Motorway construction has left a legacy of inequality

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Boyle Heights
Los Angeles

Interstate 5, Interstate 10, US 101, State Route 60, Long Beach Freeway

Once described as the “United Nations in the Microcosm,” the Boyle Heights neighborhood in eastern Los Angeles was home to Jews, Japanese Americans, Latinos, Black Americans, Russians and others before World War II. The subsequent internment of Japanese Americans, racist housing policies, and ultimately highways changed all of that.

The immigrant and working class have a long history of activism, first through trade unions and later through the Chicano movement of the 1960s. But it wasn’t enough to prevent decades of highway construction from the mid-1940s to the 1960s that ravaged and divided the community, demolished houses, banned residents from their churches, evicted homeowners and renters, and increased pollution.

Aerial view showing the construction of a section of the Pomona Freeway from Boyle Heights to unincorporated East Los Angeles. (Courtesy Barrio Planners Inc.)

Aerial view showing the construction of a section of the Pomona Freeway from Boyle Heights to unincorporated East Los Angeles. (Courtesy Barrio Planners Inc.)

“With the freeways, Boyle Heights turned into a concentration of Mexican-American or Mexican immigrant poverty,” said Eric Avila, professor of urban history at the University of California at Los Angeles. In front of the freeways, the neighborhood “reflected multiracial, multicultural diversity and people who formed a community together. … You worked through each other’s differences in order to build a lively working-class neighborhood. “

Boyle Heights was officially classified as a slum and “completely depraved” by the federal government in the 1930s.

“It was a neighborhood where the government felt it was appropriate to place unwanted infrastructure,” Avila said. “It didn’t matter if it had an impact on property values ​​as property values ​​were viewed as low from the start.”

According to Gilbert Estrada, a city historian and assistant professor at Long Beach City College, Los Angeles built only 61 percent, or 918 miles, of the freeway grid it laid out in a 1958 master plan.

The freeways it didn’t build, like the Beverly Hills Freeway, would have crossed white neighborhoods. However, it built 100 percent of the highways planned for communities in East Los Angeles.

“Unlike Boyle Heights residents who protested five freeways, Beverly Hills residents won their battle against one freeway. That is inequality in as stark a picture as you can get, ”said Avila.

Homes next to the freeway in Boyle Heights. (Rozette Rago / for NBC News)

Homes next to the freeway in Boyle Heights. (Rozette Rago / for NBC News)

From the start, resistance from Boyle Heights residents and local businesses was as fierce as that of Beverly Hills, but their political power was no match for them. As a result, Boyle Heights became home to the East Los Angeles Interchange – a 27-lane confluence of six highways that blocked 32 streets and became known as the “Spaghetti Bowl” because it’s such a mess, “Estrada said.

“It’s so big, it’s actually three intersections,” he said, adding that the California Division of Highways was joking about giving drivers “an award for not getting lost.”

Prior to the pandemic, according to Estradas’ calculations from 2017 California traffic data, about 2 million vehicles a day, including diesel trucks, drove on the interchange, spewing exhaust fumes and making residents in Boyle Heights and the unparalleled east of Los Angeles sick.

The Pomona Freeway crossed Santa Isabel Church and its elementary school. Both were demolished in 1958 and then rebuilt further away from the autobahn.

Frank Villalobos attended elementary school and saw that the highway was blocking his family’s way to the Catholic Church of the Resurrection, where they attended mass on Sundays and where his siblings went to school.

The Boyle Heights freeway construction also destroyed his childhood home, a three bedroom, two bath Spanish colonial home that was the incarnation of his mother’s dreams brought to life through his architect father’s art.

With an additional den, kitchen cabinets his father made, and garden trellises, their home was in the corner of the playground where Japanese, Jewish, Black, White, Mexican-American, and immigrant children played.

“It’s under a freeway now,” said Villalobos, 75, president and owner of architectural and urban development company Barrio Planners Inc. “It was taken off a freeway. The whole neighborhood was taken. “

Frank Villalobos near the Pomona Freeway in Boyle Heights. (Rozette Rago / for NBC News)

Frank Villalobos near the Pomona Freeway in Boyle Heights. (Rozette Rago / for NBC News)

Today about 4 percent of the city of Los Angeles and 1 percent of the county is covered by freeways. It’s about 12 percent in Boyle Heights and about 19 percent in East LA, Estrada said.

Those who were evicted had few options other than public housing, rental housing in Boyle Heights, and other demarcated areas. Charter restrictions made many neighborhoods open only to whites until the state banned these restrictions in 1957.

The government then paid about $ 12,000 to homeowners in Boyle Heights, which was about $ 5,000 below the value of Villalobos’ house there due to improvements his father made for claiming the injustice over and over again, “Villalobos said.

He wasn’t the only one fighting for equality. In 1949 the residents elected Edward Roybal, a resident of Boyle Heights, to be the first Mexican American to be elected to the 15-member Los Angeles City Council since 1881 to fight smaller battles – for up and down ramps and for better ones Compensation and housing for homeowners and displaced persons, said George Sanchez, a professor of American studies and ethnicity and history at the University of Southern California.

“It was done very undemocratically. There was virtually nothing local people could do to change the plans because it was a state-run, appointed commission that could not be overturned, “said Sanchez, author of Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy. ”

Despite the cuts it has suffered, Boyle Heights remains a vibrant community that is home to many immigrants and Latinos. Wall paintings, mariachis, panaderias (bakeries), a historical pharmacy and the use of Spanish remain. The highways have become an integral part of protest art and culture.

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