Thursday, July 10, 2014

Racial inequality remains etched into the very foundation of the U.S. interstate highway program and its cities.

A Los Angeles freeway in 2009. In his new book, Eric Avila digs into the
cultural history of the U.S. interstate highway program.
Image via Creative Commons.

Professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA


Avila is the author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, which takes a hard look at the ways in which America's interstate highway program divided cities at the same time as it connected them, cutting through and destroying countless communities. Avila chronicles a wide range of urban experiences, including Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City, Baltimore, Miami, Boston, and St. Paul.


Contrary to what one might expect after reading this book, I actually like freeways—when they work, that is. Yes, I am mindful of how the glut of cars can degrade the urban experience and of how it exploits the planet and its resources, but as a native southern Californian, I still crave those rare moments when L.A.’s freeways aren’t jammed to capacity, when you can actually move through the city with awesome speed and convenience. Such moments behind the wheel, even if they don’t come that often, remind me why freeways were built in the first place: to enable drivers to bypass the city’s bustle with amazing speed and efficiency. The freeway and the automobile, after all, were built upon a uniquely American premise of freedom—a twentieth century freedom of the individual to move, to accelerate, and to maximize the technological potential for unfettered, autonomous mobility.

The pursuit of this very modern freedom is shared across the lines of race, class, and gender. Women, workers, and people of color use freeways just like everyone else, for the demands of work and the need for pleasure. Freeways, after all, were not built just for the rich and powerful. In theory, interstates were built for everyone, but the consequences of their construction were dealt unevenly and The Folklore of the Freeway emphasizes the disparate impact of highway construction upon diverse urban neighborhoods. Thus one of the most surprising discoveries of my research for this book is that postwar highway construction was not an innocent enterprise—that like other forms of state policy and practice, it actually contributed to the racial fracturing of American society during the 1960s and beyond.

The use of race and ethnicity as a means of segmenting and distinguishing the people of a nation or a continent was invented in Europe some five centuries ago, upon the first contact between European and non-European peoples. In the four centuries of American history, race and ethnicity became indispensable tools to distinguish citizens from non-citizens and to justify the conquest of indigenous lands. Only in the twentieth century did we learn that race is not this fixed, quantifiable thing that can be measured within individuals and societies, but rather that it’s an intellectual invention, a conceptual tool designed to enforce difference and establish hierarchy. This concept has been used in pernicious ways throughout American history—to justify slavery, usurp western lands, restrict immigration, and as this book shows, to shape the landscape of our cities.

So in today’s cultural climate, when ethnic studies programs and scholarship are accused of fueling differences and divisions in American society, or when scholars and pundits plead for a “post-racial” society, we need to remember the enduring legacy of racial thinking and practice, especially within the concrete context of the urban built environment. Today’s cities were built upon yesterday’s assumptions and though it sometimes seems like we are moving towards a more just and equal future, racial inequality remains etched into the very foundation of our cities.

I wrote The Folklore of the Freeway to help us see the American city—and its history—from the bottom up, from the very communities that bore the burnt of urban highway construction during the 1950s and 1960s. I believe we need to understand what freeways did to people within these communities, through their unique perspectives. This form of organic wisdom is absent from the dominant discourse of planning and public policy. I see the blunt expressions of racial pride and solidarity that have amassed in diverse communities around the invasive presence of the freeway as responses in kind to the racial assumptions that shaped highway policy and practice throughout the interstate era. As a professor of Chicano studies, I confess that I sometimes get frustrated with the scholarly practice of singling out this group’s history from that group’s, or the staunch insistence upon the unique singularity of one group’s history and identity. Several years ago, the great George Lipsitz taught me that race can only be understood relationally and that in the context of American history, it’s impossible to isolate the experiences of a particular social group from those of other social groups. Thus the history of interstate highway construction provided the perfect opportunity to escape the familiar conundrum of ethnic studies scholarship. By showing how the experience of urban highway construction in postwar America cut across the lines of race, class, gender and ethnicity, The Folklore of the Freeway, I hope, provides a model for future scholarship in ethnic studies, one that recognizes the centrality of racial identity and ideology as an active force in American history, while at the same time synthesizing the disparate experiences of diverse social groups and recognizing their fundamentally intertwined histories.

Note to reader: of course not every instance of the freeway and its folklore is accounted for. Readers might find their neighborhoods or their cities missing from the analysis; others might recognize overlooked aspects of freeway folklore from their particular communities. In a study of this scale and scope, I couldn’t capture everything, so there are some necessary omissions. But my hope is that this book can provide an entry point for comprehending the hidden linkages between structure and culture, between the concrete fact of the urban built environment and its interpretation through the subjective prisms of identity, language, and place.


Eric Avila is professor of history, Chicano studies, and urban planning at UCLA. He is the author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City and Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles.

"Eric Avila’s in-depth research and his sheer passionate commitment to the subject should make this one of the rare books that succeeds in replacing a widely-accepted narrative."
Robert Fishman, University of Michigan

"A must-read cultural history of the ‘invisible freeway revolts’ through which city people of color have demanded social justice in the midst of aggressive urban reforms. Avila provides timely lessons for scholars and urban planners, pointing us to pay closer attention to the aesthetic and expressive forms of these protests, so necessary to achieve spatial justice in American cities."
Arlene Davila, New York University

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