We mythologize highways, but they’ve damaged communities of color
By Ryan Reft
Last year, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg unveiled new efforts to address the problematic racial legacy of interstate highway construction, dedicating $1 billion to “reconnect cities and neighborhoods racially segregated or divided by road projects.” Buttigieg’s efforts were quickly assailed by critics who lamented the “wokefication” of the interstates.
But with the interstate system turning 67 years old this year, it is important to understand its many troubled legacies, including those that Buttigieg has pledged to address. Although planners knew early on that the interstates could disproportionately harm urban communities of color, officials made policy choices that cemented stark racial divides — and the creation of mythic lore surrounding the freedom of the open road worked to obscure them.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act, making the interstate system a reality.
Created in the era of Cold War competition, the construction and engineering of the system came wrapped in scientific language that obscured its impact. Engineers, planners and others deployed technical and scientific jargon that not only established the interstates as the height of modernity and a necessary step for the nation’s present and future, but also helped shield the system’s architects from criticism. They could explain away issues and counter criticisms with technocratic arguments beyond the reach of most protesters of the time.
Unprecedented in its size and scope, the law imposed new design standards that emphasized greater flow, wider freeway lanes, as well as larger and more complex interchanges. And from 1958 to 1966, the project was the largest source of federal funding to the states.
But while earlier state and urban highways had snaked around older communities, the 1956 act favored straight lines that sliced through neighborhoods. In the two decades following its passage, nearly 1 million people lost their homes to highway construction.
Non-White residents and homeowners were disproportionately affected by this massive displacement. Discriminatory federal housing policies such as redlining, alongside racism at the local level, had denied people of color from obtaining cheap, federally-subsidized mortgages for single-family homes. The result was the creation of booming, nearly all-White suburbs, while populations of color lived in segregated, crowded, often urban communities with declining housing values and conditions — the exact neighborhoods that planners, engineers and politicians targeted for highway construction.
The impact felt by Black and Latino urban residents — including community destruction, the loss of housing in an already stratified and segregated market, deprivation of generational wealth and exposure to unending environmental hazards — is frequently blamed on “urban renewal” and corrupt urban politicians rather than on planners or engineers.
In truth, planners knew from the beginning that the interstates threatened communities of color living in urban areas. In 1958, for example, the Sagamore Conference — convened by the Highway Research Board and attended by top federal, state and municipal officials, academics and civic leaders — issued a report that clearly noted the perils of highway construction. It warned of widespread displacement, with low-income, non-White and elderly residents facing the “greatest potential injury.” Yet the type of highway construction that the report warned about proceeded across the nation.
This initial awareness of the problems that interstate construction could, and eventually did, cause was soon erased from institutional memory — first in internal policy briefs in the mid-1970s and later in official Department of Transportation histories that did not acknowledge how officials failed to prevent the highways’ unequal impacts.
The results were devastating. For example, in Montgomery, Ala., during the 1950s, Sam Englehart — an innovator in political gerrymandering — punished civil rights activists by running the new highway through West Montgomery, home to Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon and others. In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley used highway construction funds to build the Dan Ryan Expressway, isolating the city’s Black communities and cauterizing White communities from integration.
I-94 tore the historically Black community of Rondo in St. Paul, Minn., in two, while in Los Angeles, the construction of the East Los Angeles Interchange displaced thousands of Latino families, robbed Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles of green space and saddled remaining residents with countless environmental dangers.
These practices became the norm for the Interstate Highway System, shaping the physical and cultural reality of the United States at a great cost that persists today. Over the past 30 years, some 6,300 families were displaced by the nation’s 22 largest highway expansion projects.
For decades, policymakers have inadequately addressed these issues wrought by highway construction. In 1966, when what historians call the “freeway revolts,” erupted, lawmakers attempted to mollify citizen protests with the creation of the Department of Transportation to provide greater oversight for construction.
They also passed laws such as the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969. New legislation helped communities prevent construction, but this advocacy failed to include non-White homeowners, who lacked the political leverage and financial reach to challenge such efforts, particularly in the courts.
Nor has historic-preservation legislation, often enacted alongside environmental laws, protected historically Black and Latino communities from the interstates. Of the 95,000 sites on the National Historic Register by 2020, only about 2 percent addressed the Black experience. “The dominant narrative of the freeway revolt is a racialized story,” writes historian Eric Avila of this earlier era of resistance.
Popular stories celebrating highways, as well as their centrality to the lives of many Americans regardless of gender, race and ethnicity, have stymied a more accurate understanding of the interstates’ impacts.
Even before the 1956 Act, Americans — including Black Americans — had already embraced the automobile as a vehicle for greater freedom and opportunity. The existence of the “Green Book” — an annual travel guide published from 1936 to 1964 that provided information for Black motorists regarding lodging, food and other information to ensure safe travel — testifies to the systemic racism of the country’s transportation networks, and despite its obvious limits, the freedom and opportunity it enabled.
Popular culture highlighted the freeway’s passage to freedom and opportunity. Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel “On the Road” established one of the first and most lasting testaments to the promise of the open road, a story that graphed easily onto the interstate reality that followed.
During the 1960s, writer Joan Didion famously referred to driving Southern California highways as “secular communion.”
Popular songs also firmly established the highway as a symbol for freedom, such as Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 hit, “Thunder Road,” with its lyrics, “These two lanes will take us anywhere. We got one last chance to make it real.”
In 1971, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell even observed that “losing one’s driver’s license is more serious for some individuals than a stay in jail.”
While exceptions to this narrative exist, too, of course, the vast majority of popular depictions of highways in American culture have represented them as conduits of freedom, community and economic success.
Historian Sarah Jo Peterson and planner Steven Higashide advocate for “truth and reconciliation” carried out, in part, by existing institutions such as the Transportation Research Board, the utilization of preexisting clusters of University Transit Centers and a congressional commission to investigate the damages wrought by the construction of interstates. “If we have any hope of avoiding future injustices, we have to fully understand the past,” notes Higashide.
Deconstructing the myth behind the creation of the Interstate Highway System, unwinding the overly simplistic narratives that have defined the interstates and putting forth ideas for the future serve as the first steps in understanding this history. The next will be to rectify it.
Ryan Reft is editor and contributor for the forthcoming Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth about Urban Highways (Island Press, 2023) and 2020’s East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte (Rutgers Press).
This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published January 19, 2023 on The Washington Post.