In America, the formation of some of the very poorest parts of the cities or “ghettos” as they are sometimes called are inexorably tied to the formation of the freeways, the enforcement of restrictive covenants and simultaneously, the creation of the suburbs and the forced importance of automobiles. One could not have happened without the others, and combined together, they changed our society inconceivably. To explain the interplay of these forces fully, background information is needed.At the end of World War II, there was housing shortages in many large cities, like Los Angeles. The United States government stepped in to help alleviate this shortage of housing. The government basically instituted a number of policies that led directly to the formation and development of the American suburbs. To use Los Angeles as an example, the housing shortage was caused partly by all the soldiers returning from World War II, African Americans migrating from the South to cities like Los Angeles, combined with the fact that not many houses were built beginning at the start of the Depression and continuing through World War II. This range of sixteen years with only very few homes built contributed greatly to a shortage in the housing market. So, beginning in the 1940s and continuing through the 1960s, private land developers built 23 million new homes nationwide, with the majority of these being built in major cities like Los Angeles (Jalbert 4). Private developers built the suburbs, which were defined as residential areas at the edges of cities, to offer alternatives to urban lifestyle and living and to shorten commutes for those people who worked outside the major cities. The government made policies that offered low cost financing to millions of people. One such program was called The Veteran’s Mortgage Guarantee program. With a very small amount of money down and low monthly payments, huge numbers of people were able to buy houses in the suburbs. However, this money was only available to white people. These government policies supported the development of the suburbs since government policies helped to finance all these houses in the suburbs, and they weren’t very expensive, millions of people moved to the suburbs in force. This phenomenon, which would later be called “white flight,” which in turn, led to a decline in Los Angeles and other major cities as the urban population decreased. When the people left, many businesses went with them. When the businesses left, less job opportunities were available to the people still in the cities. This, in turn, led to more unemployment and more poverty and ultimately, crime and other more “urban” problems. Also in place, were restrictive covenants. Restrictive covenants were limits for homeowners. In many cases, they were agreements made between property owners dictating who could buy homes and who could not buy them. These covenants were used to keep minorities out of many areas. So, even if minorities could afford homes in the suburbs, they were kept out by the use of restrictive covenants. According to the web site Progressive LA, “These racist campaigns were part of a growing effort to undermine the progressive gains made since the 1930s (Progressive LA). While urban areas declined rapidly, suburban areas began to thrive economically. Businesses began to relocate to the suburbs because of increasing labor forces and cheaper land, among other factors.searsWhile many organizations were providing low-cost financing for houses in the suburbs, such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration, and Veteran’s Mortgage Guarantee Program, “the FHA refused to guarantee suburban loans to poor people, nonwhites, Jews and other ‘inharmonious’ racial and ethnic groups” because the value of homes in the neighborhood, according to the FHA, would drop in value (Chudacoff, 270). People of color were not able to get these loans, hence, they were unable to move to the suburbs. This process is known as “redlining.” To sum up redlining, the FHA and other organizations would not provide loans to racially mixed communities because they were risky investments. this means that as blacks or other minorities moved in, whites either moved out right away and were paid well for their properties or stayed while the neighborhood became racially mixed and property value decreased. In the end, if they finally sold, they would lose money on their house. Another process used to “persuade” minorities to congregate in the same area was called blockbusting. This occurred when real estate agents told white people that a neighborhood was going to “tip” or become racially mixed. Whites would sell their homes cheaply, and these agents sold them back to blacks at huge profits. Again, these processes segregated neighborhoods. In other words, the government itself supported discriminatory practices by distributing money into white communities and not into those of color. Communities quickly became even more racially segregated because people of color were unable to move and whites did move. When the whites left, their money went with them. So, the jobs weren’t there. According to Sclove,”Gradually, a black and Hispanic middle-class did emerge. Its members too fled along the interstate to the suburbs, further draining economic and cultural resources from the inner city. this contributed to the emergence of a new social phenomenon: today’s desperately deprived, urban underclass” (Sclove).

Entire neighborhoods and communities first became segregated racially, and later, economically, creating the dire urban problems of today. Jalbert sums this whole argument up so well with “Suburbanization was a decidedly white experience enforced by blatant racism, unequal access to economic opportunity, and restrictive housing covenants” (Jalbert). This summarization would be hard to argue against. Housing laws clearly favored whites.

A very general scenario tracing two families from the 1940s to today would be as follows. The white family would get a loan and move out of the mixed city into a new, all-white suburb. That family would purchase a house. that house would appreciate in value each year in order to actually earn wealth for this family. Every time they made improvements, such as adding a room or garage or painting a bedroom, or simply remodeling, their house would appreciate in value. Their children would be able to go to decent schools because of where their house is located. The higher property tax base makes the schools good. Their children could pursue a post-secondary education because even if the family didn’t have the money in the bank for this to happen, they could take out a loan with their house as collateral or a mortgage on their house. And now for the second scenario…

The black family would be stuck in what was once a mixed city. In addition to the original, established, African American community, there would be a large influx of African Americans from the South, as well as persons of Mexican, Caribbean, and Latin American origin. The members of the black family would have to compete against these new people for jobs. In the 1950s or so, the government would decide to build a highway or begin a project of urban renewal in their neighborhood and demolish their house. They would lose any money they invested in their home. They may then be put into public housing if they had no money to buy another house or rent an over-priced apartment. they now exist in high rise buildings gridlocked by elevated highways that cut them off from others and from “living spaces that promote social interaction and daily commerce, social control, and neighborliness” (Venkatesh 9). They have no house to mortgage to send their kids on to school. Their kids would have a hard time anyway because property taxes cannot raise enough to maintain the schools or provide a quality education. for members of the human race, this is a pretty dismal picture.

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“It’s a construction plan of epic proportions. They’re calling it [portentous pause] a freeway! Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena! I see a place where people get on and off the freeway, off and on, off and on, all day and night…I see a street of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food, tire salons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards as far as they eye can see. My god, it’ll be beautiful!” No, this is not the work of an economic theorist or a predictor of the future. This is a scene from the movie Roger Rabbit where Judge Doom sells off the streetcar system to create this society. Does it sound familiar? This leads to the idea of the freeway. What the viewer of the movie knows is that this is exactly what happened.

So, where do the freeways come into this picture and what role did they play? Simultaneously, as all of these things were happening, freeways were being built. These freeways made travel very efficient back and forth to and from the suburbs. This made people rely on the automobile rather than public transportation because public transportation did not go to the suburbs. As Marshall Berman says in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, “The motive forces in this reconstruction were the multibillion-dollar Federal Highway Program and the vast suburban housing initiatives of the Federal Housing Administration. This new order integrated the whole nation into a unified flow whose lifeblood was the automobile. It conceived of cities principally as obstructions to the flow of traffic, and as junkyards of the substandard housing and decaying neighborhoods from which Americans should be given every chance to escape. Thousands of urban neighborhoods were obliterated…”(Berman 288).

The development of these freeways was also supported by the government. Freeways were developed from the 1940s through the 1960s through government policies, such as a 50/50 matching program by the Bureau of Public Roads. Freeways connected the suburban areas that were spatially isolated from the rest of Los Angeles. Because of these freeways, life in suburbia became even more appealing because now suburbanites could travel from their homes to the city in a short time. Now, even more people who worked in the inner cities moved to the suburbs because travel was so much more efficient. From this reading so far, it sounds as though freeways were godsends to the American public. However, as much as they did help the people of suburban communities, they were equally destructive to the communities of the inner cities.

When the freeways were built through inner city neighborhoods, people of color were paid, although not well for their houses in order to build the freeways. However, many people of color did not own their houses so they were simply relocated. Many of these dislocated people were forced into housing projects, and these failed widely all over the country. Urban housing was essentially destroyed while suburban housing was on the rise, AND subsidized by the government. Black ghettos were created. Freeways were linked to housing discrimination and apartheid in America. Fotsch contends that “the freeway is part of dominant narratives which view African-American and Latino residents of the central city as largely responsible for the conditions of poverty and violence amidst which they live” (47). Fotsch also calls the freeway “a symbol of isolation and isolatability” (52). Professor Mohl from The University of Alabama at Birmingham said, “Highways cut apart cities, destroying wide swaths of homes and workplaces, disrupting and uprooting communities and forcing many into public housing” in The Interstates and the Cities: Highways, Housing, and the Freeway Revolt, (Mohl 1) He continues to say that, “in retrospect it now seems apparent that public officials and policy makers, especially at the state and local levels used expressway construction to destroy low income and especially Black neighborhoods in an effort to reshape the physical and racial landscapes of the postwar American city (Mohl 1). In Toll Roads and Free Roads, a report by McDonald and Associates, the authors made a strong case that highway planning should take place within the context of an ongoing program of slum clearance and urban development (Wallace). Because land acquisition in these slum areas and highway construction and urban development would result in the “elimination of unsightly and unsanitary districts when land values are constantly depreciating (Wallace).

The problem also becomes that suburban residents still came into the city to work, but they no longer paid taxes, which further drained resources. Suburbanites essentially paid nothing for the maintenance in the city. The income tax base that kept the city afloat is gone, so the streets are dirtier and fewer services are provided there. Consequently, people don’t want to live there. It is all a big circle.

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With the creation of the freeways, the importance of cars themselves came to be. People now needed cars to commute to work.

“It is widely assumed that Americans’ infatuation with cars led to the construction of America’s superhighways. But actually when Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, car sales were slack, and there was no popular clamor for building a new road system. At the time only about half of American families owned an automobile; everyone else depended on public transportation. Congress was responding to aggressive lobbying by auto makers and road builders, plus realtors who saw profits in developing suburban subdivisions” (Sclove 2).

So, the construction of the freeways was first, which brought about the importance of the automobile. Many people thrived with this push, and others did not.


This Interstate Highway Act of 1956 changed many things dramatically. “The Act’s key provisions included support for bringing highways directly into city centers and earmarking gasoline tax revenues for highway construction. As the interstate highways were built, city and suburban development adapted to the quickening proliferation of autos. Soon more Americans found themselves forced to buy a car in order to be able to shop or hold a job. The Highway Trust Fund, by assuring the rapid atrophy of competing public transit systems, bolstered this trend. (Sclove ).

Public transportation was hurt dramatically by the freeway and interstate highway. This highway system of 42,500 roads linked together cities across America while cutting the cities themselves up into tiny, isolated sections. Thus, the car became the symbol for Americans of freedom and modern life. This American reliance on the car didn’t just change something; the car changed everything.

“Their popularity led to the reconstruction of the cityscape, widened streets, parking lots, gas stations, and, in the post-war era as automobiles became a mass-market consumable, the dismantling of urban trolley systems such as those that once operated in Los Angeles and the Bay Area ((Jalbert).

The car changed the very landscape of America. the once-vital urban areas are barren; and people walk aimlessly at the strip malls in the suburbs. Everyone with a car is on the road while public transportation gets sparser and less funding. This harmed inner city residents even more as they are the ones who rely on public transportation.

To sum this up thus far, these freeways divided neighborhoods, mostly communities of color. Suburbs mainly consisted of white people, and inner cities consisted mostly of people of color. Whites were typically able to resist the building of freeways in their communities while people of color were not. The suburbs were already racially separated by organizations like the Federal Housing Administration, but now freeways became physical borders between whiteness and color. These freeways essentially served as barriers between the rich and the poor, the white and the nonwhite. Ronald Greene calls this “the racing and placing of populations” (Greene 39). Many, many acres of the inner cities were bulldozed for the creation of these freeways. “Huge expressway interchanges, cloverleafs, and access ramps created enormous areas of dead and useless space in the central cities” (Mohl 12).

In addition to creating ghettoes, the freeways and automobiles created environmental problems galore, such as air and noise pollution. Again, race and wealth played a big role on the communities who were hit with these things. The Soho Street school, for example is built in Boyle Heights where a tri-level freeway exchange has been build. “The school has no auditorium or cafeteria, so students meet and eat outside. Walls of portable classrooms vibrate when trucks go by and do little to keep out the noise. When Margarita Sanchez, a nurse and mother of two children in the school, began walking her children to school, she felt like she was ‘suffocating from the pollution and noise of the diesel trucks traveling to the nearby freeway onramps” (Prussel 1). The community did get together to get a sound wall from Caltrans, but was denied. They did get the regulatory committee to install an air quality monitor. Initial reports from the Air Resources Board showed that 16 of the 22 days tested, the air at Soho St. School violated the state standard for particulate air (Prussel 1). Freeways greatly impact air quality, and the further away from a freeway a neighborhood is, the better the air quality.

Much land in inner cities was also bulldozed for urban renewal projects. In other words, low income housing was removed to make way for new development, and those in charge gave little thought to the people who were displaced. Many of these urban renewal sites were vacant for years. According to Wendell Cox in “The Role of Urban Planning in the Decline of American Central Cities, “Some lots cleared in the 1960s in Los Angeles Bunker Hill redevelopment project were still undeveloped 40 years later” (Cox 9). Urban renewal policies have decimated many poor and working class neighborhoods. These taken along with freeway construction and displacement have made the modern ghetto. Experience suggests it helps poor people to live with the working and middle classes, rather than be segregated into ghettoes. ). People tend to believe that those in poverty don’t need the playgrounds or any of the other recreational space because people in poverty don’t appreciate their neighborhood. (Modem). Such neighborhood integration provides positive role models (people whose lives are getting better, whose lives are active, and who work for a living.


Also, inherent in this plan for freeways and other urban renewal projects is that lawmakers made these changes, such as urban planning initiatives and construction of freeways in areas where they would not meet political resistance. This means that more projects were developed in low income areas than anywhere else. “The areas that urban planners deemed to be slums or derelict development, however, were home to the residents who lived there, the small businesses that served them. The strength of many such communities was either not perceived by the planners or not of interest to them. They leveled communities often occupied by African Americans who had recently arrived from the rural South” (Cox 9). Urban renewal is nothing less than an attack on the poor. Many poverty-stricken neighborhoods are seen as blight” for the city to be rid of. Because the poor do not have the necessary political connections, they are rarely able to successfully fight such land-grabs. The result is that neighborhoods — of many years existence, with their own intricate civil societies and social networks among people — are destroyed for the private profit of the wealthy. In place of the living neighborhoods, the freeways or empty parking lots or even upscale housing is built.

California Hwy 105 (Caltran 105) is an example of many of the principles previously discussed. In an interview with Joyce Perkins, Executive Director of LANI (Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative), she discussed California Highway 105, and the fact that originally it was supposed to go through Beverly Hills, but “it kept getting moved further and further south until it reached a place called Berkeley Square” (Perkins). it seems no coincidence that Beverly hills is wealthy and Berkeley Square is not or that Los Angeles inner city residents have already been chopped into pieces by the Harbor, Long Beach, Santa Monica, or Century Freeways. Joyce Perkins added, “that it was easy enough to build through this area because this African American community did not have enough power or voice to keep the project from occurring there. In other neighborhoods, such as Beverly hills, people, mostly white, had much more power and had voice and strong stakeholder participation so they were able to keep this project from occurring in their area” (Perkins).

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A case to document the above principles is Boyle Heights community and surrounding areas like the Chavez Ravine. Boyle Heights used to be kind of an immigrant center. before the 1950s and 60s, it had a large Japanese population, who left to be interned for World War II and never returned. it also had a large Jewish population who moved to the suburbs. it this point it became largely populated by Mexicans. It was one of the few places open to them due to restrictive covenants. “Restrictive racial covenants typically excluded the Spanish-speaking from desirable suburbs. the new barrios were established in sections of town that other more affluent groups refused to inhabit” (Bustamante and Castillo 127). Things like freeway construction and urban renewal began to happen in this area and because it was poor, the community did not have the resources to fight the proposals. “Thirty-five years of intense freeway construction eliminated 2,900 homes, displaced 10,000 people and left noise and air pollution in its wake. Schools are crowded. Housing is scarce, and most of the housing that does exist is owned by absentee landlords. Unemployment is higher than in most other areas of the city. There is a sense that the community has little or no political power and is largely ignored by city government (Sahagun 1). According to Sahagun as well, after WWII, the rail lines took ¼ of Boyle Heights western and southern parts. The freeway system including San Bernadino, Santa Ana, the Golden State, Santa Monica and Pomona took another 12% of the land available in Boyle heights. (Sahagun) Four major highways were built through here-two in the 1940s and two in the 1960s. Boyle Heights has suffered greatly. The community is separated into four smaller areas, which has resulted in inadequate services to these neighborhoods.

Acuna goes as far as to say that “Two of the most spectacular instances of spatial violation against Mexicans and other poor people in the central city was the displacement of barrios in Chavez Ravine to the north for the construction of Dodger Stadium and the vivisection of Boyle heights and the greater Eastside barrios to make up for the way the East L.A. freeway interchange and several highways that radiated from it” (Acuna). According to Hines, Chavez Ravine was located on a “315-acre parcel of hilly, wooded, and picturesque ‘rural’ land very near the center of downtown Los Angeles” (Hines 123). At first this area was supposed to become a place for a public housing project, and then it was to house the stadium.

As shown, the intermingling of the concepts of segregation, race, and poverty with the concepts of freeway construction, urban renewal programs, and the rise of the automobile is almost as twisted as the cloverleaf freeway. It is impossible to understand how just one of these factors plays out because each one is so intertwined with the next one. It is clear that freeway construction and urban renewal played and continues to play a huge role in the racial separation of our nation. This in turn, ties into so many other areas. Many minorities are where they are because of racist policies of the federal government, giving low interest loans to one race but not to another or dismissing the importance of low-income communities in favor of fast-access freeways. Because minorities are racially segregated, they go to the worst schools and get the worst education, which increases their chances of continuing to be racially segregated.

The political ramifications of these government-sponsored loans for highways and housing are huge. They contributed to the fall of the mom and pop businesses and the rise of huge conglomerations or malls of the suburbs. Money was taken out of once-thriving urban areas and redistributed in the suburbs. This led to less control of neighborhood economic forces (if there was such things as neighborhoods), since companies were larger and based somewhere else. If more people had been involved in the process of the creation of our road system, the road system may be smaller today. America may have invested more in its system of public transport, like Europe did. America may be less dependent on foreign goods with more unified neighborhoods and a closer sense of community without the problems associated with urban sprawl. America may be less isolated, both in the cities and the suburbs. While the cities are noisy and dangerous, and in the ghettoes, many people isolate themselves, the suburbs are also isolated. People stopped sitting on the front porch in the evening. Suburbs without sidewalks greatly lessened the chance that someone might stroll by on a leisurely walk. Suburban housewives found themselves alienated from the rest of the world.

Eric Avila so forcefully sums up the entire problem in Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight. “But as racial privilege sustained by redlining, blockbusting, restrictive covenants, and municipal incorporation, as well as by outright violence, federally sponsored suburbanization removed an expanding category of “white” Americans from what deteriorated into inner-city reservations of racialized poverty. The collusion of public policy and private practices enforced a spatial distinction between “black” cities and “white” suburbs and gave shape to what the Kerner Commission, a presidential commission appointed to assess the causes of the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, identified as ‘two species, one black, one white-separate and unequal” (Avila 5). Now Joyce Perkins does tell us that times are a-changin’. LAX now wants to expand, but there are neighborhood councils and focus groups providing people with a voice in their own neighborhoods. We must do more not to allow this forced segregation to occur again, and to fix the problems that have already been made. It seems that true urban renewal would involve creating affordable housing for the people of these neighborhoods. It might also provide access to quality education and quality jobs. These jobs could earn at least a living wage so that people did have some choice as to where they lived. Employers and government could respect the rights of these people. It is time that the people of these communities or any communities are listened to. Progress is great, but it also creates many other problems. How much money a neighborhood has should not matter in the health and happiness of America’s people. yes, true urban renewal would involve a renewal in the way these places are seen and perceived as well as the discriminatory history.

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Works Cited

Acuna, Rodolfo. Anything But Mexican. Verso: New York, 1995.

Avila, Eric, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, Fear and Fantasy in suburban

Los Angeles. American Crossroads 13. Accessed on April 2, 2007 at

Berman, Marshall, All That Is Melts Into Air, New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Bustamonte, Rios and Castillo, Pedro, An Illustrated History of Mexican Los Angeles

1781-1985. LA: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, 1986.

Chudacoff, Howard. “The Politics of Growth in the Era of Suburbanization, 1945-1974,

in Chudacoff and Smith, The Evolution of American Urban Society, pp. 263-296.

Cox, Wendell, Demographia: The Role of Urban Planning in the Decline of American

Central Cities, Accessed March 29, 2007 at

Fotsch, Paul Mason, “The Building of a Superhighway Future at the New York World’s

Fair,” Cultural Critique, 48 (Spring 2001), 65-9.

Greene, Ronald Walter, Malthusian Worlds: U.S. Leadership and the Governing of the

Population Crisis, 1939.

Hines, Thomas S., “housing, baseball, and creeping socialism: the battle of Chavez ravine, Los Angeles 1949-1959, Journal of Urban History, Sage Publications, vol. 8. no. 2, February 1982.

Jalbert, Matthew, “Burbs, Blockbusting, and Blacks: Morphosis of the Postwar

American City, “Radical Urban Theory, Accessed March 29, 2007, at

Perkins, Joyce, Personal Interview. April 1, 2007.

Sclove, Richard, “The Ghost in the Modem,” The Washington Post, Sunday, May 29,


Torre, de la, Emmanuel, Racial Violence in LA, Accessed March 26, 2007 at

Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi, American Projects, Cambridge: Harvard University Press,


Access to Catholic School Justice Teaching housing and urban renewal Accessed March

29, 2007, at

Prussel, Deborah and Tepperman, Jean. September-October 2001.

Sahagun, Louis, “Boyle Heights Problems, Pride and Promise” Accessed April 1, 2007,


Timeline of Notable Events of the Interstate Highway System in California. Accessed April 1, 2007, at

Wallace, Henry A. to Roosevelt, Franklin D, February 13, 1939, Copy of Bureau of Public Records, RG 30, Classified Central Files 4107, National Archives II, College Park, MD.

Venkatesh, American Project

Published by Julie Moore at

I am a high school English teacher of 15 years who has recently moved to the field of Educational Adminstration.