Although I grew up in Los Angeles and have explored many parts of LA County, I have to admit I knew little about the City of Gardena. So when I received an email from filmmaker Max Votolato promoting his new documentary about this South Bay city, my curiosity was piqued.
In his note Votolato explained that “Freeway City is a provocative case study on how the collision of race, politics and casino economics shaped the destiny of Gardena.” That description hooked me and I decided to watch the movie.
The 90-minute film charts the transformation of Gardena, which was incorporated in 1930, from a rural farming community to a post war boomtown. Votolato deftly tells this multifaceted story through a wonderful series of interviews with local civic leaders, business people and citizens who call Gardena home.
One of the interview subjects who shows up repeatedly in the film is Brian O’Neal, founder, lead singer and producer of The BusBoys, the local roots and rock n’ roll band known for the now classic song “The Boys are Back in Town”, which was featured in the Eddie Murphy movie 48 Hours. O’Neal grew up in Gardena and he provides thoughtful commentary and remembrances of his youth throughout the picture. He is also responsible for the film’s soundtrack, which is a real highlight of the film.
In addition to the compelling interviews, Freeway City is comprised of a rich collection of archival photographs and film clips that vividly capture distinct periods of time in the city’s development. Those visual elements allow the viewer to get a feel for what life was like in Gardena during the second half of the 20th century.
I was particularly interested to learn about Gardena’s Japanese-American community, which like others in the US, was forcibly relocated to internment camps during World War II. Decades later that same community was instrumental in helping Japanese companies such as Toyota and Honda enter the US market, thereby transforming Gardena into a gateway city to the Pacific Rim.
Like many documentaries, this project was a labor of love that took many years to complete. I’m glad Votolato stuck with it, because he’s produced a valuable historical record of one small pocket of Los Angeles County. Anyone interested in southern California history will enjoy this film.