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The Folklore of the Freeway

Race and Revolt in the Modernist City

2014
Author:

Eric Avila

The Folklore of the Freeway

How urban minority communities devastated by the construction of the interstate highway reclaimed their place through cultural expression

When the interstate highway program connected America’s cities, it also divided them, cutting through and devastating countless communities—many of them minority urban neighborhoods lacking the political and economic power to resist the construction. Within the context of the 1960s and 1970s, Eric Avila maps the creative strategies devised by urban communities to document and protest the damage that highways wrought.

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

When the interstate highway program connected America’s cities, it also divided them, cutting through and destroying countless communities. Affluent and predominantly white residents fought back in a much heralded “freeway revolt,” saving such historic neighborhoods as Greenwich Village and New Orleans’s French Quarter. This book tells of the other revolt, a movement of creative opposition, commemoration, and preservation staged on behalf of the mostly minority urban neighborhoods that lacked the political and economic power to resist the onslaught of highway construction.

Within the context of the larger historical forces of the 1960s and 1970s, Eric Avila maps the creative strategies devised by urban communities to document and protest the damage that highways wrought. The works of Chicanas and other women of color—from the commemorative poetry of Patricia Preciado Martin and Lorna Dee Cervantes to the fiction of Helena Maria Viramontes to the underpass murals of Judy Baca—expose highway construction as not only a racist but also a sexist enterprise. In colorful paintings, East Los Angeles artists such as David Botello, Carlos Almaraz, and Frank Romero satirize, criticize, and aestheticize the structure of the freeway. Local artists paint murals on the concrete piers of a highway interchange in San Diego’s Chicano Park. The Rondo Days Festival in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Black Archives, History, and Research Foundation in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami preserve and celebrate the memories of historic African American communities lost to the freeway.

Bringing such efforts to the fore in the story of the freeway revolt, The Folklore of the Freeway moves beyond a simplistic narrative of victimization to explore a dynamic relationship between structure and culture, between the physical fact of the freeway and its refraction through the prisms of identity, language, and place. Losers, perhaps, in their fight against the freeway, the diverse communities at the center of the book nonetheless generate powerful cultural forces that shape our understanding of the urban landscape and influence the shifting priorities of contemporary urban policy.

The Folklore of the Freeway

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

The Folklore of the Freeway

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

The Folklore of the Freeway fuses art and public policy in a graceful narrative.

KCET- LA Letters

Each chapter is rich with details rarely considered, challenging readers to rethink their understanding of growth and development

CHOICE

Avila’s book is critically important for placing communities of color at the center of the narrative of anti-highway activism. In showing us that culture is affected by political activities like highway construction, he makes a welcome intervention into a historical topic that has often ignored culture and suggests areas for further research.

American Studies Journal

Avila’s work is an important history of the modernist city and its discontents, transforming the narrative of the freeway revolt.

Journal of American History

Eric Avila . . . has written a thoughtful account of the impact of the construction of the American Interstate highway system on the urban barrios and ghettos it often traversed.

Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review

The Folklore of the Freeway makes the invisible freeway revolt not only visible, but vivid, clear, and indisputable.

Buildings & Settlements

The Folklore of the Freeway offers a provocative account of the cultural history of the freeway in the American city, which interweaves past and present into a compelling narrative that challenges urban scholars to rethink the basic points of reference that have framed the storyline of the freeway revolt.

Urban Studies

Avila’s book serves not only as a reminder of the role that race and political power played in the placement of urban highways, but as call to remake the highway system more justly.

Planning Perspectives

[A] compelling analysis.

Journal of Transport History

The Folklore of the Freeway

Contents

Preface

Introduction: The Invisible Freeway Revolt
1. The Master’s Plan: The Rise and Fall of the Modernist City
2. “Nobody But a Bunch of Mothers”: Fighting the Highwaymen During Feminism’s Second Wave
3. Communities Lost and Found: The Politics of Historical Memory
4. A Matter of Perspective: The Racial Politics of Seeing the Freeway
5. Taking Back the Freeway: Strategies of Adaptation and Improvisation
Conclusion: Identity Politics in Post-Interstate America

Acknowledgments
Notes
Index

The Folklore of the Freeway

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

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.