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Misogyny, Racism, and the San Francisco Freeway

When someone mentions American cities, we all think of the hideous and bloated monolith, with its soulless suburbs, crime-ridden inner cities, walls of 8 lane congested highways carving and segregating the urban landscape into a jigsaw of decline and decay. Although this stereotype isn’t entirely true for all American cities, it certainly has a basis in reality with cities such as Detroit and St. Louis being the most deprived, violent and segregated cities in the developed world. However, San Francisco has been able to escape this stereotype and is today one of America’s greenest and most livable cities, thanks in part to the extraordinary story of how peaceful protesters defeated the State and Federal Governments, preventing an urban remodelling scheme that would have destroyed the cultural appeal of San Francisco.

Contemporary urban planners have attributed the decline of such cities to the mass construction of freeways and expressways during the mid to late 20th century. These freeways achieved none of their original goals, but they divided communities, displaced thousands, and were a catalyst for the decentralisation that killed so many US cities. San Francisco experienced this first hand with the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway in 1955 – an abhorrent, concrete elevated freeway that dominated the historic Embarcadero District. It was an eyesore, a barrier to the waterfront, and it also displaced communities – all for the sake of more convenient transport from the suburbs to the city centre. It was a zero-sum game and San Francisco residents became increasingly aware of it.

The Embacadero Freeway

The Embarcadero Freeway was only the first stage of a much grander project to completely restyle San Francisco with a freeway system like that of Los Angeles and Atlanta. The California State Government wanted to construct 25 miles of freeway within San Francisco alone. This freeway craze was fuelled by the New Deal, with the intent to bolster government spending – the federal government pledged to add $9 for every $1 spent by the state government on the construction of freeways. Horrified by this, residents, mostly housewives and African Americans, began to protest and revolt against this plan to restyle the city.

The protesters’ main concern was the visual unattractiveness of the freeways which threatened the pleasant urban greenery of the Bay Parks. This was not helped by the Embarcadero, which was a terrible poster child for the scheme. Furthermore, in the 1960s, there was increasing awareness of the civil rights movement, the revolt also focused on the racial nature of freeway development. Freeways have often targeted poor African American neighbourhoods under the pretence of urban renewal and slum clearance, when in reality it was an excuse to gentrify and segregate African American populations. Furthermore, it was also during the 1960s that a greater concern for environmental protection grew, fuelled by books such as Silent Spring in 1962. Freeway revolters (as dubbed by the newspapers) also opposed the plan from an environmental perspective, bringing air pollution and traffic into central San Francisco. In addition, mass transit systems such as BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) began planning, which was used by San Francisco protesters to demonstrate that there are feasible alternatives to mass transit other than freeways.

Despite misogynistic attacks from the media, which labelled protesters as ‘lofty housewives with nothing better to do’, the protesters made significant progress throughout the 1960s. They amassed over 30,000 signatures against the proposal and convinced the San Francisco board of supervisors to reject and offer alternative solutions, such as building underground highways as a compromise. However, state and federal governments refused to compromise and insisted on building aboveground ‘beautified’ freeways that offered more greenery, in an attempt to appease environmentalists. This resulted in a half decade long political ping-pong match between the San Francisco Board of Supervisors backed by ‘Freeway Revolters’ and the Federal Government, with the government suggesting a new proposal for a freeway, only to be rejected by San Francisco’s residents. In 1966, the Board of Supervisors finally voted 6-3 against expanding the freeway, the final nail in the coffin after nearly a decade of relentless protest. 

However, this is not political manoeuvring between the city and its national and state governments. Instead, it’s about the grassroots movement that was able to influence major urban planning schemes, despite many of the protesters coming from a disadvantaged background. This story of the people rising up against government plans to destroy their city with freeways has inspired protesters from other cities, such as in DC where similar plans were scrapped after large-scale protests against the scheme. It still inspires protesters today, whether it’s revolting against the demolition of historic sites in New York or resisting the racism and misogyny in today’s society.

The Embarcadero today, since the demolition of the Freeway

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck San Francisco and significantly damaged the Embarcadero Freeway. Two years later, city officials made the decision to demolish the freeway and regenerate the surrounding area – symbolically erasing the legacy of a road that has caused so much disruption and controversy.