In May of this year a severed human foot was discovered in the center median of the 210 freeway in San Bernardino. What an apt metaphor for the severing of the communities displaced by the creation of our interstate highway system.
By Denise Robb, Ph.D.
The Foothill Freeway, aka the 210, runs parallel to Foothill Boulevard and the San Gabriel Mountains. It began construction in 1958, and the section of the 210 in Pasadena was finalized in 1976.
Dr. Raymond Mohl stated in “The Interstates and the Cities: Highways, Housing and Freeway Revolt” that:
Freeway construction in Pasadena, California displaced over 4,000 Black and Mexican-American residents, most of whom were forced back into inner-city Los Angeles ghettos. As one Black Pasadena resident put it: ‘They put the freeways where the resistance and the power was the weakest, and now we have the biggest intersection in the world where a lot of Black families used to live.’
One of my favorite theatre companies is here in Pasadena. A Noise Within posted an extensive history of African-Americans in Pasadena including a discussion of the thriving and diverse neighborhoods in the 1950s of African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans living together with working-class White people, all traveling on the now defunct Pacific Red Cars. They detail the destruction by the 210 freeway of this area of beautiful homes by federal officials, the process by which the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce wrongly designated these areas as “blighted,” and the efforts of the residents to save their neighborhoods. As A Noise Within stated:
White residents of Southeast Pasadena rallied to keep the freeway out of their neighborhoods, leaving Central and Northwest Pasadena residents with few options when the route plowed through their neighborhoods instead.”
These people were instrumental in preserving Caltech, the Pasadena Playhouse, Tournament of Roses and other areas from the freeway bulldozers:
This freeway tore through a vibrant African-American business district on North Lincoln Avenue that has never fully recovered. The mixed-income, racially diverse community in Northwest Pasadena was also torn apart. Individuals displaced by the freeway were offered $75,000 for their homes. However, no homes in Pasadena cost less than $85,000, worsening the displacement.
Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruction
Last year Vanderbilt Law Review published Deborah Archer’s piece: “White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes – Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruction.” Ms. Archer says that:
In states around the country, highway construction displaced Black households and cut the heart and soul out of thriving Black communities as homes, churches, schools, and businesses were destroyed. In other communities, the highway system was a tool of a segregationist agenda, erecting a wall that separated White and Black communities and protected White people from Black migration. In these ways, construction of the interstate highway system contributed to the residential concentration of race and poverty and created physical, economic, and psychological barriers that persist.
Ms. Archer goes on to discuss remedies for reparations in rebuilding and redevelopment, as well as conducting equity studies on the impact to Black communities.
What is to be done here in Pasadena?
A few months ago, Gov. Newsom returned the property known as “Bruce’s Beach” in Manhattan Beach to the descendants of a couple that were thrown out of the city almost 100 years ago. This beach resort for Black families was successful and needed. California State Sen. Bradford, who authored the bill to restore the property said, “if you can inherit generational wealth, you can also inherit generational debt.”
A few days ago, Santa Monica offered a form of reparations to 100 displaced families or their descendants with limited income. They will be offered priority access to below-market rent apartments in the city. Why? Because when the 10 freeway was constructed, many Mexican-American and Black families were displaced against the pleas of the NAACP and activists standing in front of bulldozers. The Santa Monica tenants who lived there were not compensated – only their landlords. Those who were homeowners lost what allows many families to succeed financially – generational wealth.
As Nikole Hannah-Jones points out throughout The 1619 Project, the wealth of the United States is based on free labor of those thought of as “slaves.” The wealth of many people including the past President of the United States, relied solely on their ability to inherit vast sums of money through no initiative or merit of their own. This path to wealth was not accessible by most Black families due to redlining, housing discrimination, fear, intimidation and, in Pasadena, the building of the interstate highway.
More than one million residents lost homes during the first two decades of highway construction in the United States. Many of those families were Black and/or people of color who were specifically targeted by government officials when imposing eminent domain. They often received little to no compensation, even though the Constitution specifically promises fair market value in the Just Compensation Clause.
Will Pasadena follow in the footsteps of Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach? Stay tuned.
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