- THE FOLKLORE OF THE FREEWAY: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City by Eric Avila
A foundational assumption of cultural studies is that resistance to repressive political and social structures can occur in various ways and often, are found outside of traditional activism, especially for the working class or people of color. In Eric Avila’s The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, he reexamines the topic of citizen activism against the building of highways in the 1960s and 1970s—the “freeway revolt” of his title—to locate the resistance of black and brown people. As he forcefully argues, cultural production must be included in our understanding of these conflicts around the racialized politics of urban space.
Avila weaves together the stories of freeway revolts in cities from San Francisco to Baltimore to Miami. He argues, rightly, that most historians have focused on the white middle-class activists who were the visible frontline of these battles. But “city people of color have invented their own freeway revolt, waged through a wide variety of cultural practices rooted in diverse expressive traditions” (3). After [End Page 171] an overview of the history of modernist city planning and the role of freeways (with an interesting section on highway engineers), he delves into discussions of women’s activism, historical memory, and the use of art to create a sense of place. These last chapters, which span the 1960s to the present, tell a fascinating tale. With several beautiful color plates, Avila shows that white artists in L.A. paint the freeway as an abstract series of lines and shapes, but for artists of color the freeway is seen from street level, suggesting its integration into their communities.
The recovery of the history of lost communities has been another activity of people of color. The Rondo Days festival in St. Paul, MN and the planned Overtown Historic Folklife Village in Miami are both projects that seek to excavate communities that once lived in these neighborhoods. While such memory projects are laudable, especially in creating archives of otherwise forgotten material, there is an opportunity here for more analysis. Avila acknowledges that Overtown, might be a “Disneyified version of black history,” (114) but does not analyze it further. Will tensions within the black community be discussed or will a nostalgic version of the past be offered in order to get visitors to shop and dine?
By connecting these stories of resistance together, Avila demonstrates that the predominately white face of anti-freeway activism belies a more complicated narrative. But in making this point, at times he overstates the implications. As he writes, “the freeway revolt leveled a forceful challenge not just to planned segments of the interstate program, but also to the cultural ideals of progress that accompanied this monumental effort” (19). Activists themselves may not have interpreted their work that way and, as Suleiman Osman has shown in his work on gentrification, activists are often caught between conflicting strands of American political thought. Similarly, Avila mistakenly suggests that historians have ignored class privilege in their discussion of the advent of historical preservation (Stephanie Yuhl’s work is exemplary here).
Nonetheless, Avila’s book is critically important for placing communities of color at the center of the narrative of anti-highway activism. In showing us that culture is affected by political activities like highway construction, he makes a welcome intervention into a historical topic that has often ignored culture and suggests areas for further research.