The Fake Freeway Sign that Became a Real Public Service

An artist uses a freeway as his canvas, all in the name of public good. The freeway sign arrived in Los Angeles five days after...


An artist uses a freeway as his canvas, all in the name of public good.
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 a "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, a sweeping six-lane interchange as vast and impossible to navigate 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, more like Frogger than in a car myself, 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 onramp twirls violently to the left like an unfurling banana peel; without knowing exactly where it is, it sneaks up far too fast for anyone operating an automobile, and 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 began designing 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 the 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. And 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. This collage of six time-lapsed photos 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 truly 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 pretty much 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-and 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, 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, 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 more like "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. To alert those people about 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 actually remember how I originally found out about the sign. But the reason I hadn't noticed Ankrom's work erased from its downtown perch is because my own life had changed so much in those eight years since. I'm no longer in possession of a car, no longer making daily six-lane negotiations with angry SUVs, no longer commuting 12 miles each way to a job I never really loved. I think I had to be that person-trapped, terrified-to get that same swell of pride I felt every single time I was heading home on the 110. As I came around that bend in the freeway, the shadows of downtown's skyscrapers growing long across the ocean of asphalt, I'd always grow giddy seeing that 5-"The 5"-floating in a sea of glowing green. I'd fidget in my seat, peering into the cars around me, wondering who else-the woman in the black BMW? the guy in the beat-up white pickup?-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.

Timelapse photo by Jim Payne, all photos from Richard Ankrom's site.

AFP News Agency / Twitter

A study out of Belgium found that smart people are much less likely to be bigoted. The same study also found that people who are bigoted are more likely to overestimate their own intelligence.

A horrifying story out of Germany is a perfect example of this truth on full display: an anti-Semite was so dumb the was unable to open a door at the temple he tried to attack.

On Wednesday, October 9, congregants gathered at a synagogue in Humboldtstrasse, Germany for a Yom Kippur service, and an anti-Semite armed with explosives and carrying a rifle attempted to barge in through the door.

Keep Reading Show less
via Andi-Graf / Pixabay

The old saying goes something like, "Possessions don't make you happy." A more dire version is, "What you own, ends up owning you."

Are these old adages true or just the empty words of ancient party-poopers challenging you not to buy an iPhone 11? According to a new study of 968 young adults by the University of Arizona, being materialistic only brings us misery.

The study examined how engaging in pro-environmental behaviors affects the well-being of millenials. The study found two ways in which they modify their behaviors to help the environment: they either reduce what they consume or purchase green items.

Keep Reading Show less

One of the biggest obstacles to getting assault weapons banned in the United States is the amount of money they generate.

There were around 10 million guns manufactured in the U.S. in 2016 of which around 2 million were semiautomatic, assault-style weapons. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry's trade association, the U.S. industry's total economic impact in 2016 alone was $51 billion.

In 2016, the NRA gave over $50 million to buy support from lawmakers. When one considers the tens of millions of dollars spent on commerce and corruption, it's no wonder gun control advocates have an uphill battle.

That, of course, assumes that money can control just about anyone in the equation. However, there are a few brave souls who actually value human life over profit.

Keep Reading Show less
via Reddit and NASA / Wikimedia Commons

Trees give us a unique glimpse into our past. An examination of tree rings can show us what the climate was like in a given year. Was it a wet winter? Were there hurricanes in the summer? Did a forest fire ravage the area?

An ancient tree in New Zealand is the first to provide evidence of the near reversal of the Earth's magnetic field over 41,000 years ago.

Over the past 83 million years there have been 183 magnetic pole reversals, a process that takes about 7,000 years to complete.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Pixabay

The final episode of "The Sopranos" made a lot of people angry because it ends with mob boss Tony Soprano and his family eating at an ice cream parlor while "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey plays in the background … and then, suddenly, the screen turns black.

Some thought the ending was a dirty trick, while others saw it as a stroke of brilliance. A popular theory is that Tony gets shot, but doesn't know it because, as his brother-in-law Bobby Baccala said, "You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?"

So the show gives us all an idea of what it's like to die. We're here and then we're not.

Keep Reading Show less