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Living on the Dime: A Cultural History of the I-10 Freeway

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Freeway Overpass, Juliet Conlon.
Living on the Dime: A Cultural History of the I-10 Freeway

When is the last time you drove on a freeway? If you live in southern California, chances are that you've been on one within the last 24 hours. In fact, you probably, like most of the millions of others living here, spend a lot of time on one or more of our state's freeways every day. But how often do you really think about the freeway, itself, and its impact? How does it affect the people living alongside the dozens of cities and towns and open spaces that these enormous rivers of concrete flow through, both dividing and unifying communities in subtle and glaring ways?

The Interstate 10, a coast-to-coast freeway that begins at the Pacific Ocean (or ends there, depending on your perspective), passes through Los Angeles, and stretches east for 60 miles to the edge of the Inland Empire near Fontana. The I-10 then passes through Rialto and Colton and intersects Redlands, a town famed for its onetime orange grove legacy. Maybe you missed it, driving through Redlands in the blink of an eye, the subtle turn of your steering wheel or a change of the radio dial.

But there's more to this road story. Redlands is a community that retains its small-town feeling, and is rich with an abundance of longtime, often multi-generational residents who know their town's history, including the development of the I-10, known to many there as "the dime," which was completed in 1964 and changed their town forever. Their way of life was changed forever when this 8-lane wide gash of concrete and 20 feet high sound barrier walls ripped through their tight-knit town and threatened to bury fragile histories.

One resident, however, Antonio Gonzalez Vasquez, a third-generation Mexican American from Redlands who was born the same year that the freeway was completed and spent much of his time growing up alongside the barrier walls, decided, ten years ago, to extricate and record the stories of how the I-10 changed, informs, and continues to shape his town.

Subsequently, in 2003, with a grant from the California Council for the Humanities, Vasquez started the ongoing Living On the Dime: A View of the World from Along the I-10 environmental and cultural research oral history project to study the effects of a 175 mile stretch of I-10 freeway on communities of southern California.

"The Inland Empire is a very large geographical and political unit," says Vasquez. "The I-10, the largest man-made structure in the world, ties the area together. The people who live along the freeway are connected by the freeway, too, and they have stories to tell about how the I-10 has affected them."

Work on the project is ongoing, and is closely connected with the Inland Mexican Heritage Foundation, which Vasquez founded in 1999 to record oral histories of the Mexican American community in Redlands. According to Vasquez, those involved with the Living on the Dime Project have come to feel a renewed sense of community.

"Rather than feeling that their lives are fragmented and divided by the building of the freeway, which in particular strongly divided the community of Redlands along racially segregated lines, the Living on the Dime project has helped to unify and empower their community members, so that their stories will not be lost to road-building 'progress,'" Vasquez says.

In its ten-year span, the project has involved thousands of citizens who live along the I-10, not only in Redlands, but in the San Bernardino County towns of Fontana, Rialto, Colton and Yucaipa. It also involves the Riverside County towns of Beaumont and Banning in the San Gorgonio Pass, and the desert communities of Palm Springs, Indio and Desert Center and Blythe.

To date, over 5000 images and 100 hours of video taken across inland Southern California comprise the Living on the Dime digital archive, which features the work of Matt Buyak, Kathleen Case, Will Chesser, Juliet Conlon, Sophie Harris, Chris Koons, Maxwell A. Ronning, Olga Suarez, and Vasquez, as well as many others. 

Mujer de Blythe. | Photo: Julie Conlon.
Mujer de Blythe. | Photo: Julie Conlon.

"As we've done our research and documented our interviews, we've continued to ask questions - the I-10 freeway is the largest piece of monumental architecture in the country," says Vasquez. "We continue to ask: what does pavement mean to people? Is it progress? For example, we are currently opening and documenting conversations on the continuing urban and industrial developments along the I-10 corridor in the project's study area, including large-scale wind and solar facilities in the desert. "

The Living on the Dime project is currently planning a series screenings, starting this fall at the University of Redlands and California State University, San Bernardino, of the five compelling short film that Vasquez has created from its archives, including "Ancient Footprints of the Colorado River," "Living on the Dime," "21st Century Boomtown," "99 Before the Dime," "Desert Under Siege."

"I think many of these stories will bring up issues that touch almost everyone. Ultimately, the project will give people a chance to speak out -- and then, hopefully, encourage them to take action and get involved, and to think about how the I-10 affects the lives of those who live along its concrete walls and lanes," says Vasquez.

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