The Forgotten History of L.A.'s Failed Freeway Revolt

The story of Boyle Heights reminds us that urban highway teardowns don't always end in victory.

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waltarrrrr/Flickr

Urbanists love to celebrate the victorious campaigns that have been waged against city highways over the years. From the successful crusades against the Lower Manhattan Expressway in New York and Inner Belt in Boston and Cambridge decades ago, to those against the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and Park East Freeway in Milwaukee more recently—the glory gets told and retold, often to good purpose. As other cities consider similar efforts, the tales can both inspire and instruct.

But the history of urban highway revolt is far more checkered than this highlight reel suggests. As UCLA historian Eric Avila reminds us, in a recent issue of the Journal of Urban History, plenty of anti-freeway crusades have failed over the years, leaving residents to live in the shadows of the roads they never wanted. Such stories are often "invisible" to us, he writes, because the people living in these areas too often lack a political or mainstream cultural voice:

What we don't know, however, is the story of the losers, the urban men and women who fought the freeway, unsuccessfully, on the conventional terms of political struggle, who weren't able to pack up and move on, and who channeled expressive cultural traditions to register their grievances against the presence of unwanted infrastructure.

Avila focuses on the diverging fates of Beverly Hills and Boyle Heights in metro Los Angeles. Armed with all the studies and consulting reports its wealth could amass, Beverly Hills defeated a highway project in 1975 that would have run through its center. With no such resources, the heavily Hispanic area of Boyle Heights watched six freeways slice through the neighborhood over the years, including two massive interchanges less than two miles apart.

Despite protests from locals, six major highways cut through Boyle Heights. (Via Google Maps)

That's not to say Boyle Heights residents didn't protest the plans. As early as 1957, outspoken locals challenged the freeways they saw as set to "butcher our town." But many residents with means fled to the suburbs instead of staying to fight. And poorer residents accepted relocation assistance with a reluctance that highway officials later misinterpreted as endorsement—even suggesting that these people honorably decided "that they should not stand in the way of progress."

Avila writes:

There were no dramatic standoffs with bulldozers and sheriffs, no storming of public hearings with gas masks and megaphones, no congregations of angry housewives against the work of uber-planners like Robert Moses, and no national outcry about the destruction of historic monuments and landscapes. L.A.’s version of the freeway revolt utterly lacked such drama: no surprise in the fact that a neighborhood in the throes of racial succession succumbed to the Interstate juggernaut, and no surprise that Beverly Hills did not.

Over the years, local artists have portrayed the frustration that Boyle Heights residents still feel toward the L.A. freeways that crisscross their neighborhood. These aesthetic protests—or "weapons of the weak," as Avila calls them—lack the coordinated power of more successful highway revolts. But if nothing else they document a persistent social dismay and serve as a cautionary tale against the "spatial injustice" of so many urban transportation projects.

Avila concludes:

Such awareness cannot undo the damage that has been done, but it can help to end the sustained program of isolating and ignoring the spaces of racial poverty in urban America.

What the history of Boyle Heights reminds us, above all, is that just because a highway ended up in part of a city doesn't mean that part of the city wants it there. If that's a bit obvious in hindsight, it's also a bit overlooked by the new push for urban highway removal—to that movement's own detriment. The effort might have even more support than it realizes. 

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