Interstate highways have been touted as modern marvels. Racial injustice was part of the plan.
In the exciting days after the Eisenhower administration announced groundbreaking law to create an interstate highway system, visions of future travel captured national consciousness.
Towering bridges. Shamrock changes. Higher speed limits. The modern interstates would have them all.
Take Interstate 77, which was greeted with fanfare in Charlotte, Virginia. “It will be wide, beautiful and free of charge,” enthused a newspaper story from 1959.
However, the system would cost more to build than the millions of dollars the state and federal government put into building it. In Charlotte, it meant bulldozing Brooklyn, a vibrant black neighborhood where former resident Barbara C. Steele recalled in an oral tradition from 2004: “Everyone knew everyone and everyone was someone.”
Their eviction was the rule rather than the exception. Between 1957 and 1977, the US Department of Transportation estimates that more than 475,000 households were displaced for the construction of the freeways. Most of them lived in urban communities with low incomes and high concentrations of colored people.
In many cases this was intentional.
“The interstate highway system provided a safe and fast way to get from coast to coast,” said historian Gretchen Sorin, author of Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights. “The problem was when you build highways you have to figure out where to put them.”
Addressing at least some of these past violations is a goal of the Biden government’s massive infrastructure push, which will propose billions of dollars to “reconnect” communities and address historical inequalities. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has recognized the “racism physically built into some of our highways” and the “permanent damage” that the affected communities have suffered.
In March, Buttigieg tweeted about Philadelphia’s Vine Street Expressway, which cut through Chinatown in the late 1980s.
US Democratic MPs Dwight Evans from Philadelphia and Lisa Blunt Rochester from Delaware announced a law in July to reconnect urban neighborhoods that had been destroyed by the construction of highways. In Wilmington, community leaders and state lawmakers are working on proposals to limit a portion of I-95 that displaced hundreds of families and businesses while it was being built.
»READ MORE: The congressional plan would reconnect neighborhoods like Philly’s Chinatown, which is broken by highways
Many freeway building decisions were made long before the interstates, at a time when America was booming – and bursting at the seams. Veterans had returned home from World War II and had started or expanded families; Black southerners continued to flock to the cities of the north for more opportunities. The urban centers became more and more dense.
In response, the federal government signed a massive building program that spurred the rise of the suburb. But people of color were systematically excluded. Across the country, redlining and racially restrictive acts and alliances deterred them, often banning them from buying or renting suburban homes altogether.
The perceived corruption of America’s central cities, particularly the racially mixed, low-income neighborhoods, became a cornerstone of the interstate highway system.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the program’s greatest proponent, originally envisioned a network similar to the German Autobahn that would largely bypass cities and help them drain quickly in the event of a Cold War-era nuclear attack. Heads of state eager to use federal funds to exterminate the slums and transportation planners who wanted to connect suburbs to downtown cores as efficiently as possible eventually forced him to be content with a highway system that ran through cities – and Color quarter – intersects.
“Blight was a code word used to identify black working class communities,” said Eric Avila, a UCLA historian and author of The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 promised 41,000 miles of tarmac. And when it came time to finalize the route plans, Avila said, “the race greatly influenced route decisions.”
Many intergovernmental supporters made no secret of their intentions. In Miami, for example, the I-95/395 interchange was supposed to bypass Overtown, the city’s historic black center, and use a nearby rail corridor before planners gave in to the pressure and led it straight through the neighborhood. There were no public hearings in the community.
The junction, a monster 20 blocks square, has displaced more than 10,000 residents. Due to economic constraints and racial restrictions, they had few options and crowded into overcrowded “second ghettos” nearby.
The pattern was repeated over and over again across the country: white leaders used the specter of urban decay to justify building through low-income neighborhoods. Houses and businesses were razed to the ground.
The new interstates fed the suburbanization. (A 2007 study found that the average new freeway running through a central city reduced its population by 18%.) As the population fell, poverty became more concentrated and investment continued to decline.
Affected parishioners fought back and protested what they called “white men’s streets through black men’s homes”. Riots broke out in at least 50 cities. But despite the many city council meetings, organizing marches, and circulating petitions, most failed to prevent interstates from getting through their neighborhoods.
“There are very few cases where this type of formal political protest has succeeded,” Avila said.
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Road layout decisions still cast a long shadow over American cities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people of color live near highways and other major roads than their white counterparts, and these groups have “disproportionately greater health effects from air pollution.” Such closeness is linked to higher levels of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and death.
It can also be dangerous in other ways: traffic fatalities hit drivers, passengers and colored pedestrians disproportionately. A study published in June by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that places with low-income populations and concentrations of colored people have measurably higher traffic volumes and higher speed limits, even though more residents walk, bike, or use public transport to get to work.
“City dwellers remember what highways did to their neighborhoods,” Avila said. “You remember what was lost. You carry this memory with you. “
Thomas Fitzgerald, author of the Inquirer contributor, contributed to this article.