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The freeway revolts

 May 16, 2023 at 12:00 AM PDT

S1: It's a Friday afternoon at Cesar Chavez Elementary School. A group of kids are playing kickball on the field. Hello. Hey , Miguel. Francisco Santos is the principal here. He's showing me around the campus , which sits in the neighborhood of South Crest , southeast of downtown.

S2: Before the pandemic , we were idling at 500. But now , after pandemic , because there was some students that went online and there's a decrease in enrollment overall in the district. Right now , we're idling at 420 , mostly Latino students.

S1: If you look closely , you can see elements of Chicano iconography in the school's design. The windows of the library mimic the Aztec Eagle , which the United Farm Workers used in their flag. Francisco says these are some of the things neighbors asked for when the school was built in 1997.

S2: The community really came together with the architectures that really , hey , we want this school to really reflect the culture , right , of Chavez and to be an amazing campus for our neighborhood.

S1: You'd have no idea from looking at it. But Cesar Chavez Elementary sits on land that came very close to becoming a freeway. And if it weren't for a group of activists , that freeway would have been built and the school and the park down the street and the grocery store up the hill and hundreds of homes in the neighborhood would not exist. From KPBS in San Diego. This is Freeway Exit. I'm Andrew Bowen. We're talking about the past , present and future of San Diego freeways. This episode , what happens when a freeway threatens to divide a neighborhood and that neighborhood fights back ? Stay tuned. Last episode , we talked about how states took the money offered by the federal government and blanketed every metropolitan area in the country with freeways. In many cases , however , they ran into opposition. The freeway revolts were a series of protests , mostly in the 50s , 60s and 70s , when neighborhoods fought back the way they saw it , their homes , businesses and parks were being bulldozed so suburban commuters could have an easier drive to work. These protests happened all across the country. A grassroots reaction to the mid-century freeway boom. There's even a song about them by Malvina Reynolds , a singer songwriter who took part in the freeway revolts of San Francisco. It's called Cement Octopus.

S3: There's a sea mad octopus. It's in Sacramento , I think.

UU: Red tape to eat. Gasoline taxes to drink.

S1: San Diego has never been a bastion of counterculture , but it did not sit out the freeway revolts. Remember last episode when Jacob Dickerman , aka Mr. Caltrans , said the only piece of freeway he never got to work on was the 163 through Balboa Park. Well , it wasn't for lack of trying. In the early 60s , Dick proposed widening the freeway through the park. San Diego revolted and got the widening stopped. I won't get too deep into this history. If you want to learn more , there's a great San Diego magazine article from 1966 that's linked in the show notes. But there was an even bigger freeway revolt in San Diego , the fight against Highway 252. The earliest public discussion of this freeway I could find was at a meeting of the San Diego City Council on April 30th , 1968 , a little over a decade into building the interstate system.

S4: Item 17 , three resolutions related to the freeway agreements with the Division of California State of California Highways covering the proposed development route.

S1: The state wanted to build Highway 252 as an east West link between I-5 and I. 805. If you're not familiar with San Diego , these are the two major freeways that run more or less parallel from the border with Mexico to the city's northern edge. The route for the 252 was only 1.3 miles long , and it went right down the middle of South Crest. At this meeting , the city council was being asked to sign off on that route. And after about 90s of discussion , all unanimous , the council voted unanimously to build the freeway. This was neither surprising nor unusual given how the city operated at the time.

S5: Before I got on the council , the council didn't relate to the community. They didn't discuss things with the communities.

S1: That's Leon Williams , San Diego's first black city council member. He was appointed to the fourth Council District , which included South Crest in 1969 , and almost immediately he became one of the most vocal critics of Highway 252. Leon is 100 years old now , and this all happened a long time ago. But something he remembers very clearly is how badly his constituents needed to be empowered.

S5: Community people didn't feel courageous enough to address the council or to , you know , to say anything , whatever the government did. The people kind of went along. They thought they had no choice.

S1: When Leon got on the council , he set out to change that. He hired community organizers , recruited residents to serve as captains of their block to make sure everyone knew what was going on at City Hall.

S5: We had a lot of meetings and in houses and people , the community , people would have a call together , get your neighbors. I'd go and talk with them and try to convince them you have rights. Stand up for yourself.

S6: So think about well painted houses , groom the yards.

S1: William Jones was an aide to Leon Williams at the time. He later succeeded him on the city council. Throughout the 20th century , redlining and other racist housing policies had segregated blacks and Latinos into just a few neighborhoods. Southwest was one of the places where people of color could own their own homes and businesses.

S6: You saw children running down the street biking. I was one of them. You know , in the 1960s , I was biking down those streets. And so it was a very vibrant community that showed signs of neglect.

S1: San Diego's suburban sprawl was kicking into high gear and older neighborhoods like South Crest were being left behind. The lack of public investment put a damper on property values. So when the state went looking for where to build its freeways , communities like South Crest , where land values were relatively cheap , were easy targets. With the city's blessing , the state seized and demolished 280 homes for the 252 freeway. Hundreds of people had to leave with little help to relocate , and 66 acres of South Crest were cleared and left vacant.

S6: The ones who were the most affected emotionally and financially were the homeowners who had been there for a number of years. They had everything they were supposed to do , but they were losing their homes and they were losing their memories.

S1: Once the state started clearing the right of way for Highway 252 , all the work Leon Williams had put into organizing his constituents became really important. In 1973 , activists in Southeast San Diego founded the Black Federation , and stopping the 252 was one of their main campaigns. William Jones , who was 18 at the time , was recruited as a liaison between this new nonprofit and the Council District four office.

S6: They wanted Leon to have representation on the board , and I was always energetic and would raise my hand to do the nitty gritty work. So I was one of the I was one of the worker bees.

S1: Williams says the Black Federation was essentially a think tank. They gathered economic data from the 252 corridor and tried to show how much tax revenue had been lost since the land had been cleared. They took policymakers on tours of the neighborhood , introduced them to business owners who had lost their customer base , and they pushed Caltrans to study alternatives to the freeway , like improving public transit in the area.

S6: It was a very deliberate effort to provide policymakers with an alternative , fact driven view that if we reinvest in neighborhoods rather than , you know , building a freeway through it , that we might end up with a better outcome over the long run , especially since there were other options to this particular freeway.

S1: In 1975 , the city council revisited its support for the 252 , but the freeway opponents were no match for Jacob Dickerman and the interest groups that supported him auto clubs , developers and labor unions. The council voted 6 to 3 to stick with the plan of building the freeway. Coming up , the freeway revolts gain a new and powerful ally. Stay with us. So in 1975 , Caltrans got a renewed mandate from San Diego politicians to go ahead and build Highway 252. The agency wasted no time. It built an interchange with the 805 that year in anticipation of the full freeway getting built later. But there was a problem 500 miles north in Sacramento.

S7: Hi , I'm Andrew. So nice to meet you. Nice to meet you.

S1: A problem named Adriana. Gian Turco.

S8: I'm Adriana Saltonstall. My middle name now is Jan Turco , which was the name. My maiden name I used when I was director of Caltrans , which was the case for the first two terms of Jerry Brown.

S1: I meet Adriana on a rainy day in Sacramento. She lives in an old home just outside downtown with a giant orange tree in the front yard. Since becoming a private citizen , she's taken up restoring historic houses as a hobby.

S8: I've always been interested in architecture. That was one of my fields in graduate school.

S1: In 1976 , Adriana became the first woman ever appointed as director of Caltrans. She was an unconventional choice , not just because of her gender. She also wasn't an engineer like nearly all of her predecessors. She was a Berkeley and Harvard trained economist and city planner. Jerry Brown had just been elected governor on a platform of fiscal responsibility. And he saw the amount of money California was spending on freeways as a big problem.

S8: California was in very bad shape , financially speaking , in terms of the highway program. To the extent that Caltrans went through a massive layoff of staff couldn't afford to pay the staff that was there and also stopped contracting. So one of our big problems was getting the the highway program's financing in shape so that we could at least maintain the roads we had , not to mention build new roads.

S1: After two decades of building freeways , the steady stream of federal subsidies had run dry. At the same time , Californians were noticing the downsides to car centric planning. The oil crises of the 1970s led to gasoline rationing and price spikes. Air quality in many cities was hazardous. Adriana was an early supporter of carpool lanes , referred to at the time as Diamond Lanes. In fact , her first year on the job featured a vicious fight over diamond lanes on Interstate ten in Los Angeles.

S9: Almost three months now , there's been an experiment in California to give car pullers a break in the traffic as a reward for helping cut down on gasoline use.

S8: The project was , as I pointed out numerous times , had been instigated by the Reagan administration while Reagan was still governor. And the publicity was just terrible. I don't think that anything Caltrans could have done would have changed that. The Los Angeles Times , we found out after this was over wrote more editorials against the Diamond Lanes than they did against the Vietnam War.

S1: The I-10 carpool lanes were ultimately scrapped after about five months , but Adriana kept pushing for change at Caltrans. She got the state more involved in funding public transit. She doubled the number of Amtrak trains running between San Diego and Los Angeles , and she saw the San Diego trolley system through to completion in 1981. Freeways still took up well over 90% of the Caltrans budget. Still , her ideas were not well received by the freeway lobby contractors , labor unions and developers and their allies in the state legislature.

S8: I mean , I went through all these these hearings before very fierce assembly and Senate committees where I would be sitting there. And people it was particularly one legislator , Walt Ingles , who just kind of made me the center of his attacks on Jerry Brown. He was a Democrat , but he had some problem with the Brown administration and he took it all out on me and saying I was , you know , I was freezing all freeways. I wasn't , as I say , actually , the freeway building program continued under me with these key segments that had not been built.

S1: Thinking about where California's priorities lie today , I'm struck by how ahead of her time Adriana was and how resilient she was to the attacks against her. The state legislature tried to get her fired multiple times. They even revoked her salary. She had to get paid from other pots of money in the state budget.

S8: It was pretty bruising , I have to say. But I got up day after day and went in there and fought the battles so to. Be.

S1: As Adriana Turco was fighting in Sacramento for a more balanced transportation system , the movement to stop Highway 252 in Southwest was making some progress. It got the city council to revoke its support for the freeway in 1978 , but they still had to convince the state not to build it. Things kind of stayed in limbo until 1986 , when the State Transportation Commission took up the 252. One last time the meeting was held out of town. So William Jones , who by now was a city council member , helped organize buses so his constituents could still attend.

S6: So picture a room full of this just diverse group of people and with signs. And then we had huge presentation boards to show alternative development schemes. And so they knew we came with everything. You know , we were ready and we had speaker slips and we had a whole line of people who , I mean , we would have been there until midnight , you know , if they had taken the view that they should hear from everybody. So it was a very powerful , impressive entry into the room.

S1: I got the audio from this meeting and there's one moment that really sticks out to me. The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce , historically a very pro freeway organization , had joined the opposition to Highway 252. The chamber's president , Mike Madigan , got up to give public testimony. One of the commissioners asks him to respond to the concerns that without the freeway traffic would overwhelm local streets.

S10: The answer is that if you are able to develop within southeast San Diego , its own commercial court. Indeed , rather than generating additional trips , you take trips off the regional transportation system.

S1: Madigan is putting his finger on a fundamental policy debate that is still happening in California today. We'd always approached transportation problems with transportation solutions. Cities would grow , traffic would get worse , So we build more capacity into the freeway network. But you'll remember from the last episode , this only induces more driving. It never fixes traffic. What the campaign against Highway 252 argued was that some transportation problems can only be solved with better land use. Southwest had been hollowed out by disinvestment. Going to the grocery store or the doctor's office required driving miles outside the community. Allow Southwest to grow from within , and many of those trips by car would never happen in the first place. That meeting in 1986 was the final nail in the coffin for Highway 252. Caltrans was ordered to abandon the freeway and sell the land all 66 acres back to the city of San Diego. It took a lot longer to rebuild South Crest than it did to tear it down. But by the year 2000 , the 252 corridor had been redeveloped with hundreds of new homes , new water and sewer pipelines , parks , restaurants and the community's first grocery store in more than 30 years. William Jones goes down there from time to time.

S6: I think about how much cleaner the air is now than what it would have been. I think about when I see people walking on the street , you know , and kids walking to school or residents going in out of the stores. This area , I believe , has a much better chance now than it would have with a freeway.

S11: Oh , whoa , whoa. Slow down.

S12: I mean , go.

S1: Back at Cesar Chavez Elementary , Principal Francisco Santos is giving out high fives as students rush through the gates , eager to start their weekend.

S2: Have a good weekend.

S1: They invite parents to an assembly and hold a march around the neighborhood. Francisco says it's an example of how this school offers so much more than just education.

S2: It's a place where they feel connected. They feel like they're part of a community. Beyond the doors of the classroom.

S1: The victory in stopping Highway 252 had ripple effects. Other neighborhoods saw what South Crest was able to accomplish and wanted some of that for themselves. Next time on Freeway Exit , Caltrans starts to shift gears and take a new approach to freeways with somewhat mixed results.

S13: I'm hoping.

S14: I don't know that Caltrans is a little bit more rooted in community now.

S15: You have to have the big dream of how my life can be and how my surroundings can be and and I have the right to that. And maybe there is a way to make some kind of reparations for the harm that was done.

S1: Freeway exit is produced by me , Andrew Bohn and edited by David Washburn with support from Clare Traeger and Elizabeth Hames. Mix and Sound Design by Emily Jankowski. If you like this podcast and want to spread the word , tell your friends about it. You can also help more people find it by leaving us a rating and review. And you can support this work by making a donation at Thanks for listening.

In San Diego, a group of activists organize to stop a highway from destroying their predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood.

The mid-century freeway boom sparks a backlash. Communities across the country that are slated to be demolished for freeways start fighting back. In San Diego, activists organize a campaign to stop a highway from destroying their predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood. Changes in Sacramento also push Caltrans in a new direction.

San Diego Magazine article on Cabrillo Freeway widening: