Inaugural Sustainability Fellow Explores Historical Impacts of L.A. Freeway Construction Through Archival Collections

Collections Convergence Initiative

Amber Santoro, a graduate student in the USC Van Hunnick History Department, recently completed her term as the USC Libraries’ inaugural sustainability fellow. Presented in partnership with the USC Van Hunnick History Department and the USC Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability, the new Summer Primary Source Research Fellowships on Sustainability support USC students' public-facing research at the intersection of history, gender studies, and sustainability studies. 

Beginning this past June, Santoro worked closely with library faculty and staff, including Rebecca Corbett, director of special projects, and Suzanne Noruschat, Southern California studies specialist. They steered her toward archival collections relevant to her research interests in the history of environmental racism and its relevance for today’s sustainability efforts. 

At the end of USC’s summer break in August, Santoro emerged from her fellowship with plans to curate a digital exhibit that highlights the effects of freeway construction on marginalized Los Angeles communities. 

With its deep holdings in regional history, the USC Libraries are home to several archival collections that document those impacts. Among the most notable is the Century Freeway collection, which contains 23 boxes of records relating to the construction of Los Angeles County’s newest freeway, which opened in 1993 as Interstate 105.

“While primarily centered around the archival materials from the Century Freeway collection,” Santoro said, “this exhibit will also consider numerous other instances of twentieth century freeway displacements in Los Angeles. I am interested in the historical usage of eminent domain and ‘slum’ clearance policies to acquire land for urban infrastructure projects, such as freeways, which disproportionately impacted marginalized communities. These notions of ‘progress’ from Anglo-American project developers contributed to community fragmentation, relegating these communities to pollution-ridden areas, while more affluent neighborhoods encountered fewer freeway projects and less pollution. This exhibition exposes a glaring instance of environmental racism, one that represents yet another distressing episode in the region's enduring history of racial injustice.”

USC Libraries interim dean Marje Schuetze-Coburn noted that the fellowship aligns with President Carol L. Folt’s sustainability efforts.

“The USC Libraries are pleased to contribute to President Folt’s priorities for sustainability at our university,” Schuetze-Coburn said. “Our new sustainability fellowship reflects how libraries are ideally poised to cultivate and support interdisciplinary approaches to complex environmental issues. Our inaugural fellow’s research exemplifies this perfectly by drawing upon and synthesizing key insights from gender studies, histories of environmental racism, and the study of California and the American West—insights discovered, in part, using the libraries' rich resources and in consultation with our librarians. Our extensive regional history holdings offer scholars like Amber a rich documentary and photographic record of freeway construction and its impact on L.A. communities.”

Through her fellowship, Santoro also collaborated with Chelsea Graham of USC’s Office of Sustainability.

“USC’s Assignment: Earth initiative reflects the inherent interdisciplinarity required to address our most pressing sustainability needs and challenges,” Graham said. “Opportunities such as the USC Libraries’ fellowship are important as they invite students to assume an interdisciplinary posture as they engage archives to introduce new voices, stories, and perspectives to our sustainability conversations. I am excited by Amber’s project because it takes a physical piece of infrastructure that many USC community members are familiar with and casts it in a new light, illustrating how an attunement to the complexity of our past can empower a better future.”

The fellowship is sponsored by the libraries' Collections Convergence Initiative

"It is so exciting to have this sustainability program launched," said the initiative's director, historian William Deverell. "We are grateful for the support of the Wrigley Institute and the History Department in collaborating with us. The Collections Convergence Initiative helps to build our collections in key arenas of research and relevance; having early processing help through this program is a huge help in getting rare and important materials open for student and other research access."

The libraries’ Rebecca Corbett helped conceive the program.

“This is an exciting opportunity to help students connect with a wide-range of unique and rare materials held in our Special Collections," Corbett said. "From archival collections on community-led conservation efforts and city planning records, to artists’ books on environmental activism, and to rare books on the history of science, we have collections that speak to contemporary concerns around the environment and sustainability across Los Angeles, the Southern California region, and beyond."

A call for applications for next year’s sustainability fellowship will be issued in spring 2024.