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How Building the 110 Freeway Cheated South LA

The 110 Freeway is hands down one of my favorite freeways in Los Angeles. It’s a relatively straight and easy ride, and it makes getting to USC, Downtown LA, or practically anywhere in LA a breeze.

But it’s also hard to believe that building this freeway sparked a series of protests in a South LA that was very different from the one we know today.

Today we’re going to take a look at the development of the 110 Freeway, starting with the Arroyo Seco Parkway, and its 22-mile-long expansion through South Los Angeles. 

Let’s jump into it.

The Advent of the Freeway.

The 110 Freeway today has two main sections: The Arroyo Seco Parkway, which is the old and windy road that connects Los Angeles to Pasadena, and the interstate 110, which cuts through Downtown, South LA, and the Harbor Gateway area. 

The earliest mention I’ve found on the Arroyo Seco Parkway dates back to 1911, where, as a concept, one writer describes it as the “finest [highway] of its kind in the world when completed.”

What did they mean by this? In the early 20th century, freeways didn’t really exist. 

The Parkway, however, was a sign that society was ready to trust ordinary people with high-speed traffic. Journalists raved about how amazing it would be to get from Central Los Angeles to Pasadena directly in less than 20 minutes. (Image 1, Image 2)

Over the next 26 years, the Arroyo Seco Parkway would remain a distant concept, faced with a series of funding and land acquisition barriers that slowed the construction of this highway. 

In 1938, Los Angeles County finally started construction on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, and by 1940, 29-years after the concept of the freeway was introduced, the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened

More. More. More.

In 1943, three years after the Arroyo Seco Parkway was built, the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission published a report called “Freeways for the Region,” which would change the face of modern Los Angeles forever. 

As early as 1933, planners across the nation called for an extensive parkway system called a “freeway,” and California became the first state to bring this concept to reality by greenlighting the Arroyo Seco Parkway. (page 11)

In the report, the commission recommends a vast network of freeways specific to the Los Angeles area to help reduce the traffic congestion caused by a growing demand for goods in the city (Page 6). This master plan promised reduced road congestion and faster delivery times from port to destination, citing the success of the Arroyo Seco Parkway (page 28).

For South LA, the commission envisioned a Figueroa Parkway that would run down the center of the city, connecting San Pedro to the Santa Monica Freeway, to the Hollywood Freeway, to the existing Arroyo Seco Parkway (page 26). This would be just one of many freeways planned for the region that at this point didn’t exist yet (page 28)

The Harbor Freeway

In 1943, nearly three years after the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened, the state of California submitted plans to construct the Harbor Freeway, which would cut through Southwest Los Angeles on its way to the Port of Los Angeles. 

Now here’s a term I want to call your attention to: Southwest Los Angeles

Before South Central became synonymous with Black Los Angeles, the southwestern part of the region was once a burgeoning, white middle class neighborhood. Housing covenants, as I have explored in other videos, prevented people of color from living in westside neighborhoods like this  until the early 1950s. 

Anyway, by 1947, Southwest residents began protesting the state’s plan to cut in between Broadway and Figueroa Street in order to construct the harbor freeway. This $36 million development, the Southwest Wave reported, would displace thousands of Southwest families. (Cost

So, yes, the state of California crafted plans to run through a predominantly white neighborhood. For once people of color weren’t at the forefront of racist urban planning in Los Angeles.

The Harbor Freeway, like most Los Angeles freeways, had to be approved on a state, county, and city level to be built, and the Southwest community banded together to try to stop at least one of these governing bodies from approving the high-speed connection. 

Southwest residents first took their protest to the Los Angeles City Council, but the council dusted its hands and shifted the blame to the state of California. The council president practically said that it was cheaper for the state to destroy thousands of homes than it was to remove all the businesses along the Figueroa or Broadway corridors to build a highway. 

After learning this, the Southwest residents took the fight to the county and challenged the freeway through editorials, letters to representatives, and through peaceful assemblies. 

Even a local Southwest geographer published a completely unbiased study about how terrible it was to build a freeway through the vibrant and dense neighborhood. He believed the freeway should be moved eastward between Main and San Pedro streets. Others wanted to see the freeway diverted even further east, along the LA River, which was already in Los Angeles’ master freeway plan. 

In September of 1947, Southwest residents protested against the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors who, in a 3-1 vote, agreed to push the harbor freeway plans ahead despite opposition. 

By October of 1947, the state of California began construction of the harbor freeway in Downtown near present day Hill Street. Still, the Southwest residents were relentless and continued to oppose the freeway. While the protestors lost on county approval, they knew they still had a shot against the Los Angeles City Council

The City Battlefront

In May of 1948, construction of the northern part of the harbor freeway halted, because the route past Olympic Boulevard, which would begin to tear through the Southwest, was not yet confirmed by the state of California. 

City Council Member Kenneth Hahn of LA’s 8th district, which represented the Southwest, and his brother, Gordon Hahn, said the leading state highway engineer promised he would survey an alternative to the route between Figueroa and Broadway

Keyword here: Promised. 

Hahn brought forth an alternative to the Los Angeles City Council in place of the freeway: to convert Long Beach Avenue in the east into a one-way boulevard between Ninth Street and Slauson Avenue, and scrap the plans for the freeway entirely. Hahn’s plan quickly evolved into a viable alternative in the Southwest, and the state engineer promised he would survey it. 

The Los Angeles City Council quickly banded together to approve Hahn’s plan to use Long Beach Avenue as an alternative for the Freeway

However, just 10 days after Hahn’s alternative was approved by the city, a California state assemblyman revealed the route for the Harbor Freeway was already set in stone, as implied in the 1943 master freeway plan I shared earlier

Yeah. Kenneth Hahn and the rest of the Southwest community got played. Bad.

The state, however, couldn’t move full speed ahead without the majority support in the Los Angeles City Council. That, however, was no issue, because the confirmed plans for the Harbor Freeway passed with an 11-2 vote

I don’t know what the state said to the city council, but all I can gather is that this freeway was supposed to be built. 

Anyways, that’s all I have for the first part of the history behind the 110 Freeway. There’s still so much more to cover in the second half of the 20th century. If you’re interested in learning more about the 110 Freeway, let me know in the comment section below.


  1. Roberto Roberto

    Very cool! Thanks for putting this info together.

  2. Lourdes Valdez Lourdes Valdez

    Thank you for the history of it. As I transition from the 10 East to the 110 S, it appears the 110 S is cut off. Why is that?
    I would love a connecting toll road from the 110 N to the 10 W.
    Any talks on this plan?

    • Hi, Lourdes! Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m curious what you mean by the freeway being cut off. Are you pointing to the fact that the Freeway going east has a separate lane for northbound and southbound 110 Freeway traffic?

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