Nation, World + Society

Q&A: Eric Avila on the bitter legacy of L.A.'s freeways

Communities of color in Los Angeles voiced opposition in cultural ways

Section of the Great Wall of Los Angeles
Courtesy of SPARC

UCLA professor Judith Baca's "Division of the Barrios and Chavez Ravine" shows a Chicano family divided by a freeway that encircles them while its support columns crash into houses.

Los Angeles’ vast freeway system is such an integral part of its identity that it’s hard to imagine a time when this concrete “web” — along with the sprawling suburbs it spawned — wasn’t a foregone conclusion. But a new book by UCLA urban historian Eric Avila gives voice to the opponents of highway construction in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s and, in particular, in communities of color whose neighborhoods later suffered the most from the impact of freeway construction.

“I wanted to present the perspective of people whose neighborhoods were decimated by the enterprise and who didn’t have an opportunity to join the great exodus to the newly built suburbs,” said Avila, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies and an expert on white flight.

“The Folklore of the Freeway” (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) is based on extensive cross-country research and interviews with writers, muralists, photographers, community activists and artists of all types of media. The book is richly illustrated with images of the freeway in post-WWII American art, a contrast of abstract imagery produced by white artists and the Chicano portrait of the freeway in East Los Angeles. These artworks were steeped in the riotous colors of barrio aesthetics that satirized, criticized and aestheticized the structure of the freeway.

“Folklore,” Avila’s second book, builds on his expertise in urban and cultural history and the built environment, particularly as seen through the lens of race and ethnicity. Avila has taught Chicano studies and history at UCLA since 1997 and is affiliated with the UCLA Department of Urban Planning. UCLA Newsroom's Ricardo Vazquez spoke with him recently.

The murals of Chicano Park in San Diego show how one community built a new relationship to the freeway.

What inspired you to write the book?  

I wanted to explore in more depth the rich history of political opposition to highway construction in the post-WWII era, particularly in neighborhoods like East Los Angeles. I discovered that this wasn’t just a Los Angeles story, but a national one. As diverse urban neighborhoods in cities across the nation were ruthlessly impacted by highway construction under the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, people mustered organizational, political and cultural resources to express their opposition.

I found that those communities with more resources — typically white communities — were the ones that launched the famous “freeway revolt,” in which official plans for highway construction were blocked. Meanwhile, communities lacking such resources, usually minority neighborhoods — black and Latino in particular — expressed their opposition in cultural terms through art, literature, poetry, photography, festivals, performance and other cultural forms of expression. This was the basis for what I call “the folklore of the freeway.”

How in particular was East Los Angeles affected?

The people of East L.A. suddenly found their freeway in their face, who had to contend with the daily roar of traffic and whose children and grandchildren had to breathe the particulates of traffic emissions. They have their own history of highway construction and their own way of telling it.

What was unique about the way East Los Angeles told its history?

This massive infrastructure appeared just as East L.A. was transformed into an overwhelmingly Mexican neighborhood. During the 1970s, Chicano and Chicana artists turned to their neighborhood as inspiration for what eventually became recognized as a canon of Chicano art, and, not surprisingly, you’ll find myriad references to the structure of the freeway in this body of cultural work. Much, though not all, of this work documents some form of opposition to the freeway such as in the novels of Helena Maria Viramontes, the murals of Judith Baca and the paintings of Carlos Almaraz. Their work records a distinctive form of Chicana/o opposition to urban highway construction during the 1950s and ’60s that needs to be considered as part of the freeway revolt.

What is the future of freeways today?

That’s an interesting question in today’s Los Angeles. The age of the freeway is over. Freeways didn’t deliver a utopian world of instantaneous, autonomous mobility. Although I can’t imagine Los Angeles without its freeways, we are fully aware of the possibilities and problems of the freeway metropolis, for example, smog, congestion and blight. These have been the most severe consequences of highway construction, not to mention our deepening addiction to fossil fuels. But I do think that while freeways have been thoroughly integrated into a Los Angeles 'way of life,’ we are now taking alternatives to the car and the freeway more seriously.

Take Metro, for example.  For years, no one took seriously the idea that Los Angeles could implement a regional system of rail transit. Yet the Metro system is expanding, and ridership is at an all-time high. The city’s bus system is the largest in the nation, and even the bicycle is making a comeback as the city actively works to accommodate bicyclists on city streets. 

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

… that the history of highway construction is far more contentious than we thought. My book looks at the winners and losers in this story. Highways were built in cities — not according to the dictates of scientific planning methods — but according to who had the power and privilege to effectively block highway construction, and who didn’t.

An urban freeway is not an “innocent” space; it was produced through the exercise of power over disadvantaged or marginal social groups. The cultural work that I explore demonstrates the bitter legacy of building freeways in cities, especially among poor, minority communities. People in those communities lacked the power to stop the freeway, the power that enabled whiter and more affluent citizens, as in Beverly Hills, for example, or Lower Manhattan, to keep their communities intact.

You also seem to be making a case for a parallel form of dissent.

Absolutely. “Politics” exists beyond the ballot box and beyond organized forms of demonstration. The historical record of American culture, especially from the inner city after World War II, demonstrates that people had to innovate their own forms of politics to demonstrate their opposition to highway construction, even as highways ravaged their neighborhoods. We need to open our senses to this cultural work, to read and see and hear the various forms of opposition.

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