An ode to the offramps not taken
Growing up in Redlands a block from the I-10, Robert Gonzalez tunneled forts in the freeway embankment and bowled oranges across the lanes to see the fruit get shredded by semis.
His intimate acquaintance with the I-10 isn’t uncommon, since many Southern Californians either live near the behemoth or travel it routinely for work or play. Yet the structure has gone largely unnoticed by historians and commuters. “It’s a paradox of modern California history that freeways play such a powerful role in defining our lives, yet the subject has generated few studies,” says Mike Davis, an L.A. historian and author of “City of Quartz” and the forthcoming “Monster at Our Door.”
What’s different about Gonzalez is that he did notice the freeway. He noticed that some kids were afraid to come over to his side, the Mexican neighborhood of Redlands. (The “wrong side of the tracks” became “the wrong side of the freeway” when the I-10 was built.) Riding his bike through the underpass, he saw how the streets of his neighborhood once connected; houses and businesses were obliterated when the freeway bored through in 1964, the year he was born.
Gonzalez’s attention to the eight-lane elephant in Southern California’s backyard has yielded “Living on the Dime” (the “dime” is a nickname for the freeway), a collection of oral histories, a touring photo exhibition and a documentary that tells the stories of people who live along the freeway from Blythe to San Bernardino.
“The 10 is a powerful symbol of division in our community,” he says. “It’s eight lanes of concrete -- of course it’s going to divide.”
The communities featured include Beaumont, where the freeway separated about 50 Mexican American families from the rest of the town; Bloomington, once a thriving travel center that essentially died when the freeway diverted business from the old Highway 99; and Blythe, where the freeway eradicated homes and scattered a community of blacks, Native Americans and Mexican Americans.
The project is the first major attempt to look at the human impact of L.A.'s mother freeway, the main artery that connects L.A. to the rest of the U.S. “He’s ahead of everybody else,” says James Sandos, professor of history at the University of Redlands. “He’s shown us a whole new scope of activity that we’ve missed.”
“What’s powerful about Robert’s project is he broke through a silence,” adds Jim Quay, executive director of the California Council for the Humanities, which funded the project through its California Stories initiative. “Freeways are routed through areas where people have less chance to speak out. Robert created an occasion for them to share their stories, and now their story is part of California’s story.”
Gonzalez is not an academic, though he has a master’s in history from UC Riverside. He is a kinetic, often agitated, activist who is inspired by the oral history tradition of Studs Terkel and who has elevated local history to a life’s calling.
As director of Inland Mexican Heritage, an organization that documents the Mexican history of inland Southern California, he began his oral history work by interviewing Mexican citrus laborers. He noticed how often the freeway figured in their life stories as a divisive influence and -- piecing that together with his boyhood experience -- launched his current project.
A burly, long-haired 40-year-old, Gonzalez spins endless monologues out of roadside liquor stores and doughnut shops, bouncing from discussion of the Okie and Arkie families who settled near Redlands to offhand references to Vietnamese scholars and French social documentarian Ferdinand Braudel.
He lives and works in the same slightly dilapidated freeway-adjacent bungalow in which he was reared. When he was a kid, as many as 10 family members lived in the two-bedroom home at a time; today he shares it with his infant daughter and his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Case.
Like many of the people he interviewed for the project, Gonzalez has deep roots along the freeway. His family has lived on this street for 100 years. His grandfather was manager of a nearby citrus ranch and his father a bracero -- a Mexican laborer contracted to work by the U.S. government -- who picked oranges.
His project makes clear that people living along the I-10 are not itinerants; they often have a long history in their neighborhoods. Freeways typically displace poor people along their routes, historians say. “Where possible, you bulldoze through Mexican colonias or black neighborhoods,” Davis says. “That’s always the pattern in California.”
While the effect is usually covered up by the rush of speed and progress, Gonzalez aims to stop the blind momentum for a moment and show how communities were split by the freeway and how they found ways to hang on.
To investigate life along the I-10, Gonzalez investigated freeway offramps he normally would breeze by without even braking. The single biggest revelation of his project is that there is bountiful life in all the forgotten towns the freeway passes over. While highways tend to cut through the low-income heart of cities, giving drivers an egalitarian look at towns along the way, freeways are elevated above the sight line and the neighborhoods below are erased from view.
“They became completely invisible,” Gonzalez says. “That’s what the freeway accomplished. These places became completely invisible and utterly worthless.”
In small towns and neighborhoods, Gonzalez approached likely interview subjects and explained: “We’re trying to find out what it was like before the freeway came through your town and after the freeway came to your town.” Sometimes that’s all it took to start a stream of anecdotes.
But sometimes, if he was alone, Gonzalez would be turned away. Residents were not used to strangers getting off the freeway to ask them questions. To avoid rejection, he started taking along an assistant.
By this method, he discovered Leslie Rios III, a member of an enclave of 50 families descended from railroad workers, or traqueros, in the San Gorgonio Pass. When the freeway bulldozed through Beaumont and severed his neighborhood from the downtown, “no one would come down this way anymore,” Rios says. “We became almost nonexistent. To this day some people in Beaumont are unaware we’re here.”
In Blythe, Gonzalez met Alfredo Acosta Figueroa, an activist who takes the long view of threats to his community. His family has lived in the neighborhood for six generations; the indigenous and Mexican people of Blythe have long been assailed by everything from reservations to racism, freeways to power plants, he says. The battle to survive each new assault, he says, “is just part of our life.”
In Bloomington, Virginia Geil recounted the community’s proud past as a traveler’s nexus; it once claimed the only Texaco station between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Businesses were crushed when the freeway arrived; the gas station shut down and was threatened with demolition. Geil started a movement to save it and the Bloomington Garage is now restored and relocated facing the freeway.
Her daughter and fellow preservationist Pam Geil says it was a symbolic move. “We’re basically saying: ‘Hey, you haven’t killed us yet.’ We want people to know Bloomington still exists.”
One of Gonzalez’s favorite exits is south Colton. Familiar to most drivers as an ugly slag heap on the way to Palm Springs, Colton once was on the main route from L.A. to the deserts and was flooded with weekend traffic, says lifelong resident Tom Rivera. The freeway changed everything.
“It was like a Wal-Mart coming into town. We never recovered after the freeway,” Rivera says.
Yet despite the blows of progress, Gonzalez says Colton claims a vibrant local pride (“Our families don’t leave,” Rivera says), a rich Latino history and one of the last operating Mexican dance halls in Southern California. He tells history students they could spend their entire careers in south Colton, yet most people never even consider taking the exit.
Gonzalez hopes his exhibition will change that. Ideally, those who see “Living on the Dime” will come away with a new willingness to chance those never-taken offramps.
The most sentimental stop on the Dime for Gonzalez is Pharaoh’s Lost Kingdom, a garish amusement park alongside the freeway in Redlands. Before the area was bisected by the freeway, it used to be a giant citrus ranch, Fairbanks Ranch, where his grandfather labored and where Gonzalez played as a kid.
Now the land has been chopped up for amusement parks and warehouses and only a swatch of agricultural land is left. The contrast between the old and new is hard for Gonzalez to stomach. With disgust in his voice, he says he has seen the few remaining laborers, or campesinos, cooling off on 100-degree days in the run-off from the amusement park waterslides.
Everywhere he sees the freeway continuing to divide and displace people. The Beaumont neighborhood where Rios lives, for instance, is now threatened by industrial development. Gonzalez feels that at times he is only writing an epitaph for the freeway communities and has even considered moving from his childhood home, so bitter is the understanding he’s gained.
“Any good fire needs ignition,” says historian James Sandos. “Bob’s anger gets him going, but what keeps him going is the belief that these stories matter.”
‘Paved With Good Intentions’
Where: Riverside Community Arts Assn., 3870 Lemon St., Riverside
When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, or by appointment
Ends: July 9
Contact: (951) 682-6737; or visit www.mexicanheritage.org