houses themselves — considering that they’re scarcely a quarter-century old — they proved to be surprisingly run-down, protected from intruders by iron-mesh screen doors and supplemental deadbolt locks. The ambience is one of premature decay; lush lawns, mature trees — the typical earmarks of middle-class suburbia — are absent, as are any other signs that the residents spend much time out front.
Maybe there just aren’t as many residents on “new Hanford” as there were back in 1984; padlocked doors and Fannie Mae foreclosure notices are a clue. Turnover is the norm here. Nonetheless, at least one man who lived there 2H decades ago still lives there — but just barely, as he hangs on by the skin of his financial teeth. “Peter B.,” as he asked to be called, has “aged in place” along with his forlorn neighborhood. He told me, “I’m one of the originals, and I’m hoping to die here, but I guess we’ll see.”
Putting aside the desperate and choice-bereft, as well as the pragmatic folks who speak of affordable rent and ease of access, there are people who actually dig the action. No doubt, in this age of reality television, YouTube, and other nakedly voyeuristic forays into the blood, guts (and warts) of un-airbrushed life, what could be more real than a gory traffic accident right on one’s doorstep? Nothing staged — just snapped limbs, severed arteries, the floridly titled “jaws of life.” Bring it on, baby!
Heather and Joe Schmidt enjoy the show, and to prove their commitment to the freeway-side lifestyle, they bought a house “a few inches” from the 78 freeway in San Marcos. Putting aside the fact that their place, an otherwise unremarkable detached home, was a “great deal,” the Schmidts appreciate the emoluments of residing next to a highway. For most passersby, the 78 corridor presents a view of commercial and industrial sprawl, along with the occasional vestige of North County’s agrarian past; not a few commuters would call the area prosaic, at best. But the Schmidts beg to differ; with their second-story blinds pulled open, they enjoy a sort of roadside reverie as they watch the action on the asphalt below.
It’s not that they’re completely inured to the drawbacks. “Sure,” admits Heather, “the noise is disruptive, and the back yard gets covered with black dust; there are sirens at 7:00 a.m., and I’ve seen taggers painting graffiti on the fence. But we used to live right on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, so it’s not so bad.” Moreover, “From our second story, we get our own personal traffic report; we watch the freeway before leaving home. I like the fact that I can see my house from the freeway; also, it’s a reference point during a power outage.” And there are the accidents, some of them spectacular. “It was about a year ago — late 2008; we heard a collision and opened the blinds. It was like a movie, cars smashing into other cars; a semi drove on top of the cars and everything caught on fire. We even took pictures. It was really cool.”
As it turns out (based on this small, decidedly unscientific sample), more than a few San Diego County people think that living next to a freeway is “cool.” But does the “coolness factor” outweigh the “pain-in-the-ass quotient”? Well, according to Gloria Torres of Oceanside, it all depends on where you grow up. She told me, matter-of-factly, “I’ve always lived in super-loud areas. Until the age of three, my family lived next to the train tracks. After that, we moved to a duplex right on the 5 freeway on Tamarack. So I don’t mind; it doesn’t bother me at all. It’s just one of those things. As far as the noise, I don’t think it’s harmful. I would recommend living here to anyone who’s lived in a loud environment.”
Torres, 22, still lives next to the I-5, this time at a home owned by her brother on Capistrano Street. It’s close to the South Camp Pendleton exit — so close that, numerous times, she’s been nearly rear-ended when backing out of her driveway by cars speeding down the off-ramp. Not surprisingly, with the steady stream of Marines hurrying to the base, there’s no front-yard play for Torres’s niece and nephew (aged 2 and 6); their outside activity is limited to the back yard, where Dad has erected an inner fence to prevent the kids from getting too close to the road. Supplemental picket fence or not, it’s still too loud for friendly get-togethers. Torres laughs. “When we have visitors, they’re, like, ‘It’s SO LOUD. How can you live here?’ ”
It’s not just loud, she says, it can also be blazingly bright at all the wrong times — courtesy of Caltrans, whose construction crews come out to frolic amid the rumble strips after sundown. To the detriment of the locals’ slumber, the men in reflective vests take no chances when it comes to safety. Setting up portable light towers such as the “Nightbuster 5000” — a formidable array of four 1000-watt metal halide lamps — the workers stand around and smoke their cigarettes in the glow of a man-made solar eclipse in reverse. Torres complains, “The whole house lights up and you can’t sleep.” Despite the noise and the light, to say nothing of the occasional oil spill, she remains steadfast: “I really like it here. There’s a nice ocean breeze, and it’s interesting to see different, random things.”
I said to Torres, “You mention ‘random things.’ Does anything stand out?” She said, “Do you remember the big fires we had in October 2007? They closed the freeway from a few miles south of here all the way to the Border Patrol checkpoint, I think. Anyway, I walked out onto the road with my boyfriend and my brother, and we all lay down on the pavement and looked up at the sky.” Wasn’t she the least apprehensive that the cops would suddenly open the road? Didn’t she feel vulnerable, back flat to the interstate?
“No,” she replied, “I wasn’t worried about that. I was thinking, ‘I’ll never get the chance to do this again in my life.’ ”

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