April 28, 2008

Examining the Wheels of History

How Two Auto Club Employees Push the Past Into the Future

by Jay Berman
Los Angeles Downtown News

Morgan Yates (left), the corporate archivist of the Automobile Club of Southern California, and Matthew Roth, the club's historian and archives manager, at the Auto Club's Downtown building. Photo by Gary Leonard.

A century ago, when the Automobile Club of Southern California was still young, its employees pointed the way for the area's earliest drivers by installing directional signs along the largely unpaved roadsides.

"These people had an awareness of the impact of their work and they saved things," recalled Matthew Roth, the Auto Club's historian and archives manager, in a recent interview at the organization's landmark Downtown headquarters building.

"They kept a record of what they were doing, and they defined their mission as to do things that weren't being done.

"Here was this new technology determining how people would travel, how cities would be built. There were functions that the Auto Club identified to ease the relationship between this transforming technology and society. So they did a bunch of things that were later done by the public sector, including the directional signs and the issuing of license plates before there was a DMV."

Today, with the club in its 108th year, it is still, in many ways, pointing the way for residents with its historical and educational programs. One of these was through its participation as sponsor and co-producer of Sunshine & Shadow: In Search of Jake Lee, a retrospective of the late painter's work which closed April 13 at the Chinese American Museum.

Another is through a partnership in which it provides historic photos from Auto Club archives - there are more than 30,000 in the collection - to Angels Walk L.A., which displays them on kiosks adjacent to such Downtown Los Angeles sites as Olvera Street, the Bradbury Building, the Million Dollar Theatre and the Grand Central Market.

Still another example is the organization's involvement in the UCLA History-Geography Project, a partnership between the Auto Club and the university in which about two dozen teachers from Southern California meet for a week each summer at the 1923 Auto Club building. The teachers study photos, maps and travel literature from the club's collection and they incorporate them into a lesson plan to be taught in the next school year.

Roth, who has worked on the project with colleague Morgan Yates, the club's corporate archivist, since it began in 2005, said its success in increasing geographic literacy is based on the fact that "you can't understand a place without understanding its time."

The program began when secondary school teacher Mary Miller contacted Roth and Yates. It started in UCLA's Geography Department, then was expanded and moved into the School of Education. Miller was joined by Emma Hipolito, also a secondary school teacher. Today, they are co-directors of the program.

"The goal is to increase the quality of inner-city education," Roth said. "The premise is that once you open a mind, it's really hard to close it."

The program has involved teachers from the LAUSD, as well as Pomona, Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena and private schools. "They get a solid week of training from the highly theoretical - how we think about urban areas and history - and a lot of hands-on practical training. By the end of the week, they are supposed to be pretty far along with their lesson plan," Roth said.

Community Involvement

The program gives Roth, who has a doctorate in urban history, the kind of community involvement he was looking for when he joined the organization in 1995.

"I was given a list of goals," he recalled. "One of them was to accomplish something like this. It was a lot of effort, but we responded to individual queries from teachers. But it was one at a time. Then, a teacher from Fremont High School allowed us to come in. We saw the implementation of her lesson plan - showing the transformation of economic geography, where factories were and what they made and how they transformed daily lives.

"It was one of my best days ever in working for the Auto Club, seeing kids dealing with material we had provided."

Roth is an expert on the transportation history of Southern California. While he directs the club's involvement in museum exhibits, such as the retrospective on painter Lee, his duties overlap those of Yates, the archivist. Yates, who joined the club in 1999, coordinates the Angels Walk photos, and he writes a monthly column on historic sites for Westways, the club's magazine since 1934.

Recent columns have focused on such Downtown sites as the old Los Angeles County Courthouse and the Times building, along with the nearby KFI building on Vermont Avenue, the Bimini Baths, also on Vermont, and Mount Washington.

Roth and Yates also are involved in the organization's relationship with news media and with film and TV production. "We still have a public affairs function," Roth said. "There is frequent demand to illustrate stories. The Daily News did a series last year on a retrospective of the San Fernando Valley's early history, and we supplied several photos for that."

In the area of television and film production, Roth and Yates have "worked on everything from documentaries to TV news to big studios," Yates said. "We'll get a call from someone who wants photographs or old maps," he said, "and we see what we have with an idea of incorporating it into their work."

While some films might be looking - as Yates said - "for historical accuracy," others are in search of what Roth called "the semblance of historical accuracy. They're in the business of creating illusions," he said. "They might want to know what a traffic signal might have looked like at a certain time."

Landmark Figures

Despite the group's work and programs geared toward tomorrow, many Auto Club members still associate the organization with its early posting of signs, issuance of license plates, the first road maps and, for a time, even its own theft bureau, which employed detectives to track down members' stolen cars.

"It was 1915," Roth said. "Vehicle theft was becoming a problem for the first time. The Auto Club would look for members' cars on its own, and also give awards to police officers who caught auto thieves."

The names of several early club employees have survived the decades, and Roth and Yates recall their accomplishments fondly. Attorney Galen Davis, for example, was a 30-year employee who was a key figure in the standardizing of traffic codes throughout the state.

Then there was Ernest East, who was with the Auto Club from 1921, when such automotive brands as Franklins, Durants and Hudsons shared Southern California roads, until 1957, when the Volkswagen bug was becoming popular.

In 1928, East, who eventually became chief engineer and served on the Los Angeles Traffic Commission, was concerned about traffic safety at Sunset Junction, where Sunset and Hollywood boulevards intersect with four other streets.

"There were six lanes of traffic plus two rail lines," Roth said. "There were no signals. It was a very dangerous intersection, no lane markers, no stop signs. Plus, pedestrians were crossing the street to get out to the trolleys. East put a 16-millimeter camera onto a pole, let it run and analyzed the data."

Roth cautions against calling East's move a predecessor to traffic cameras. "He was just documenting conditions as a way of influencing public policy," Roth said. "There were some traffic signals in the city, but they weren't everywhere. What he did was geared toward safety, toward transportation; where we needed parking, where we needed bridges.

"That's what he was filming for. That's what he did."