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 May 23, 2023 at 12:00 AM PDT

UU: Granny Lisa. Look , set up a cry. Over.

S1: It's a cloudy Thursday morning in City Heights and a group of second graders from Central Elementary School are getting a juggling lesson there on a vacant lot right next to their school campus. This lot used to have a small convenience store , but the SR 15 Freeway , just a block to the west , blighted the neighborhood and caused a lot of adjacent businesses to close after sitting vacant for decades , this lot was taken over by the community.

S2: We acquired at about two and a half years ago , but we wanted to activate it for the community so that the committee knew that this was their place. This was their land.

S1: That's Alexis Villanueva , interim executive director of the City Heights Community Development Corporation. It's a nonprofit that was founded in response to the freeway.

S2: As we all know , underinvested communities don't have the same amenities as other communities. So during COVID , our kids were remote , didn't have a whole lot of options.

UU: Stop looked down. Yeah. This guy. Oh , no , no.

S1: Fern Street Circus came in and offered to use the lot for kids activities like this. Juggling lesson. Small businesses have also used it for pop up events. There are some public art installations , too. Alexa says this lot is a symbol of the resilience of city heights and an example of how this community is still recovering from the devastation caused by the freeway. From KPBS in San Diego. This is Freeway Exit. I'm Andrew Bowen. In this series , we're talking about our evolving relationship with the freeway. The network we have today was built in another era with 20th century values. Spread the population out into the suburbs and give those people a fast and convenient way to drive into the city. But our values have changed. San Diego has a goal of carbon neutrality in the next 12 years , and there's no achieving that without getting huge numbers of people out of their cars and off the freeways. We've also been coming to terms with the social costs of freeways , how they've displaced people from their homes , broken apart families and communities , and left behind all kinds of hazards to the environment and public health. But just acknowledging the harm caused by freeways is one thing. Figuring out how to repair that harm. That's a much tougher conversation to have. More after a short break.

UU: Stay with us.

S1: Alexis Villanueva grew up in City Heights. As we walk around the neighborhood , she points out where certain businesses used to be the 711 where she got lemonade , slushies after school , the Pizza Hut that gave out prizes for reading books. It's now a Pupusa restaurant. City Heights is a big refugee resettlement community , predominantly lower income. But as a kid , she just saw it as home.

S2: I didn't know we were poor. I didn't know we didn't have money like we. I was fed. I was housed. I got to ride my first bike down that alley fell and cut my chin. But , you know , it's experience.

S1: By the time Alexis was born in the early 80s , San Diego was mostly done building freeways , but the 15 was a special case. It had been built in segments and everything to the north and south of City Heights was finished. Getting from one part of the 15 to the other required a driver to take a short detour on other freeways or get off the freeway and cut through the neighborhood on surface streets. This minor inconvenience to motorists was unacceptable to Caltrans. It saw the unbuilt two mile stretch of the 15th through City Heights as a critical missing link in the freeway network , So it seized eight blocks of property , demolished 650 homes and forced some 2000 people to relocate , including Alexis's sister and niece.

S2: My sister lived on 39th. We lived on 42nd at the time. So I would literally walk to my sister's house , play with my niece. But at that time we couldn't do that. She got displaced and change schools. Like I said , they offer you a subsidy to move , but it's not nearly as much as what is needed to move to the next place.

S1: If you remember from episode one , Caltrans cleared the land for SR 15 in the 80s and left it vacant for a really long time. That's partly because it wanted to build this freeway differently and win over the community's support. But leaving it unbuilt was not an option for them. Eventually they offered a compromise. One of the eight blocks taken up by the freeway would have a park on top. The community , exhausted by years of negotiations , took the deal. Toronto Park opened in 2001. It was the first park ever built over a freeway in California.

S2: Before this , there wasn't really access to green spaces or places that kids could come out. This was amazing because when it was built , like I couldn't come a weekend and not see a birthday party or a jumper out here.

S1: Caltrans also made space for a rapid bus line that would run on the freeway median and connect City Heights with downtown and North County. And the stops on that rapid bus line came with extra wide bridges over the freeway , each with a little pedestrian plaza. Alexis takes me to the one at University Avenue.

S2: So let's say you're stopping at the transit stop. You need to get off in City Heights. You come up the stairs , you come up to a bridge deck that gives you a teleprompter when all the buses are stopping by. But you also have spaces where you can sit down , read a book. There's actually kiosk that you can actually open up individuals can sell things from.

S1: But in the 20 years since these kiosks were built , they've never once been used. Bathrooms were also built here , but they've never been opened. City Heights. CDC is still trying to change that.

S2: We have been having this conversation for years now , but I think we're the closest this year. So it's really just , to be honest , getting through the bureaucratic red tape and making it happen. Essentially , what we're hoping to do is activate the whole space. We want to see vendors , we want to see activation. We want to see individuals being able to sit here while they're waiting for a bus and have a cup of coffee , buy it from flour vendors , buy from pastry vendors , being able to use the restroom.

S1: Even with all the amenities that came with the freeway. Alexa says it's still been a net loss for City Heights. Her community's relationship with Caltrans has gotten better , but it's complicated. The wounds of this freeway run deep.

S2: I'm hoping. I don't know that Cal Jones is a little bit more rooted in community now. I really believe most bureaucracies or organizations about that stature are starting to realize you need community on board. So I'm really hoping that since the 15 , they've realized the necessary need to do some engagement on the ground and they continue to do that so that they get that buy-in.

S1: So Caltrans and City Heights worked together to make SR 15 a little bit less damaging. But most communities that were divided by freeways never got that opportunity. More in a minute. Stay tuned. Hi , Margaret.

S3: So nice to meet you. So nice to meet you , too.

S1: I'm visiting Margaret Gottschalk in National City , a suburb just south of San Diego. Her home is a modest , one story cottage with some palm trees in a small courtyard and a giant evergreen in front. She lives on the city's west Side , an industrial part of town that sandwiched between San Diego Bay and the I-5 freeway.

S4: I don't know if you'd like to sit in here and look at the books or go into the kitchen or go outside.

S1: Margaret wears her silver hair cropped short , sort of Jamie Lee Curtis style. She's a retired teacher with deep roots in National City. Her great grandmother immigrated from Mexico and settled here more than a hundred years ago , and her house has been passed down from generation to generation.

S4: So we've always grown up around our family. Our cousins were our playmates. The houses around here are filled with our family.

S1: When Margaret was growing up , the West Side was sort of an extension of National City's downtown , a thriving , walkable community of mostly immigrants and Mexican Americans , a place where people of color could achieve homeownership. Since redlining had excluded them from white neighborhoods. Then Caltrans built the I-5 freeway in the late 50s and early 60s. Margaret's older sister remembers when it was first built.

S4: She remembers piles of dirt and gravel all of a sudden appearing. And no one ever spoke of it like what was happening there. So she didn't really know. And , you know , you're this age and you're kind of oblivious to what's happening sometimes around you.

S1: What happens next is a familiar story. First came the freeway , then the rezoning to allow industrial uses. Warehouses and factories opened up right next to homes. The air quality got toxic. More kids started suffering from asthma. Margaret takes me to her front yard to show me a hedge that's about eight feet tall.

S4: This hedge has been here probably at least 50 years , maybe longer.

S1: The leaves are covered in a mysterious black soot.

S4: It's the only one , really , that gets this covering on it. It'll come right off if you rub it off. It might be some kind of a mold. We cut it back and wash it down , and we hope that it'll not reappear , but it always does.

S1: Margaret wonders whether this soot is exacerbate by the air pollution from the freeway or maybe the dust that comes off tires and brakes as they wear down. Tire dust is a pollutant about which we know very little. But the more scientists study it , the more toxic it appears to be. And it's not a problem that can be solved with electric vehicles. Neither is the noise. Do you notice a big difference in the noise levels based on the time of day ? Yeah , they'll.

S4: Become a time late at night when it's pretty. It's really is reduced. And then we can tell when people are starting to go to work about 5:00.

S1: We leave Margaret's house for a quick walk around National City's West Side. I've been spending a lot of time in freeway adjacent neighborhoods while working on this podcast , and I have to say this one offers the most dramatic example of how a freeway can change a community for the worse. We pass by a plastic supply company and a storage yard.

S4: These are homes that were houses here. And there were , as I said , my my grandmother and my aunt's house there. There's an Amazon distribution center down a couple of blocks. So the Amazon trucks are our constant here now. I mean.

S1: Just two just 4:03 pass by or just right now ? Yeah. The fumes and the noise are overwhelming. I asked Margaret a question and she mouths , I can't hear you. Oh , okay. Yeah. Parts of this area don't even have sidewalks. So if you need to get to the trolley on the other side of the freeway , it's not just unpleasant , it's dangerous.

S4: I mean , you are constantly on the alert that somebody's not going to follow a traffic sign or that somebody's going to try to ease by at the last second through a yellow or that they're going to make go ahead and make that right turn even though they see you standing there. So.

S1: We make our way to a freeway underpass at 18th Street. City planners have identified this as a site for a future park. It's meant as a gesture of goodwill. But Margaret says it's an example of good intentions gone wrong.

S4: It's so insulting that we that they think we should feel grateful that they're going to give us our own little private park. I told them , Would you sit under there with your family to spend an afternoon ? It's under a freeway , so it's dark. There's lots of particulates in the air and they're all drifting down into this area. There's a lot of overgrown weeds along the wall here. Pigeon droppings and water damage that's decades old that's never been cleaned.

S1: Margaret is a volunteer for the nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition , and one of their long time campaigns has been to stop I-5 from being widened through National City. They finally got it removed from the county's long term transportation plans. But it's a victory that still leaves her with the status quo. I ask her if she ever imagines life without I-5. She says yes , absolutely.

S4: 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 to make some kind of reparations for the harm that was done.

S1: Margaret Doesn't mean reparations like cash payments. Reparations like sidewalks or traffic calming or noise mitigation or power washing. The underpass to get rid of those pigeon droppings , basic infrastructure and services that would make her community safer , cleaner and more livable.

S4: Why not ? I'm not sure.

S5: I think.

S4: You know , growing up here with my family was just so important to me and has had such an impact on who I am. I don't see any place better that draws me there. People have asked me , Why don't you move from there ? But where would I go ? I feel like we have a little Paradise here. And yes , there are issues. You would have issues anywhere. But I guess because of feeling so grounded here. You know , our house has been there since 1923. That's when my grandmother bought it and move the family into it. As I said , my sister was born in that house. It's home.

S1: There are no easy answers for how to reconnect Margaret's community with the rest of National City. This part of I-5 is just above street level , meaning a freeway lid like the one in City Heights would be impossible. And I-5 is not just a commuter freeway. It's a major trucking route for goods coming in through the port of San Diego or across the Mexican border. Decommissioning this freeway and redeveloping the land would be extraordinarily disruptive. But it's not like it's never been done before. Next time on Freeway Exit , we'll take a look at what happens when a freeway is removed by force.

S6: That is the cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway. And you can see , oh , my God , look at that. The freeway has just completely collapsed.

S7: The projection you heard from Caltrans engineers is you would have massive gridlock with very high economic costs. And , you know , the nature of this game is you can spend these numbers in so many ways based on the assumptions that you build into your models and analysis.

S1: Freeway exit is produced by me , Andrew Bohn and edited by David Washburn with support from Claire Trager and Elizabeth Haymes. 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.

A community works to heal the wounds caused by a freeway that divided them a generation ago.

Caltrans takes a new approach to freeways by trying to win support from nearby residents. The community wins new amenities that come along with the freeway, but is still recovering from the damage it inflicted. Another community divided by Interstate 5 poses a greater challenge: How do we heal the wounds caused by freeways?

View a documentary on SR-15 freeway in City Heights here.

State Route 15 was one of the last freeways to get built in San Diego. See what City Heights looked like before it was built.