Saving South Pasadena: Conversation with a Front Lines Freeway Fighter

Posted on: July 20th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment


Interview by Jason Clement

Ten years ago this month, a court-ordered injunction halted the reckless extension of Route 710 through the middle of historic South Pasadena, Pasadena and El Sereno. As a result, 1,000 homes and 6,000 trees were saved in a six-mile corridor that is home to a handful of National Register historic districts.

Though it never came to holding hands in front of a wrecking ball, the decades-long fight to save these neighborhoods is a fine case study in what we do every day as preservationists – come together to save places that matter.

On the eve of the official anniversary (it was this past Sunday), I had the great honor of reliving the fight against the freeway through the words and stories of Joanne Nuckols, one of an army of South Pasadena residents who stood up against 710.

Why did you decide to become a freeway fighter and when did you first get involved?

Well, I didn’t decide – it just naturally happened to me. My family moved into our South Pasadena home in 1967, and we were across the street and down a few from two very active freeway fighters. We were all raising our kids here and knew about the freeway. Everyone in town did. There were a lot of interesting things going on even back then, and it would have been hard to find someone who wasn’t following the issues and going to the public hearings and meetings.

You could say that my participation with the fighters heated up around the same time that the big 710 issues really started bubbling over. In 1987, I was appointed to our city’s transportation commission, which gave me a front row seat for the many important events that happened in 1989. That year, we had a march that got us a lot of national attention, we hired an attorney to officially represent our case, and we were named – for the first of five times – on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual listing of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places. It was a watershed year when the tide really turned in our direction.

El Sereno Family

This 1920s Spanish Revival home of the Granados family in El Sereno was slated for demolition to make way for the 710 freeway. This house is located in a locally significant district indentified by the City of Los Angeles, but which the California Department of Transportation refused to consider.

It starts as your hobby, but from there it easily becomes your life. In fact, some people even moved away to escape the fight because it really can become all consuming. However, regardless of how big of a monster it becomes in your daily life and how much of your schedule it eats up, it is something that simply has to be done. People realizing this and still choosing to dedicate their time to speak up is what helped us ward off the 710 extension for this long. And let me tell you, it has been a long time. The first time a line was thoughtlessly drawn down the middle of South Pasadena was in 1947. That’s over 60 years ago…and counting.

Over all the years and milestones, what is your fondest memory of the fight against 710?

The big rally and march in October of 1989 really stands out in my mind. We had about 1,000 people show up – remember we’re a small town – and we walked the route of the proposed highway extension with our megaphones and our homemade signs. There were cheerleaders from the local high school, kids on bikes with balloons, and even a mariachi band. Needless to say, we got a lot of attention, and I will always remember those moments.

However, warm fuzzies aside, the absolute best thing about that event is the fact that the whole idea for it came from a California Department of Transportation employee! It’s so ironic. They were the ones who planted the seed for this fight in the 1940’s, and now they were giving us tips for what proved to be our best public relations event.

Also, I’ll say that I will always remember the people who were involved in the fight, not just from South Pasadena, but from around the country. The legal teams, the preservationists, the environmentalists, the architects – those people were simply amazing, and they gave some much-needed weight to what we all knew was the right thing to do.

How has freeway fighting changed with new technology? How has it stayed the same?

Back in the 90’s, we did business and got things done using paper. You know, letters and petitions and postcards, all sent through snail mail. Obviously, times have changed, and you can now reach the world in a split second using the Internet. However, something I want to stress is that elected officials – the ones making the decisions that affect our homes and our neighborhoods – still value and read mailed letters, sometimes more than the mountains of electronic correspondence they receive. The old fashioned way still works.

Something else I want to mention that has not changed with the times is the importance of branding. It might seem odd that a preservation battle would need an image, but I still think investing time in it was one of the best things we did. Our crossed out 710 logo was a clear, instant message that really communicated our mission. Oh, and by the way, that also came from a California Department of Transportation employee. Go figure!

The opposition against the highway project had extremely strong support at the grassroots level. Why was that so important and how did it help bring about change?

Nothing brings a city together and gives neighbors a sense of shared purpose quite like this type of battle. And, when you think about it, the whole thing has been driven by ordinary people and residents – and especially women – from the beginning. It was well before my time with the fighters, but I’ve heard these great stories about women sitting in on the 710 public meetings in the 1950’s and 60’s. They wore white gloves and hats, and they patiently waited for their turn to talk. And, every time, they would be told, “No, it’s not your turn to speak yet. Don’t worry; you’ll get your chance, too.” Of course, they never did back then, but they never stopped trying and they never stopped showing up.

What advice would you give people who may be hesitant to stand up for the neighborhood the way you did?

First and foremost, if you don’t do it, who will? If you love where you live and who you live next to, it’s something that you’ve got to stand up and do. The absolute last thing you want is to have nagging regrets every single time you drive by a development – or a highway, of course – that you could have stopped.

Also, in my experience, I’ve found that the people making the decisions rarely have the right information. Scary, but true. The devil is always in the details, so do your homework and your research. And, if you have the means, find a lawyer to help you out. When you get to a certain level in your fight, having someone who can really crystallize your arguments – and back them up using the force of law – becomes absolutely critical.

There have been big victories, but South Pasadena still faces challenges today. In what ways are the freeway fighters still fighting to save your city?

Pretty much everyone – even the bureaucrats – agrees that the surface freeway is dead in the water. After all, that’s why we’re celebrating this anniversary, because the courts decided that. However, some people – some engineers – just can’t give it up, and they are now proposing a tunnel to extend 710. Now, mind you that we suggested that same thing back in 1992, but were dismissed very quickly because of costs. Well, those numbers have grown, and some people now estimate that it would cost $11.8 billion – yes, billion with a “b” – for just 4.5 miles of tunnel freeway. That’s unacceptable to put it mildly.

South Pasadena already has a freeway – the Pasadena Freeway. When will they get that?

Preservation is all about protecting places that matter to people. In your own words, why is South Pasadena a place that mattered then and still matters today?

South Pasadena is unique in Southern California. I like to always say that we’re both ten minutes and one hundred years away from Los Angeles. We are, after all, a tree city. We have great neighborhoods and great neighbors. It’s a true hometown, which is why movie companies and photographers always turn to our historic streets when they need an authentic small town in the background of their shots.

At the end of the day, people move here and instantly feel calm and secure. When’s the last time you felt that way on a freeway?

Learn more about the fight to save South Pasadena There you'll find an overview of the issues, as well an interactive timeline and photo slideshow of the 710 opposition campaign.

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One Response

  1. Brian Wolf

    July 20, 2009

    California has a Department of Transposition?