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Latino/a Mobility in California History

Genevieve Carpio, Javier Cienfuegos, Ivonne Gonzalez, Karen Lazcano, Katherine Lee Berry, Joshua Mandell, Christofer Rodelo, Alfonso Toro, Authors
Fonzy Toro, page 3 of 5

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Gentrification and Activism during the Construction of the Modernist City by Fonzy Toro

EYCEJ Website

Media Summary:

"Isella Ramirez - Living in a Toxic Environment." YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2014. <>.

The You Tube video “Living in a Toxic Environment: Isella Ramiresz’s story" featured on the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ) presents Isella’s own journey in the environmental movement to promote clean air and healthy communities. In the video, she describes her work with the grassroots organization of EYCEJ. She details the health impacts that freeways have created in the city of Commerce, which sees more than 30 and 50 thousand trucks every day.  She goes on to explain that at the age of three years old, her niece was already struggling with cancer and health problems that were amplified by the environment were she was growing up.

The city of Commerce right next to East Los Angeles, primarily serves first generation low-income immigrant families. These are the families that are now facing the repercussions of the freeways, including the diesel pollution and other chemicals/toxins that come into their organs. Isella’s activism and involvement with local organizations reminds citizens that they also have a voice and that the most important thing they have is their health. Through EYCEJ’s work with local high schools, community centers, and locals, they are bringing attention to the damage that infrastructures like freeways, railroads, and factories do in their areas. Their work cautions constituents about the dangers that they may be facing and promotes ways to protect their cities and families.

Reading Summary: 

Avila, Eric. Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City. University of Minnesota      Press, 2014. (1-87)


Eric Avila’s “The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City” introduces the reader to the way that communities of color were negatively affected by the construction of the freeways. It begins with the Federal Aid Highway Act, which won unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans (Avila 2014, 1).  Avila explains how the men who led the freeway movement were all white men which in the 1950s, were highly regarded and respected by Americans for their expertise on technological command. However, he notes that not everybody was happy with having a structures run right through their cities. He describes how the dominant narrative of the freeway revolt is a racialized story, telling the victories of white middle-class or affluent communities and that the freeway revolt found the greatest success in wealthy cities like Princeton and Cambridge (Avila, 2014, 2).

Furthermore, he explains how the book attempts to tell the story of what  “inner city people think about the freeways that fracture their communities” and goes on to state that “Los Angeles models the very conditions that sustain a vibrant folklore of the freeway: its ubiquitous freeways and their marking of socioeconomic divisions its history of civil rights struggle and racial unrest, and its diverse expressive cultures that deploy creativity and imagination in the absence of political and economic power” (Avila, 2014, 7).

In addition, he introduces the theme of unexpected consequences of building the modernist city through Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann and the “Haussmannization” that required “tens of thousands of people [to evacuate] from old buildings to make way for streets, bridges, quays, and buildings. The city’s poor were banished to the periphery of the city, their homes replaced by government and commercial buildings or by new apartments beyond their means” (Avila 9). The construction of Interstate, H-3 created defiant expressions of indigeneity and created new levels of racial conflict on the island. (Avila 16). Overall, the introduction provides a glimpse of the racial tensions and activism that Avila explores throughout his book.

The Master’s Plan The Rise and Fall of the Modernist City


The Interstate Highway and Defense Act highlighted the needs of the nation to connect cities in the 1950s due to the suburbanization that was happening. The 1950s nation had the car, which allowed people to move efficiently and privately. “The construction of these highway infrastructures presided over the birth of the modern ghetto and barrio shaping the age-old barriers of race and class into defined concrete lines” (Avila 19).

The experts that were “armed with hard data, state, and federal highway engineers presented themselves as men of science, justified in their bold interventions into the urban fabric”(Avila 23), but it was not all ran by the most wealthy and connected, it  “also enjoyed strong support from construction and trucking companies and from labor unions such as the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, whose stake in building urban freeways contributed to an image of consensus around the interstate highway program” (Avila 26). Avila goes on to emphasize how these constructions tore into the cities fabric, ignoring the environmental and social consequences. However, the revolt of communities was led by “forming neighborhood committees, leagues, and councils, by packing public hearings, by launching phone campaigns and petition drives, and by utilizing contacts in the media and city government, concerned citizens of disparate American cities made urban highway construction a public issue” (Avila 30). With very few exceptions like the Boston Inner Belt multiracial victory, the communities that won were those like Beverly hills and Princeton, where white upper middle class.

As the barrios and ghettos took shape, the “freeways added insult to injury, ravaging neighborhoods that were already bearing the brunt of disinvestment, deindustrialization, and decline” (Avila 39). The federal government implicitly mapped racial communities to create invasive highway projects like the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration  “considered many aspects of a neighborhood in addition to its racial profile… [but] the social component or its inhabitants ranked first.  Ranged in “ethnic and nationality groups, laborers, and even foreign born” (Avila 40-41).  In this struggle, urban communities of color did not win the fight against the freeway. One Baltimore activist referred to the freeway as “The snake, if not racist, certainly seems to know that white is more threatening to it than black” (Avila 52) exemplifying the way that communities of color viewed this infrastructure. It stepped over communities of color and privileged upper class white communities by providing them with faster routes and modes of transportation.

“Nobody but a Bunch of Mothers” Fighting the Highwaymen during Feminism’s Second Wave


The secondwave of feminism examines the revolt through a gender lens that tells the ,“tale of two struggles- of white metropolitan women- mothers, homeowners and shrewd organizers who led communities to fight against highway construction and of working class women of color who summoned artistic talent and creative imagination to assert an indictment of highway construction as both a sexist and a racist enterprise” (Avila 55). Highway construction represented a threat to parks, families, and communities. Shirley Hayes’s Joint Emergency Committee for instance became ‘the mother of a citizen activist groups” and its tactics involved collecting signatures, rallying local officials, writing editorials, and packing public hearings- inspired "nationwide strategies to defeat state plans for highway construction" (Avila 61). Another strong activist was Jane Jacobs  who although “railed against the interventions of government and its audacious figureheads”(Avila 67) she ignored the gentrification that was occurring and  “said nothing about the radical forces of capitalism that ravaged her neighborhood, pushing out factories, affordable housing and struggling artists while enforcing broader disparities of race, wealth, and poverty” (Avila 67) 

Avila then introduces the readers to the artistic talents of Chicanas like Patricia Preciado Martin who wrote “The Journey” in 1988. Her poetry criticizes the damage that the freeway has caused in her neighborhood and the negative effects that it has created. (Avila 75) and Lorena Dee Cervantes who’s poem depict how “California’s highway builders destroyed the barrio community that cradled Cervantes’s youth” (Avila 76). He also emphasizes the physical ways in which activists took over the space, like  Judith Baca’s  mural Division of the Barrios and Chavez Ravine where “A serpentine freeway writhes between and around these figures, and its supporting columns crash into the homes of the barrio below. (Avila 77-78) and Hitting the Wall  where a woman triumphs by breaking the tape of the finish line which breaks the wall on the freeway (Avila 79). The imagery alerts the viewer of the reality behind the history of many Mexican American families in the Los Angeles are during the 1950’s and 1960’s, as it reflects Baca’s own experiences growing up in the San Fernando Valley.


In comparing the first half of Avila’s “The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City” and Isella Ramirez’s story on the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice website, there appears to be a consensus on the damaging repercussions and long term effects that freeways have created in their surrounding areas. These structures both invaded and continue to destroy communities of color and low-income households. Nevertheless, both sources also serve as empowering material with messages of hope and an present an urgent call to action. Although these environmental and social issues began in the second half of the 20th century, they have certainly crossed decades and are hurting the next generation of citizens who live around these highways.

Furthermore, they both also show how poor working class communities of color were assigned to suffer the consequences of these structures because they didn’t have the resources to stand up and fight against the freeway. There were already too many other things to fight for like schooling, finding a decent job, learning another language, providing food etc. People with this particular background are forced to live in places like Commerce due to factors like affordable housing. However, they pay the consequences of serious health illnesses. It is critical for organizations like EYCEJ and the East Los Angeles, Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA) that Avila mentions to stand up and fight unwanted infrastructures. Through community organizing, residents can see the power that they have to overthrow and stand up against unwanted invaders.

Articles on Freeway Pollution found in the city of Maywood:

LA Freeway Expansion, the I-710 Corridor Project, Could Improve Public Health: Report

Discussion Questions:

Aside from freeways, what are current infrastructures hurting low-income immigrant communities and what are some unexpected consequences?

As college educated students, what role, if any, do we have in the environmental justice movement, particularly revolving around freeways?

Highways and cars have become the best mode of transportation in California but as we have read, they are also the causes of gentrification, environmental damage, and health concerns. In what ways can these sites be transformed into positive spaces?

Join this page's discussion (5 comments)

Discussion of "Gentrification and Activism during the Construction of the Modernist City by Fonzy Toro"

Industry and Infrastructure Invading!

All the contemporary media pieces paired with this reading are heartbreaking! In response to Fonzy’s first question, an obvious answer is factories and over-industrialized areas. The HuffPost article on the Martin family in Maywood describes the amalgam of toxic industrial centers situated throughout the family’s tiny, but densely packed community, and the lack of any investigation by officials into the health problems caused and perpetuated by these factories. As Avila comments, and Fonzy notes for us, the community of Maywood, like other low-income minority communities, does not have the time nor the money to fight for better living conditions the way Jane Jacobs and other middle class white women did when they won battles against infrastructural invasions. While Freeways are built through minority communities because their low income nature gets them branded as “blights”, over-industrialization seems to work in reverse: industrialized areas draw families low on the economic totem pole who need the jobs, and then proceed to wreak havoc on their lives and further devalue their communities.
I also found it interesting that, congruent with Avila’s examples, the person we see fighting against invasive city projects in Fonzy’s media piece is a female who considers the safety of her family to be her main reason for activism.

Posted on 12 November 2014, 10:57 am by Kate Berry  |  Permalink

Fighting the Freeway Over Space and Time

In response to Fonzy's blog post, I was particularly struck by the continuity of activism against the material spectre of the freeway. The mobilizations enacted by Chicana women in the middle of the 20th century works as a form of legacy for Isella Ramirez and the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. The fixity of the freeway, and the creativeness needed by organizers to critique the system, is perhaps the most resilient part of this activist geneaology. Avila demonstrates how women protested against the development of highways in places like New York, how they later admonished the established infrastructure through cultural forms like art and literature, and the more contemporary development of digital presence and non-profit work. While we can praise the efforts of these organizers, the material realities of the freeway's entrenchment in Los Angeles-- socially, economically, and politically-- merits further conversation. How do we in the contemporary moment reconcile freeway activism with both the rootedness of the problem in the physical landscape and the necessity for a city dependent on automobiles?

A book I've found to be helpful in answering questions of modern-day activism is Grace Lee Bogg's The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (more info at How is this text helpful in imagining the next freeway revolts?

Posted on 12 November 2014, 12:10 pm by Christofer Rodelo  |  Permalink

The Freeway and the Unfortunate Consequence of 'Progress'

I think Fonzy’s questions bring up an important call to action--especially as young, educated people. It definitely brings to mind the larger picture of how poverty limits access to mobility in terms of environmental reform. Avila’s work in detailing the way the freeways removed poor communities from the city landscape very much ties in with the problem of gentrification in today’s society (like we’ve seen in previous classes: SF/Silicon Valley, [you can check out some effects of it on this interactive map that’s part of a 2003 series on PBS] etc).

I think it was an interesting choice to name the chapter on women’s activism “Nobody but a Bunch of Mothers.” The idea of motherhood is so closely tied to being a protector--nurturing, caring, raising healthy children… tying that to women’s activism against the Highwaymen seems really appropriate (“maternal commitment to defending their neighborhoods against federal overreach” (Avila, 66)). They were protecting the land and community through their activism and through that ‘raising’ healthy landscapes for future generations.

I also want to comment on the irony of freeways and displacement…. The freeway distorted the landscape and found neighborhoods “trapped in what had become a ghetto” (Avila, 43). Putting up these structures expelled poor communities of color. Poverty in the city landscape is not something you can get rid of (at least not without the proper investment in programs to eliminate it) and thus the freeway became a home for the homeless in the city. It has only risen to the attention of city officials--like with Skid Row in Downtown LA--when it comes to emerging capital opportunities, which of course mean gentrification! The freeways displaced these poor communities, then became a home for the homeless in the city, and are now being policed--meaning getting rid of these individuals--for the sake of the city’s elite. Can impoverished communities, or communities of color catch a break?

All in all, the freeway has definitely created multiple “unfortunate consequences of progress” (Avila, 43).

(For a little comedic relief)

Posted on 12 November 2014, 6:54 pm by Karen Lazcano  |  Permalink

Urban Freeways Close to Home

Kate is right to identify industry as a threat to low income neighborhoods. Every time you take I-95 past Bridgeport, CT, you are greeted by the orange and white smokestack of a coal-burning power plant . Even though it is only active about 2 weeks per year, the harmful byproducts of the plant contribute to high rates of asthma and lung cancer in the city. And, of course, I-95 cuts through the same area of the city, bringing more harmful fumes into the lungs of Bridgeport residents. As Avila’s book reveals, the interstate gives people with wealth greater mobility at the expense of poor people of color who have limited freedom of movement. Like the people of Commerce in the YouTube video, Bridgeport residents are being forced to suffer the effects of a toxic environment, but are fighting back to defend their right to health and well-being.

Posted on 13 November 2014, 10:52 am by Joshua Mandell  |  Permalink

Making Connections: Paris, the Metro, and Chicana Poetry

I really enjoyed reading the first part of Folklore of the Freeway, as I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could make connections to other topics of study I've encountered during my time here at Yale. For example, Avila's discussion on Haussmanization makes a connection to the development of roads and paved streets in Paris, and how that affected mainly lower-class citizens whose homes were destroyed. It made me think about the modern-day banlieues in Paris, which are technically the suburbs or outer rings of Paris, but are actually the places where low-income immigrants reside. How does L.A.'s urban layout create a similar or different experience for immigrant communities compared to those in Paris? In Paris, there are also highways that divide or enclose the wealthier, inner parts of the city. Avila's reference to Haussmanization is highly relevant, as it points to the origins of urban divide (East vs West) according to social class, and later, ethnicity/race.

Fonzy asks about what other public structures affect low-income communities of color, and I would add that the Metro (public transit) system is a big one. It's not coincidental that the metro's worst service areas are in the ghettoes and barrios. Community activists have been fighting for a while to challenge new developments in the neighborhoods, or even the bus fare.

I also wanted to make a connection between the freeway-inspired poetry in Chapter 2 and the poetry of Marisela Norte, who is a Chicana poet who wrote poetry while riding the Metro public bus in East L.A. Connecting these Chicana poets shows us that cultural expression has been used in a very particular manner to document a specific urban cultural experience that is highly influenced by questions of mobility and landscape.

Posted on 16 November 2014, 7:30 pm by Ivonne Gonzalez  |  Permalink

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