Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth about Urban Highways
Latino Interchanges: Greater East Los Angeles in the Freeway Era
By: Gilbert Estrada and Jerry González
Why Eastside Los Angeles?
With a lack of Eastside financial capital, a dearth of political representation followed. Freeway planning can be an obscure top-down process, but freeway planning is also part of American democracy. After World War II, racism, gerrymandering, and voter suppression left Mexican Americans the most underrepresented group in L.A.17 Equitable political representation could have changed L.A.’s freeway landscape if local elected officials voted against freeways, which did occur in other Southland cities. California freeways were built by the state Division of Highways. The state needed approval from city governments in order to build freeways by signing a “freeway agreement” in order to close local streets, demolish or relocate properties, and construct freeways.18
With insufficient political representation, there was little or no political recourse Mexican Eastsiders could take, especially in the early years of freeway planning. For example, the Eastside Belvedere area was divided into three assembly districts and three congressional districts, ensuring that although Mexicans were the highest percentage of residents, they remained the lowest percentage within their voting district. During the two decades after World War II, the peak years of freeway construction, only one Mexican American, Edward Roybal, served on the Los Angeles Council; before his election, the last Mexican to serve on the council did so in 1881.19
With the Eastside facing freeway construction and because some folks had leveraged military service and wartime labor during World War II, many Eastside Latinos quietly joined their Jewish neighbors in saying goodbye to the neighborhood. One indicator of this outmigration of middle-class Latina/os is that they created wrinkles in suburban consumer markets as potential homebuyers and as retail spenders. In an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County near Whittier, three residential subdivisions opened by 1950 and specifically marketed to Mexican American war veterans.20 And in the San Gabriel Valley, merchants reportedly employed Mexican American associates in order to establish friendly consumer relations with prospective Latino/a clients.21 The sub- urban explosion over the next decade and a half included a burgeoning Latino/a homeowner class that exercised power in local communities outside of the Eastside while civic leaders decided how best to divide it.22 In East Los Angeles, the San Bernardino I-10 (1943), the Santa Ana I-5 (1944), and the Golden State Freeways (1955) were all designed to keep construction costs low. A key feature that governed the Division of Highways decisions centered on purchasing low-cost properties through the government mechanism of eminent domain while avoiding high-priced industrial-zoned properties. Heinz Heckeroth, who served as lead engineer in the East L.A. Interchange design and whose career spanned thirty-three years, noted his cost-effective approach. “I looked for the most expensive buildings and I said we can’t afford to buy them. If you begin to look in location from a right-of-way cost standpoint and you identify right-of-way controls, then you begin to pattern places in geometric locations which you can’t hit.” A Southwest Builder Contractor author also acknowledged, “State Highway engineers located the [free- way] route with very little disturbance to existing industrial properties.” A short list of industrial sites missed in East Los Angeles is the Times Mirror Catalog Warehouse (which sat untouched in the middle of the ELAI), the L.A. Union Stock Yard Railroad, the Sears Roebuck & Company building, and the Union Pacific Company Warehouse.23
In order to build this network of freeways, some 21,011 people were displaced in East Los Angeles, probably the largest per capita displacement in California history.24 Freeway displacements were not limited to households specifically in the path of the proposed freeways. The imposition of new roadways and its ancillary effects on quality of life spurred a migration out of the Eastside into surrounding suburbs. The years associated with highway and freeway expansion coincided with the development of myriad planned communities and commercial nodes. In the period Becky Nicolaides calls the era of the “Sitcom Suburb,” from 1940 to 1970, 75 percent of the housing structures in Los Angeles County were erected.25 However common suburbanization became, the sense of loss associated with being forced out by freeway development speaks to the deep communal ties to the neighborhoods forged by generations of multiracial and multiethnic place making. Whereas city planners viewed the city as a landscape for profit, community members placed intangible value on the belonging associated with their neighborhoods.
As careful as developers were to avoid major disruptions to commercial and industrial properties, they were equally detailed in their determinations about which houses to preserve and which to tear asunder. The Division of Highways instead cleared what they labeled as “sub- standard” East L.A. housing.26 Boyle Heights residents were accustomed to technocratic social control measures. City engineers had been operating in the area since before the Great Depression as they shaped the infrastructure and roads of the neighborhood. One engineer, Rex Thompson, even assumed leadership over the county welfare department, which would oversee Mexican repatriation efforts in the 1930s. Civic leaders viewed the local residents as disposable.27
Metropolitan Growth and the East L.A. Interchange
By 1950, Los Angeles was at the leading edge of suburban development as it grew in expanse and population more rapidly than did any other metropolitan region.28 Indeed, between 1940 and 1950 the county population almost doubled, from 2.78 to 4.15 million residents.29 Con- currently, the Latino population in the county grew from 61,248 to 249,173.30 Increased birth rate, immigration, and a significant interstate migration contributed to this boom. The Eastside became too small to contain this growing population. Freeway construction and over- crowding pushed Mexican Americans out of Eastside barrios and into expanding suburbs. And by 1960, Los Angeles reached a population of 2.5 million residents, with a metropolitan-wide population that had surpassed 6 million inhabitants.31 Also in that decade, the number of Latinos in Los Angeles County more than doubled to 582,309.32 A collective push into Montebello, Alhambra, San Gabriel, Pico Rivera, Whittier, Santa Fe Springs, Downey, West Covina, Baldwin Park, Lake- wood, and South Gate began to remake the racial geography of the region.
Where the I-10, I-5, US 101, and CA 60 all meet at the East Los Angeles Interchange, February 24, 2017. (Photo Credit: formulaone)
With an expanding, automobile-dependent populace, local and state governments made vital interventions that hastened freeway and high- way expansion in the postwar period: The Collier–Burns Act of 1947 in California allowed for special tax assessments on gasoline and other transportation services, and the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of Interstate highways, ostensibly for defense purposes.33 The centerpiece of the entire Los Angeles freeway system resides in Boyle Heights. First opened in 1961 as part of John F. Kennedy’s National Highway Week, the East Los Angeles Interchange remains one of the largest and busiest interchanges in the world. Originally designed as a simple “Y” interchange, it was increased in size threefold by the Division of Highways.34 It’s so large, the ELAI could actually be three separate interchanges and is several stories high, according to Heinz Heckeroth, who also conveyed the importance of the East L.A. Interchange: “During the time, [that] was it, [the East L.A. Interchange] was the enchilada, the whole thing.” In 1958, the Division of Highways claimed that the interchange’s widest point was twenty-seven lanes.35 But according to modern satellite imaging, at least thirty automotive traffic lanes exist; including emergency lanes, there are forty-eight lanes at its widest point.36 The East L.A. Interchange is also the nexus between L.A.’s downtown civic center and the suburbs. The interchange is the start of the Hollywood 101 Freeway. It is the transition point for the Golden State Freeway and Santa Ana 5 Free- way and the place where the Santa Monica Freeway becomes the San Bernardino 10 Freeway. The interchange also is the beginning of the Pomona 60 Freeway. These words scarcely describe the impact felt by the community. Satellite imaging and living in the community provide a better understanding of what six freeways, interconnecting lanes, on- ramps, off-ramps, emergency lanes, freeway lighting, walls, shrubbery, and noise and exhaust have created for Boyle Heights residents.
During the planning of the ELAI, two central transportation goals arose: enable transportation to eastern suburbs and facilitate transportation to downtown Los Angeles, specifically retail and corporate offices. The freeway was intended partially to ensure downtown capitalism; L.A. freeways were intensely lobbied for by corporate interests. “If the central [business center] is to survive, they must replace some of the business lost. The new highway networks are helping to make this possible,” noted the American Automobile Association in a 1961 article republished by the Division of Highways in their bimonthly magazine, California Highway and Public Works. The 16-page report published by the state planning agency touted billion-dollar corporations and the millions they invested in downtown L.A., and it stressed the downtown business community’s demand for freeways. To downtown corporations, freeways represented a direct route to their new offices and also meant customers. Eric Avila has also explored the influence of the Downtown Businessmen’s Association and its pursuit of freeways to serve the city’s downtown. The association’s lobbying proved so successful, planners and business leaders raved over the “critical key” the East Los Angeles Interchange provided. Not all civic leaders shared the elation over freeway plans. Congressional representative Edward Roybal recalled that the State Highway Commis- sion approved construction of the Golden State 5 Freeway despite the community’s protest against it.37
Of course, the value that people placed on a home imbued with love, struggle, pain, and poetry did not align with developers’ understanding of value, which privileged the investment market. Although they were paltry remuneration given the importance most people placed on their home and community, the state buyout checks that replaced the homes seized for development enabled some families to combine the cash with GI Bill benefits and savings in order to reestablish themselves in nearby suburbs such as Pico Rivera and Montebello. Many of the people who made this move were influenced by the proximity to their Eastside com- munities and access to the very freeways that displaced them, making work commutes easier.
Many ELAIs: The Case of Jimtown
The East L.A. Interchange provided a model for how other Los Ange- les–area neighborhoods experienced eminent domain, displacement, and freeway construction. The introduction of the freeway system to rural San Gabriel Valley remade it into a suburban appendage to Los Angeles’s burgeoning economic opportunities; at the same time, it sub- urbanized the uneven costs for vulnerable communities.38 In 1954, the California Highway Commission announced plans for a San Gabriel River Freeway to run north and south from Lakewood to a junction with the San Bernardino Freeway between El Monte and Covina. The proposed freeway aimed to reduce congestion on north–south city and county highways and link with freeway flows to Santa Ana and down- town Los Angeles. Scattered resistance to the freeway originated from White homeowners, while suburban municipalities worked to rezone areas adjacent to the right of way.39 The proposed route straddled the San Gabriel River and cut through a network of colonias, Flood Ranch in Santa Fe Springs, and Jimtown in an unincorporated neighborhood between Whittier and Pico.40 Jimtown’s fate might have been influenced by preceding technocratic measures. The HOLC redlined Jim- town in similar yet distinct terms from Boyle Heights. Whereas Boyle Heights’s multiracial and multicultural diversity induced HOLC surveyors to stamp it with a hazardous grade, the federal agency specifically cited Jimtown’s Mexican residents in its assessment that “the area is generously accorded a ‘low red’ grade.”41 On the 1939 neighborhood appraisal, the area is described as San Gabriel Wash & Whittier Way, which described its location between the frequently flooding plain for the San Gabriel River and State Route 72, Whittier Boulevard. Of the finer points that led to its debilitating HOLC evaluation, the appraiser noted that the community was comprised of Mexicans, “many American born—impossible to differentiate.” Moreover, the “shacks and hovels” that housed these families invited the “infiltration of goats, rabbits, and dark-skinned babies.” The spatial racial analysis labeled Jimtown “an extremely old Mexican shack district” with “no pride of ancestry or hope of posterity.” In the eyes of the surveyor, it amounted to nothing more than a “typical semi tropical countryside slum.” Yet despite the vivid demarcation outside the bounds of modern Los Angeles, the evaluator noted that a bus line on Whittier Boulevard connected Jimtown residents to a rapidly sprawling labor market.42
Metropolitan development surrounding Jimtown introduced staggered processes of displacement and subsequent investment and dis- investment. The introduction of the railroad lines along the western edge of the neighborhood in 1940 brought noise pollution and deadly encounters with the trains. In July 1940, a train struck and killed sixty- five-year-old Juan Garavito as he collected firewood to warm the home he shared with his mother. In 1955, as county leaders ramped up efforts to clear the community to make way for the freeway, renters and community homeowners attempted to save their community by complying with mandates to self-improve houses and infrastructure.43 Despite the promises to preserve residences by county leaders, more than half of the community was razed so that the 605 San Gabriel Freeway could connect suburbs to the city.
A reunion of displaced Jimtown residents in 1982 attested to the strength of community bonds established over decades. Although the freeway reduced the former community to fifty homes on an island accessible by one street in and out of the neighborhood, the family ties ran deep. Contrary to the claims made by the HOLC surveyor, the com- munity did have pride and posterity. Despite the discursive treatment of Jimtown as impoverished and crime-ridden, it marks a significant place in the history of Latino suburban struggles for inclusion and persists to this day at the northbound Whittier Boulevard exit off the 605 Freeway. Many of the displaced residents joined the suburban migration like their counterparts on the Eastside. Given their proximity to communities in Whittier, El Monte, Norwalk, Pico Rivera, and, after the construction of the freeway, to the entire metropolis, folks dispersed in search of new places to call home.44
LA District Map VII, January 1, 1959. (Photo Credit: California Highways and Public Roads)
Going Home Again
The Eastside lacked spectacular revolts against freeway expansion and therefore did not witness dramatic successes of other communities that fought freeway development, such as the ongoing resistance to the expansion of the 710 Freeway to connect with the 210 Freeway in Pasadena.45 Instead, the resistance played out silently, and perhaps more artistically, as Eastside residents adopted the freeway system as their own canvas and made it part of their local identities.46 Famed artist and muralist Judith Baca painted a bright and powerful rejoinder to the freeway devastation
of the Eastside in her Great Wall of Los Angeles, a sweeping mural of local histories of dispossession and community resistance. Johana Londoño notes that Chicana/o political muralists sought to tell the stories of their barrios in brightly colored imagery in an effort to reclaim control of their narrative and exercise a modicum of control over a landscape that was so thoroughly imbued with colonial expressions.47
When freeway construction ended in the early 1970s with a county population around 7 million, seven freeways criss-crossed the Mexican American Eastside. The small community is also home to one of the busiest diesel truck corridors in the state, the I-710 Long Beach Freeway, and six interchanges, including one of the busiest interchanges in the world, the ELAI, which facilitates at least 1.78 million vehicles a day. The traffic total for the Eastside Interchange is approximately 5 mil- lion vehicles a day.48 This extended network of freeways and highways served the population that L.A. county and city leaders had planned for decades. Perhaps an unintended byproduct of freeway planning, the di- versification of suburban Los Angeles yielded communities that harked back to Boyle Heights’s wonderfully cosmopolitan community.
In September 1979, Keith Takahashi, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, published an article celebrating the diversity of Montebello, an independent suburb 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. By declaring the town a “melting pot” worthy of the title “U.N. of Southeast [Los Angeles County],” Takahashi signaled that the booming diversity of Los Angeles’s suburbs marked a transition point in American racial and ethnic democracy, one that figured to deliver the promise of equality to the residential landscape that had come to be associated so markedly with structural racism and exclusion.49 Freeway displacement did in fact create racialized distinctions between Whites and people of color in every major metropolitan area across the United States; however, in Los Angeles the process was not so linear, nor so complete. As urban renewal projects displaced Latina/os from the Eastside, many of them moved
further east into the increasingly Brown suburbs. Thus, it was not only White folks who flew unconsciously over the freeways past the once-be-loved communities. Many Latinos did so as well, but most continued to visit the communities to which they once belonged, repeatedly renewing their ties to place. And even though some of the barrios that housed Mexican Americans for generations were bulldozed and gone, the memories of those places persist and remain symbolic homes for Angelenos who never saw those neighborhoods with their own eyes or touched their feet to the pavement that meant so much to prior generations.
17. Rodolfo F. Acuña, A Community under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos East of the Los Angeles River, 1945–1975 (Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, 1984), 103–6.
18. Heinz Heckeroth, interviewed by Gilbert Estrada, July 2001, Sacramento, California; “Planning,” California Highway and Public Works (November–December 1962): 45; Ralph W. Keith, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. John A. Volpe, et al., United States District Court, Ninth Circuit, February 16, 1972, California State Archives. For example, twenty-seven freeway agreements were needed to build the 105 Century Freeway. See also “Freeway Agreements and Route Matters,” https://dot.ca.gov/programs/design/freeway-agreements-route-matters. The Division of Highways was changed to CALTRANS in 1973.
19. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, “Cultural Needs Assessment: Metro Red Line East Side Extension,” 1995, iv–7; Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 251, 281, 442. Edward Roybal was elected to the Los Angeles Council in 1949. No Mexican American served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors until 1991.
20. “Throngs Inspect New Development in South Whittier,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1950, E2.
21. “Se Habla Espanol,” Vida News, 13 November 1963, vol. 1, no. 4, pg. 2, in Box 20, Folder 2, Eduardo Quevedo Papers, M0349, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
22. See Jerry González, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills: Latino Suburbanization in Postwar Los Angeles (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), chapters 2 and 3.
23. “Freeway Procedure,” California Highway and Public Works (May–June 1948): 14–16; A. N. George, “Work on New Santa Ana Freeway in Los Angeles Is Well Under Way,” California Highway and Public Works (March– April 1946): 25–26; “New Freeway,” California Highway and Public Works (July–August 1948): 1, 14–18; “Santa Ana Freeway Paving Starts Oct.: Two Overcrossings Scheduled in Project,” Southwest Builder Contractor, July 12, 1946.
24. Los Angeles Department of City Planning, Boyle Heights Community Plan Background Report (Los Angeles: City of Los Angeles, 1974), 47; Barrio Planners, Inc., “Nuestro Ambiente: East Los Angeles Visual Survey and Analysis” (Los Angeles, 1973), 50; Los Angeles Department of City Planning, Boyle Heights Community Plan: A Part of the General Plan of the City of Los Angeles (Los Angeles, adopted 1979), 4; City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning, ARC GIS data, email from Public Relations Specialist, January 2022.
25. Becky Nicolaides, “Suburban Landscapes of Los Angeles,” in Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds., Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 128.
26. “Freeway Procedure,” 14–16; George, “Work on New Santa Ana Freeway in Los Angeles Is Well Under Way,” 25–26; “New Freeway,” 1, 14–18; “Santa Ana Freeway Paving Starts Oct.”
27. George J. Sánchez, “Disposable People, Expendable Neighborhoods,” in Greg Hise and William Deverell, eds., Blackwell Companion to Los Angeles (New York: Wiley, 2010), 132.
28. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 238–39.
29. Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920–1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 219.
30. Philip J. Ethington, William H. Frey, and Dowell Myers, “The Racial Resegregation of Los Angeles County, 1940–2000,” Race Contours 2000 Study, Public Research Report no. 2001-04 (Los Angeles: School of Policy, Planning, and Development, University of Southern California, May 12, 2001), 10.
31. Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 26.
32. Ethington et al., “The Racial Resegregation of Los Angeles County,” 10.
33. Ryan Reft, “The Future Fulfilled?: Modernism’s Effect on the California We Know Today,” KCET, November 6, 2019, https://www.kcet.org /shows/lost-la/the-future-fulfilled-modernisms-effect-on-the-california-we-know-today.
34. “Design of Interchange Was a Team Effort,” California Highway and Public Works (November–December 1958): 20–22; Heinz Heckeroth, interviewed by Gilbert Estrada, July 2001, Sacramento, California; Liam Dillon and Ben Poston, “Freeways Force Out Residents in Communities of Color—Again,” Los Angeles Times (November 11, 2021).
35. Heinz Heckeroth, interviewed by the Gilbert Estrada, July 2001, Sacramento, California; “Design of Interchange Was a Team Effort,” 20–22; “Model of New Freeway Interchange Displayed,” Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1958.
36. Talk by E. T. Telford, assistant state highway engineer, presented before ASCE Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, April 13, 1961, “The East Los Angeles Interchange”; “Design of Interchange Was a Team Effort,” 20–22; “National Highway Week Observed,” California Highway and Public Works (May–June 1961): 1; “Huge East Los Angeles Interchange Dedicated,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1961. The Interchange is at least 135 acres.
37. “Mexican American Study Project; Community Advisory Committee Meeting, Statler Hilton Hotel,” September 26, 1964, Eduardo Quevedo Papers, M0349, box 4, folder 6, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
38. Ryan Reft, “Transportational El Monte: From the Red Car to the Freeway,” in Romeo Guzmán et al., eds., East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020), 197–98.
39. “San Gabriel River Freeway Route Proposed,” Los Angeles Times, November 19, 1954, A2; “Homeowners Form Freeway Committee,” Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1955, SC3; “Council to Buy Parkway Land in Pico Rivera,” Los Angeles Times, October 22, 1959, E11.
40. Florentino Aguirre recalled that people in the colonias surrounding Pico Rivera in East L.A., Whittier, Los Nietos, Downey, Montebello, San Gabriel, Azusa, El Monte, and Hayes regularly came together for Mexican Independence and other celebrations in Streamland Park, a small amusement park and green space on the edge of Pico Rivera near Jimtown. See Florentino Aguirre interview by Vince Ponce and Maggie McNamara, in Personal Stories from the Pio Pico Neighborhood (Whittier, CA: Rio Hondo College, 1978), 12.
41. HOLC appraisal of “San Gabriel Wash & Whittier Way” area of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles City Survey Files, Area Descriptions, Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, Record Group 195, National Archives, Washington DC, 1939, Doc # D-57. See also Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese, eds., The Suburb Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006), 243 and chapter 8; and González, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills, 20–1.
43. “Wood Gleaner Killed by Train; Supported Mother, Aged 105,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1940, A3; “Annexation Vote for Jimtown Set at Whittier,” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 1951, A6; Charles Gould, “Sleepy Jimtown Responds to ‘Clean Up or Else’ Order,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1955, F1.
44. Lynn Simross, “Digging Up Roots of a Former Mexican Barrio: Former Residents of Jimtown Gather for First Reunion,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1984, OC_C1.
45. Tim Ivison and Julia Tcharfas, “710: Excerpts from the Archive,” Off-ramp 16 (summer 2019), https://offramp.sciarc.edu/articles/710-excerpts-from-the-archive.
46. Eric Avila, “L.A.’s Invisible Freeway Revolt: The Cultural Politics of Fighting Freeways,” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 5 (2014): 831–42.
47. Johana Londoño, Abstract Barrios: The Crises of Latinx Visibility in Cities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 98–99.
48. “Traffic Census Program,” https://dot.ca.gov/programs/traffic-operations/census.
49. Keith Takahashi, “Montebello: U.N. of Southeast: Well-Ordered Community Is a Melting-Pot,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1979, SE 1.
Gilbert Estrada is an associate professor of history & ethnic studies at Long Beach City College.
Jerry González is an associate professor of history at The University of Texas at San Antonio.