LA freeways: The infrastructure of racism

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While Los Angeles does not feature statues of slave traders or Confederate generals, there are less obvious monuments to structural racism. Just turn to freeways.

When construction of the Interstate Highway System began in the 1950s, white-dominated municipalities nationwide often routed freeways through communities of color or as a divider between Black and white neighborhoods.

The 10 freeway is a prime example. It split the affluent northern parts of the LA basin from some of the economically struggling Black areas of South LA. This affected thriving Black communities, including the Pico neighborhood in Santa Monica and the Sugar Hill area in West Adams. 

Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian researching Santa Monica’s Black community, says people tried to fight the freeway construction but did not have the political clout. Many ended up leaving the Pico neighborhood for Miracle Mile, Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, and the Pacoima area.

The colossal intersection of the 5, the 10, the 101 and the 60 freeways destroyed Boyle Heights. It was a thriving, ethnically mixed neighborhood. 

The freeways also enabled white flight from the city to suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley, Orange County, and later the Inland Empire. “In the vast majority of those cases, those suburbs were essentially earmarked for white, upwardly mobile families,” says Josh Stephens, author of “The Urban Mystique.”

New freeway construction in Southern California is rare, but lower income communities of color continue to be impacted. The 105 freeway, completed in 1993, was routed from El Segundo to Norwalk. 

UCLA professor Eric Avila says some city transportation planners, especially in the Southern US, were motivated by white supremacy.

In others, city planners were choosing the path of least resistance or trying to get rid of so-called “blighted neighborhoods.” 

Boyle Heights, for example, was redlined by banks and home insurance providers because its mix of races was considered unsafe. “It was described by the federal government as hopelessly heterogeneous. A Homeowners Loan Corporation report called it an ideal location for a slum clearance project. That slum clearance project was highway construction,” says Avila.

“Freeways don't look like monuments. They're not statues. They're these enormous, concrete, miles-long structures that very much speak to racist elements of regional planning, racist elements of politics, and racist elements of what, at the time, was considered to be progress,” says Josh Stephens.