• Editor’s Note: This article has been published in our Feb. 2023 Print edition.

      a stretch of a stub in the middle of homes

      710 Northern Stub (Photo – cityofpasadena.net)

      The construction of freeways and interstate highways has long been the subject of intense scrutiny.

      By Brian Biery

      Who decides which route should be taken and what is the rationale for making that decision?  How do highways affect communities of color? How are displaced families relocated and made whole financially? What are the health effects of major highways located adjacent to residential areas? Which communities suffer the brunt of those effects? Here in Southern California, will the freeway soon become obsolete and require further enhancements to meet the needs of a society that is dependent on motorized vehicles?

      Racial and economic segregation

      Historically, racial and economic segregation in urban communities is often described as a natural consequence of poor choices by individuals. In reality, however, racially and economically segregated cities are the result of many institutional factors, including the nation’s interstate highway system. In states around the country, highway construction displaced poor and minority households, and it cut the heart and soul out of thriving minority communities as homes, churches, schools, and businesses were buried by concrete.

      “For example, the colossal intersection of the 5, the 10, the 101 and the 60 freeways destroyed Boyle Heights. It was a thriving, ethnically mixed neighborhood,” notes Frances Anderton – Host of ‘DnA: Design & Architecture’ at KCRW.

      In Pasadena, the construction of the 210 and 710 freeways caused the forced removal of several minority owned businesses such as James Woods Mortuary and Morita Family Grocery, as well as religious institutions like 1st AME Church and Japanese Union Church.  In addition, these freeways wiped out neighborhood schools (Lincoln and Garfield) and nearly a thousand Black, Latino and Japanese-American households.

      “Well, the first thing to hit me (after returning to Pasadena in the early 1970’s) was physical.  I didn’t know that you have freeways bisecting the city.  Of course, you know, I have feelings about that.  I know that freeways always follow the path of least resistance and that would mean through the homes and backyards and the property of poor people.  It has to follow the line of least resistance,” Reverend Wilbur Johnson, Exploring Pasadena’s Past, 100 W. Walnut St.

      Segregationist agenda

      In some communities, the highway system has been a tool of an explicitly segregationist agenda, erecting a wall that separated White and minority communities designed to protect White people from ethnic migration. In the 1930’s, the Federal Housing Administration’s underwriting manual stated that, “Incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”  The FHA went on to recommend that highways (freeways) would be an excellent mechanism to separate black neighborhoods from white neighborhoods.

      In these ways, construction of the interstate highway and regional freeway systems have significantly contributed to the residential concentration of race and poverty. The highway and freeway systems have caused physical, economic, and psychological traumas in these marginalized neighborhoods that continue to persist today.

      710 stub

      Interestingly, the current interstate highway system is on the verge of possible transformational change. Aging highways around the country are crumbling or insufficient to meet growing demand and must be rebuilt or replaced. The possibility of significant infrastructure development offers an opportunity to address some of the harm caused by highways and freeways, to rebuild affected communities, and to advance racial equity.

      With respect to the 710 freeway corridor, it could be a national example for the creative transformation of highways. Affordable housing, abundant open space, natural habitat protection, walkable streets, connected neighborhoods, dynamic creative places, reliable public transportation, and much more could be a part of this changing sector of the community.  So how might we ensure that these aspirations become reality?

      A chance to fix mistakes of the past

      One way would be by completing a comprehensive racial equity impact study prior to any further development–a thorough and comprehensive analysis of how a proposed action, policy, or practice will affect racial and ethnic groups. Racial equity impact studies have been used in a variety of contexts to ensure that all members of the community benefit from proposed projects, programs, events, etc. Why not use a similar lens for a freeway redevelopment project as well?  When we solve for racial inequity, everyone benefits, and it allows up the opportunity to ensure that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.


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