Interstate Highways Might Be Our Worst Example of Systemic Racism
Many of us drive on a few miles of our interstate system each day. Whether to work, to shop, or to entertainment venues, we use the interstate highways around our cities as primary arteries for getting many miles in a short period of time.
Rarely does it occur to any of us that the development and construction of the interstate highways have done at least as much damage to Black workers, their families, and their neighborhoods as any policy that came out of the Jim Crow era. Black families are poorer and suffer worse health, worse education, higher unemployment due in no small part to highways planned and built by white people (white men).
Interstates Destroyed Thriving Black Communities
After Reconstruction, white planners often sectioned off parts of their cities for Black families. Generally, these neighborhoods were set aside for Black workers in white businesses and homes. In the 1880’s ex-Confederate Army James Parramore plotted just such a neighborhood in Orlando, FL. Jim Crow made the lives of all America’s Black citizens difficult. Yet in cities and towns across the country, Black citizens created neighborhood networks that allowed them to survive. Parramore, a black neighborhood in Orlando, Florida, was but one example of such a neighborhood.
In 1957, I-4 slashed through Parramore. Family homes and businesses by the hundreds were destroyed. Another highway, the East-West Expressway, eliminated nearly 1000 houses, 200 businesses, and three churches. Parramore streets were bisected by both these highways, cutting the neighborhood off from downtown and from other vital communities. This pattern was repeated across the nation.
In Miami, I-95 destroyed the thriving Black Miami community of Overtown. Almost 1000 homes and 62 businesses were destroyed to make way for the Franklin-Mulberry corridor in Baltimore. More property was destroyed by that project than by the riot of 1968. Nearly 1500 people were displaced. In Charlotte, the vibrant Black community of Brooklyn, a favored stop for Duke Ellington, was destroyed by I-277.
In my own hometown of Akron, Ohio, the 5-mile Innerbelt Freeway was proposed in the 1960s as a cure for Akron’s struggling downtown, connecting it to the growing suburbs on the city’s periphery. Reports at the time promised that the highway would spare “good” neighborhoods and clear “deteriorating” ones, like West Hill. Similar stories can be told about Black neighborhoods in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Hartford, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and New York City.
White Neighborhoods Were Often Spared
One might argue that the suffering caused to Black communities was regrettable but unavoidable. But white neighborhoods often avoided such destruction, especially when the residents were well-placed and well-to-do. In 1963, plans called for freeways to run through Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, Ohio. The wealthy citizens of both cities banded together to create a park around several lakes in Shaker Heights. The freeways were re-routed through communities of residents without the means to resist the destruction of their homes and businesses.
That’s not to say that white neighborhoods were never damaged by the interstate system. The West Blvd neighborhood of Cleveland was mostly white when I-90 and I-71 were built through that city’s west side. As was the case in so many Black neighborhoods, white homes and businesses were destroyed to make way for concrete and steel.
Still, white homeowners weren’t systematically prevented from adjusting to the new circumstances as Black families were. White applicants were readily offered new home loans that were denied to Black borrowers. Redlining made it even more difficult for Black families to move to new neighborhoods.
The Interstate Highway System (IHS) has benefitted the nation as a whole (studies show that the economic benefits of the IHS are $6 for every $1 spent) but those benefits have come at a cost borne largely by Black citizens.
The Picture is Changing
There is recent recognition that the benefits of the IHS have come at too great a cost to our Black neighbors. The Department of Transportation’s Secretary Pete Buttigieg said this on CNN: “It’s disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist. We have a chance to get that right.” He’s following that up with action: He’s asked the Texas DOT to delay development of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which would expand Interstate 45 — and displace more than 1,000 homes, hundreds of businesses, five houses of worship, and two schools in neighborhoods like Houston’s Independence Heights.
The Northeast Ohio Area Coordinating Agency, northeast Ohio’s leading transportation planning agency, now evaluates projects based on how they might pull jobs and investments from urban areas.
According to the Congress of New Urbanism, 17 cities, including Rochester, Milwaukee, and San Francisco, have either committed to or torn down, freeways.
Senator Chuck Schumer has introduced a bill that includes a $10B pilot program that would help communities tear down the worst of urban highways and rebuild the surrounding neighborhoods.
As voices that represent urban interests become part of the planning process for transportation projects, we can look forward to a system that serves the needs of a broader range of constituents. Highways are being turned into boulevards and urban interchanges that take industry away from urban centers are being deleted from regional plans. Our metropolitan areas will benefit from these changes but, just as the IHS was built over many decades, reversing the damage it has caused will require sustained effort.
The wealthy proponents of oil, auto manufacturing, and trucking made certain that the highway network we presently have served their needs for efficiency and economic development at the expense of equity and the interests of the marginalized. Those corporations will continue to pressure politicians and planners to put their own interests first. The rest of us will need to insist that our own legislators and the transportation development agencies don’t once again ignore the needs of Black, brown, and working-class communities.