He was raised in bustling, diverse Boyle Heights, the son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, a proud graduate of Roosevelt High School. And over a career spanning more than five decades as a judge in the Ninth District U.S. Court of Appeals, Harry Pregerson built a colorful persona as the most “activist” kind of jurist imaginable.
Pregerson, who died on Nov. 25 at home in Woodland Hills at the age of 94, oversaw the consent decree that ensured the construction of the Century Freeway in the South L.A. area included housing and social programs for those displaced and employed by the massive project.
Its centerpiece, the 110-105 Interchange, is named in the judge’s honor. It was also the subject of a recent article in L.A. TACO highlighting a documentary project about the interchange by artist Lindsey Mysse.
In an interview for the now defunct-Slake magazine in 2011, with former LA Weekly journalist Hillel Aron, Pregerson is described as a puckish character who seems obsessed with a simple yet almost abstract drive to “help working people”:
His memory is astonishing. He grew up in Boyle Heights and he remembers the name of the Japanese kid he carpooled with to UCLA in the 1930s, though he can’t remember the name of the driver who picked them up in a Model A Coupe. He remembers the city before the freeway, before they pulled out the train tracks. He remembers how the city sounded.
“There was no freeway then. There were trains, and you could hear the trains whistle, you could hear the roosters crow,” he says. “At noon, the gas company downtown blew a whistle. You could hear it all over the city. That was their lunch break. We walked to school. We had the yellow car, but it cost three and a half cents, and why waste three and half cents when you could walk? It took about an hour, but it was fun because I’d walk with my friends.”
But when you really see how much he did for the people who were affected by the construction, the naming of the intriguing interchange in the judge’s honor almost seems too modest a memorial for such a figure in L.A. history:
The Century Freeway’s final consent decree, filed in 1979, included a housing program, jobs program, jobs training program, affirmative-action program, and a child-care program, all under the guise of a freeway project that somehow also had to have a train running down the middle. Even for a legislative body, these initiatives would have been bold, but for them to come at the behest of a district court judge was unheard of.
The agreement called for 3,000 single-family homes and 1,200 multifamily buildings to be constructed in neighborhoods along the freeway corridor. The 25,000 displaced residents living in the corridor would be able to buy houses at below-market rates. Sixty-five percent of the workers on both the freeway and the housing would be minorities; 10 percent would be women. Nearly 5,000 locals went through an apprenticeship program and were given construction jobs. Perhaps most astonishingly, the consent decree called for the construction of day-care centers for the families of employees.
On Dec. 1, state and local luminaries attended a memorial service in his honor at the Shrine. Just before he died, according to the L.A. Times obituary, Pregerson said: “The hard thing is that I don’t have strength anymore to help people,” recounted his son Dean.
Rest in peace!