In early 2018, DnA aired a series of stories called Bridges and Walls. The topic was connection and division in California, both social and physical. The impetus for the series was then-candidate Donald Trump’s repeated calls for building a border wall on the US-Mexico border.
Amidst his language of division, DnA decided to explore the social and environmental impacts of several large infrastructure projects underway in California: among them, a contested high speed rail network; a wildlife crossing over an 8-lane freeway; a retrofit of the LA River that promises both benefits and challenges to the poor communities it runs through; and a planned continuation of a freeway.
We also looked at invisible walls like zoning, gang borders and the Orthodox Jewish eruv; and bridges that are literally buried out of sight: the undersea cables connecting Southern California to the Pacific Rim via the internet that creates openness to the world as well as closed virtual communities. And we looked at connections that might exist in the future like ferry services on our ‘fourth border’ — the ocean — giving commuters on the coastline alternatives to the Pacific Coast Highway and the 405.
We found that Californians are connected, and divided by its bridges and walls; and that a bridge for some people can be a wall to others.
Freeways link communities while splitting others; a bullet train connects tech workers north and south but severs a farming region; low-income Angelenos who’ve long lived in the shadow of a barren LA River now fear the “green gentrification” that is coming with a beautified flood control channel.
The dividing line at the US-Mexico border also serves as a point of contact for families, artists and communities residing in its shadow.
In Bridges and Walls we explored these competing impulses.
To the extent connective themes emerged, one was that California’s infrastructure is at a point of change and tension between a 20th century vision of urban development — car-based, zoned by use, served by large, single-purpose, fixed infrastructure (freeways, the flood control channel) — and today’s more holistic approach.
This envisions mixed-use development alongside mass transit, a river that does more than simply channel rainwater into the sea, freeways that interconnect with other forms of mobility, even a huge bridge… for wildlife.
We also learned that Californians are both open and closed; receptive to change and deeply fearful of it; ambitious for infrastructure and anxious about its costs. Sometimes present anxieties seem to trump the long view, as with the high speed rail, which has met with so many challenges that the political will to complete it is diminishing. This raises the question of whether Californians recognize their state’s global importance.
We told these 29-minute stories through ambient sound, music and interviews with residents, designers, builders, politicians, farmers, historians, critics. The series was supported by the California Arts Council and NPR’s Story Lab. It won the LA Press Club's 2019 Award for Investigative Reporting. Catch all the episodes below.
1) Bridges and Walls: The Border Wall
Can a wall also act as a bridge? The U.S.-Mexico border wall stretches along 700 miles. It divides two nations that are strategic allies and trading partners, and continues to divide Americans along partisan lines. It also “brings people together in really remarkable and interesting ways,” says architecture professor Ronald Rael, and DnA tells their stories.
2) Bridges and Walls: High Speed Rail
California’s biggest infrastructure project is a high-speed rail network that would connect San Francisco, the Central Valley and Los Angeles, bridging communities cut off by the state’s difficult geography. However, farmers see the train as driving a wall through their land. Despite widespread criticism, parts of the route are being built in Fresno, opening up new opportunities in the Central Valley. This episode also explored why the press and public gets excited about the Hyperloop, still an imaginary form of super-speed transit, but is downbeat about high speed rail, a real project.
With: Joe Mathews, Host, “Zocalo’s Connecting California”; Bob Brazil, Farmer in Hanford, CA; Diana Gomez, Central Valley regional director for the California High-Speed Rail Authority; Tim Sheehan, Fresno Bee; Lee Ann Eager, Fresno County Economic Development Corporation; Jake Soberal, Co-founder and CEO of Bitwise; Irma Olguin, Co-founder and CTO of Bitwise; Paul Lewis, Vice president of policy at the Eno Center for Transportation
3) Bridges and Walls: Wildlife Crossing
Wild animals need to roam, but our freeways are in the way. Now a proposed bridge over the 101 would allow mountain lions and other wildlife to cross safely over the freeway and improve their access to food and mates. But can humans and predatory animals coexist in the city? And why did it take the “Brad Pitt” of mountain lions to make this bridge possible?
With: Seth Riley, National Park Service, Santa Monica; Ulysses Smpardos, Structural designer at Caltrans; Sheik Moinuddin, Senior transportation engineer at Caltrans; Clark Stevens, Architect and sustainable land use planner, executive officer of the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, and architect of the Liberty Canyon Wildlife Crossing; Andrea Richards, Los Angeles Magazine, Co-editor of “We Heart P-22: A Coloring and Activity Book Celebrating L.A.’s Most Famous Mountain Lion; Teena Apeles, Co-editor of “We Heart P-22: A Coloring and Activity Book Celebrating L.A.’s Most Famous Mountain Lion;” Wendell Phillips, Attorney based in Malibu; Miguel Ordeñana, Wildlife biologist and educator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, National Wildlife Federation; Beth Schaefer, General Curator and Director of Animal Care at the Los Angeles Zoo; Benjamin Gottlieb, KCRW Afternoon News Producer
4) Bridges and Walls: LA River, part 1
Eighty years ago , rain poured down on Los Angeles. Floods washed out roads, bridges and thousands of homes. The devastation led to total channelization that would forever shape — and divide — Los Angeles. Now efforts are underway to build new bridges, bring back wildlife and forge new connections at the LA River. But with those efforts come anxiety about change, and wistfulness for the river as raw canvas for artists.
With: Andrew Bird, composer; Saber, Los Angeles artist; Judy Baca, Social and Public Art Resource Center; Harry Gamboa Jr., Chicano essayist, photographer, director and performance artist; Michael Maltzan, Michael Maltzan Architecture; Lewis MacAdams, Friends of the Los Angeles River; Frank Gehry, Gehry Partners; Zoltan Pali, SPF:architects; Deborah Weintraub, Office of the Los Angeles City Engineer; Jon Christensen, UCLA / Stamen Design; Kat Superfisky, Associate, Urban Ecologist at Studio-MLA; Jenna Kagel, Radio producer
5) Bridges and Walls: LA River, part 2
The Los Angeles River in downtown is getting new bridges and parks. But with the greening of the river may come “green gentrification.” DnA tours a disused railyard that will be turned into a park, hears about dreams for changes in the Lower LA River and talks to architect Frank Gehry and other stakeholders about LA County’s updated masterplan for the entire 51 miles of flood channel.
With: Mia Lehrer, Founding principal of Mia Lehrer + Associates; Ximena Hernandez, Boyle Heights resident; Kat Superfisky, Associate, Urban Ecologist at Studio-MLA; Jon Christensen, UCLA / Stamen Design; Phyllis Chiu, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development; Mark Lopez, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice; Frank Gehry, Gehry Partners; Omar Brownson, Executive director, River LA; Mark Hanna, Senior Principal Water Resources Engineer, Geosyntec; Ruben Vives, Reporter, Los Angeles Times; Anthony Rendon, California State Assembly; Deborah Weintraub, Office of the Los Angeles City Engineer
6) Bridges and Walls: Invisible Walls
There are walls that impact the communities they contain, but are naked to the eye. On today’s “Bridges and Walls” episode we explore three examples of invisible walls: the boundaries that mark gang territories; zoning codes that divide communities; and the West LA eruv, a ritualistic fence that allows Orthodox Jews to perform certain tasks on Shabbat, the traditional day of rest. Listen to the full show, above, or each story separately, below.
With: Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi of B’nai David-Judea; Elliot Katzovitz, Chairman of the Board, LA Community Eruv; Na’amit Nagel, resident of Pico-Robertson and teacher at Shalhevet High School; Doniel Berry, Orthodox Jew and piano accompanist at Los Angeles Jewish Community Children’s Choir; Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am
With: Skipp Townsend, gang interventionist and executive director of 2nd Call; Alex Alonso, gang expert and adjunct professor at Cal State Long Beach, and founder of StreetGangs.com; George Tita, UC Irvine
7) Bridges and Walls: The Future of Freeways
Los Angeles has fallen out of love with freeways. Or has it? Freeways were once liberating bridges between communities. Now they are polluting, rush-hour parking lots that form walls within the Southland. DnA looks at the health impact of living near freeways, a proposed new freeway in the High Desert, the optimistic origins of freeways, the havoc they wreaked on Boyle Heights, and how artists responded, and what they might look like in the future. Listen to the full show, above, or each story separately, below.
With: Jill Jami, textile designer; Shekib Jami, UCLA biomedical researcher; Juliana Espinal, doctoral student in Hispanic literature; Theresa Cheng, emergency medicine resident at UCLA; Yifang Zhu, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health; Amanda Wagner, doctoral student in environmental science and engineering at UCLA
With: B. Alexandra Szerlip, author of “The Man Who Designed the Future;” David Brodsly, author of “LA Freeway: An Appreciative Essay;” Catherine Opie, Photographer; Eric Avila,professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of “The Folklore of the Freeway”
With: Jennifer Swann, Reporter
With: Seleta Reynolds, Los Angeles Department of Transportation; Chris Reed, Founding Director of Stoss Landscape Urbanism; Eric Avila, professor of urban planning at UCLA and author of “The Folklore of the Freeway”
8) Bridges and Walls: The 4th Border
The final episode of DnA’s Bridges and Walls examines the “4th Border,” the Southland’s seashore. Undersea cables are being laid to connect LA virtually to the Pacific Rim and the rest of the world. But why do so many land in Hermosa Beach? What are we giving away in return for these connections? And how about using the ocean as an alternate route for traffic-weary Angeleno commuters? We’ll find out what it would take to ferry passengers between the beach towns. Listen to the full show, above, or each story separately, below.
With: Francie Stefan, City of Santa Monica; Ken Robertson, Director of Community Development, Hermosa Beach; Ryan McDonald, Covers Hermosa Beach for a local news outlet called the Easy Rider; Nicole Starosielski, Professor at New York University and author of “The Undersea Network;” Andrew Blum, journalist and author of “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet;” Chris Brungardt, Senior vice president of RTI, an undersea fiber optic cable developer; Ingrid Burrington, Author of “Networks of New York”; Trevor Paglen, Artist and photographer