Condos along Highway 163, just south of Genesee. "You get used to it, and we've got double-pane windows."
"When they were first building these houses, we would go up the freeway and say, 'Who the hell would ever buy a house over there?’ and we ended up buying one," says Patty Williamson of her Linda Vista home alongside Highway 163.
I've wondered the same thing as I've driven north out of Mission Valley on that freeway and looked at the row of houses on the west side. What's it like to live next to eight lanes of roaring traffic?
In 1906, millionaire William K. Vanderbilt and some of his wealthy Long Island neighbors, looking to bypass the congested roads in and out of New York City, purchased a strip of land 100 feet wide running from Flushing Meadows in Queens to Lake Ronkonkoma on the Island and built an expressway. To avoid stopping for cross traffic, they built bridges over the roads that intersected theirs. Though the increasing speeds of automobiles soon made their little expressway inadequate, Vanderbilt and company built the first model of the freeway.
Early this century, as automobiles became America's preferred mode of transportation, engineers scrambled to find a solution to the traffic problem. In cities, thoroughfares were widened, resulting in wider but equally crowded streets. In rural areas, state highway departments tried to alleviate traffic by building new roads parallel to existing routes. But entrepreneurs threw up roadside businesses as soon as bypasses were built.
Though the 1937 opening of New York's West Side Highway hailed America's first freeway, it was California, whose cities lacked the rapid transit systems of many East Coast cities, that became the nation's foremost freeway builder. The state's first, the Pasadena Freeway connecting Los Angeles and Pasadena, opened in 1940. The Hollywood Freeway came soon after, and freeway fever took off in Los Angeles. It spread to San Diego, where the city was preparing to build the Cabrillo Freeway beginning in downtown, traveling north through Balboa Park, and the then-new housing tract of Linda Vista, and onto Miramar Naval Air Station.
Throughout the '40s, '50s, and early '60s freeways were built throughout California and across the nation with little thought given to aesthetic value. Roadbeds sat on wide strips of land lined with junkyards and billboards. Built on raised mounds that left banks of bare dirt, they sliced through hills and obscured pastoral vistas. Their unsightliness caught the eye of President Johnson's wife, Lady Bird, who called for a National War on Ugliness, which resulted in the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. The act required screened junkyards, the removal of billboards from noncommercial areas, and landscaping for roads adjoining highways. The Beautification Act was the first highly publicized look at the negative aspects of freeways.
Another freeway negative: noise. According to a 1971 study by the Stanford Environmental Law Society, "...less than .6 percent of the population would be willing to live on the same block as a freeway. Only another 5.8 percent were willing to live within one to three blocks away from a freeway. A full 71.9 percent of the people surveyed would be willing to live no closer than six blocks from a freeway."
Despite these percentages, people do live near freeways, even adjacent to them. Patty Williamson is one of them. Fifty yards separate her house from the 163. According to Caltrans statistics, over 162,000 cars travel that stretch of freeway every day. Standing in front of her house, awash in the low-pitched clamor of midday traffic, I ask Williamson how she deals with the noise. "You get used to it," she answers a hand pushing back her blonde hair, "and we've got double-pane windows, and that keeps out half of the noise." She says it's only obnoxious to her "when the trucks downshift, and it makes that grrrrrrrr sound."
Williamson's neighborhood sits on a thin quarter-mile strip of land, sandwiched between 163 on the east and a 150-foot hill on the west. Thirty stucco houses painted various shades of tan line the west side of the street. Each sits three feet above street level and 15 feet from the sidewalk. Against the hill, facing the same direction, the houses look like wallflowers at a high school dance. On the other side of the street is a six-foot cement-block wall, beyond which grows a carpet of ice plant dotted with orange and yellow flowers.
Lesa Ennis, 22, lives next door to Williamson. This morning's gardening has reddened her round face. She and her father have lived in their Hanford Drive house since 1984, when it was built. Of the freeway noise, she says, "I would not call it annoying because it's constant. We really don't pay attention to it."
The noise may not bother Ennis, but another byproduct of the freeway does. "We do get dust," she explains. "When you open your windows, the dust comes in, and the walls in our houses aren't built really great; they absorb the dust. If you dust every day, you notice that there is a lot."
From Ennis's porch, she can see the tops of cars going by, "but if I stand on the chair I can see the road." From this view, Ennis has also seen people die. "A couple of years after we moved here, a couple ran into that tree, " she points to a eucalyptus on the other side of the sound wall. "It split their car in half right down the middle. Then a year and a half ago, we had a car flip over about four times. My dad saw the last two times, and my neighbor, who was upstairs, saw it flip over four times. That guy died."
I ask if she and her neighbors respond to the accidents that occur here about three times a year.
"Oh, we always do," she says. "If we hear it or see it, we'll call the cops."
Ennis says she enjoys where she lives and doesn't think about the freeway raging 50 yards from her front door. "My general thought about this neighborhood is I really like it because we do care for each other. The freeway is just like a little stream over there — unless you have the big semis going by."
Lavan McCree, who lives on the other side of 163, a quarter mile north of Ennis and Williamson, isn't as accepting. "It's annoying," he states flatly.
McCree is a tall black man with hair graying at the temples. His one-story stucco house on Whinchat Street sits on a bluff 50 feet above the highway. Mature elms and magnolias line the streets of this secluded neighborhood, which is quiet except for the din of the freeway below. Standing next to a forest-green Corvette in his garage, McCree describes the freeway noise. "If your patio door is open, you've got to have your stereo or your TV up louder because it's a roaring sound that comes into your house. It's not like music; it roars. In the back bedroom, it roars in at night."
McCree has taken steps to deal with freeway noise, and he's contemplating a few more. "I had surround sound put in," he tells me, "so I don't have to have the music up too loud because my wife doesn't like it loud. I've thought about putting urethane foam on the back side of the fence, sheet foam. I was at the fair once, and they had aluminum paper that deadens sound. When the sound comes up and hits it, it absorbs it."
According to a 1994 Home Mechanix article on noise, McCree's desire to build up his fence as a buffer is a typical homeowner reaction. "A properly designed fence will reduce the noise level by five decibels," the article reads. The bad news is, the only way to make a house near a constant source of loud noise as quiet as a house four blocks away is to seal the place up. Every door and double pane window should be weather-sealed and left closed. The house should be ventilated by ducts with as many turns as possible to trap sound. The chimney damper should be closed. Even the vent pipe for the dryer should be fitted with a metal flap that stays shut when the dryer isn't on.
Instead of this defensive approach, noise haters like McCree may soon be able to take the offensive. Computer-operated anti noise systems are being developed that pick up noise via microphones and reproduce it in the opposite direction, thereby canceling out noise. No word yet on how much such a system will cost or when it will hit the market, but McCree isn't waiting. "When my wife retires next week," he says, "we'll probably start looking for a different house."
On the north side of Interstate 8, just west of the 70th Street/Lake Murray Boulevard exit, Pennsylvania Lane — which marks the La Mesa/San Diego border — dead ends into a 12-foot sound wall with westbound lanes of I-8 on the other side. A woman I'll call Therese lives on the San Diego side of the street. Her house, cream-colored with peach trim, is on the last lot before the freeway wall. Standing in her driveway, I have to raise my voice a notch to ask how she would describe the noise. "Oh," she says with a laugh, "It's like the winds blowing through the pines in the Sierra."
Her mother, standing next to her, chimes in, "I'll tell you what it's like; it's like sitting in a hotel by the beach. I was just in Puerto Rico, and I was sitting there thinking this sounds just like Therese's house."
"So you don't find it annoying?" I ask.
"Not for the price I paid for it," Therese answers. "It's a trade-off. I got quite a big property for what I paid for it. When we first came here, we walked away from it because it was too loud. Then I realized it was so much property for the money. I was looking for something I could put my five kids into, and this was the place. At first I was a little concerned [about the noise], but we got used to in a couple of nights."
I ask Therese if anybody has ever jumped over the sound wall from the freeway and into her yard. "Yes," she answers. "My husband went out to see what [this guy] was up to, and [he] needed gas, so my husband brought him to the gas station."
As I'm talking Therese, her neighbor, Darlene Trent, walks up. "I live across the street, and I'd like to get my two cents in. Here's what my gripe is: When they put up this sound wall, we talked to them about making it higher, but that wasn't possible. But if you go over to Airoso Avenue, they didn't get a higher wall, but they have all kinds of trees and geraniums. They wouldn't put up anything here. It was the county that was putting up the wall, so you tell me why San Diego got trees and La Mesa didn't. I wanted it to be higher too."
"What was it like before this wall was here?" Therese's mom asks Trent, who's lived here for 24 years.
"Well, you couldn't stand in the driveway and talk to each other," she recalls. "If I was in the driveway and my husband was at the front door, we couldn't carry on any kind of conversation. Now we can shout and have a conversation. We're higher up, and the noise travels up, so we can hear it inside. We've talked to engineers all over the place, and they've said there's nothing we can do about it because noise travels up like that. But what could control it is those trees!"
Trent is right. Airoso Avenue, to the west of Pennsylvania, does have more trees:
eucalyptus, Italian cypress, pepper, and white-flowering tea trees screen the freeway from view, but there's no sound wall.
Frank Garrido lives around the corner from Therese and Trent on the much-envied Airoso Avenue. Garrido, 47, black haired and goateed, says that because of the noise, he had to deliberate a long time before buying his house. "We bought this house three years ago," he explains, "and [the freeway noise] was a factor in deciding whether to buy it or not. we came back here at least three or four times at different times of the day to listen to the noise and see how it was."
What Garrido heard was what Therese's mom heard on the beach in Puerto Rico. "Right now you can hear the freeway noise," he says, "but don't even focus on it, just think of something else. Doesn't it sound like the ocean? Now during rush hour, it's rush hour, and there's no mistaking it. It's cars, and that's what you hear. But right now it's the ocean to me. Most of the time, it's that low-roar, waves-crashing type of sound."
I ask Garrido if the freeway's proximity made his house, located three lots from the sound wall, any cheaper. "I'm almost sure that it didn't," he answers. "I've always been curious about what the market value on this street was because of the freeway. The final selling price was $169,000. They were asking about $10,000 less for the house around the corner" — he's referring to Therese's house — "which is bigger, but it needed a lot of work, so I'm not sure if the freeway affected the price."
According to Stan Sexton, a real estate agent, "the value of a house next to a freeway is 10 to 15 percent lower than if the freeway wasn't there. The dollar amount lost depends on how expensive the home is. A $300,00 home might drop $30,000 to $45,000 in value just because of proximity to the freeway." Sexton himself lives next to a freeway and doesn't mind it.
Up in North County, Robert Maxwell rents a house on Chicarita Creek Road in Carmel Mountain Ranch, east of I-15. His back yard is adjacent to the freeway, though eucalyptus, aspens, and Torrey pines hide the raised roadbed from sight. Since there is no sound wall, the noise in the backyard is louder than in front. Maxwell says most of the time he isn't bothered by the noise.
"For me," says the tall, slender, dark-haired Maxwell, "the only time I ever think, 'Oh, damn, I live right on the freeway,' is when I hear a big Mack truck going by, and they make that weird sound that goes grrrrrrrr. I used to live on Prospect in La Jolla when I was single," he adds, "and I had an oceanfront apartment with two big windows. I would hear the waves, and that would put me to sleep. The funny thing is, in the summertime — you have to keep your windows open in the summertime here — the freeway puts me to sleep. It keeps my wife awake, but it doesn't bother me."
Tom Hughes, who rents a house on Lofty Trail Drive in Rancho Bernardo on the other side of I-15, sees — or hears — it differently. "Strictly because of the freeway noise, I would never own this house," says Hughes, 36, who sports sandy blond hair and mustache. "It's that loud."
I crane an ear to the noise which is definitely less than Maxwell's, Lesa Ennis's, or Darlene Trent's. "It doesn't seem that bad," I tell him.
Right now the wind is blowing it that way, so you're not getting the full effect," says Hughes. "When the breeze is coming this way, it's noisy as hell. The windows have double-pane glass, so it's not so bad when you're trying to go to sleep, but if you're ever trying to have a barbecue in your backyard, you have to yell. I would never buy this close to the freeway, ever."