Period Piece: A fight we won

Pub date November 18, 2011
SectionPixel Vision

As steadfast Occupiers confront growing police and official opposition comparisons to historical protest movements are cropping up. 

San Francisco, of course, has been home to more than a few spirited speeches, many of which have resulted in real protest-driven change. Local protests here have long been loci of larger nationwide movements. One cool example: the freeway revolt movement, a national pushback against the autofication of cities in the 1960s and ’70s which reached its peak in San Francisco in the fight against the Western Freeway.

Many of the 1955 organizers who battled the freeway that would have connected 101’s march up Octavia Boulevard all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge hadn’t protested anything before. They included pastors and churchgoers, housewives, concerned parents, World War II veterans, middle-class San Franciscans working and living in the path of a projected freeway.

The proposed Western Freeway would have included a major interchange around 7th and Irving Streets before heading into Golden Gate Park. Image courtesy San Francisco Public Library

The last addition to a city-wide highway plan, the double-decker Western Freeway would have snaked through West Portal, the Sunset District, and the Richmond (with, of course, a little jog through Golden Gate Park, devouring the Rose Garden and the Hall of Flowers). Three huge arteries would have tangled and clogged where Irving and Seventh Streets now intersect in a tree-lined corner. 

Obviously, the protesters who assembled to challenge the Board of Supervisors at Lincoln High School in December of 1955 weren’t just speaking out against the views and noise that were to accompany the proposed concrete ribbon. They were challenging the disruption of a settled post-war life, the bisection of their parishes by eight lanes of concrete, the impossibility of getting their kids to previously accessible neighborhood schools. Thousands of homes were to be demolished, and businesses to be relocated. 

“The turnout was enormous, and the angry crowd unanimous in opposing the freeway plan. The politicians were stunned,” writes Frank Dunnigan in a recollection of the 1955 meeting.

The struggle against the freeway lasted four years and was replicated, again and again, and with growing momentum by neighborhood groups across the entire city. Resolution 45-59, which passed in 1959, squashed plans for the Western Highway as well similar nasty proposals. It was the direct result of efforts by ordinary people with full-time jobs, families, and livelihoods that threatened by the powers that were. And they won.