Postcard from California: Freeways fracture communities, poison the air and heat the planet

In 1957, California opened its first double-decker freeway: The Cypress Street Viaduct, slicing through the heart of West Oakland toward the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. The construction displaced hundreds of Black families and businesses from a neighborhood once known as the Harlem of the West. The freeway’s eight lanes cut off West Oakland from downtown, stifling development and exposing residents to the toxic pollution of 160,000 vehicles a day.

On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked Northern California, collapsing a mile of the freeway’s upper span onto the lower deck. Though first responders feared that hundreds of rush-hour commuters had been crushed, miraculously the death toll was limited to 42. West Oakland residents organized and pushed Caltrans, the state transportation agency, to reroute a new approach to the bridge away from the neighborhood. The Cypress Street Viaduct was replaced by Mandela Parkway, a tree-lined boulevard with walking paths and bike lanes. Dozens of new businesses sprang up and air pollution dropped dramatically.

It shouldn’t take a natural disaster to open our eyes to the damage natural disasters do to disadvantaged communities.

West Oakland was just one of many lower-income communities of color across the country where residents, lacking the resources and political clout to resist “urban renewal,” were displaced by freeways.