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The Biden administration wants to reconnect historically Black and Latino neighborhoods cut off by highway construction. There’s promise and peril in that.
One hundred years ago, the Tulsa Massacre claimed at least 300 Black lives and burned 35 square blocks in Greenwood, one of the nation’s most thriving Black communities, to the ground. Greenwood historian J. Kavin Ross’s great-grandfather’s nightclub, the Zulu Lounge, was one of the casualties. Ross’s great-grandfather left Tulsa for California a “broken man,” because white firms would not sell him the construction materials to rebuild. But a half-century later, the destruction of Greenwood was made complete, when the I-244 highway was built over the site of lounge.
As Ross told NPR: “This freeway is standing on top of my inheritance!”
In remarks in Tulsa last week, President Biden acknowledged how the strategically placed highway succeeded in “cutting off Black families and businesses from jobs and opportunity,” and “denied Greenwood even just a chance at rebuilding.” This was not an isolated event, as the construction of an interstate highway system in the 1950s was used to pave over Black businesses, homes, churches, and culture.
Nearly six decades later, as part of its effort to drive racial equity into federal policy, the Biden administration is proposing in its FY2022 budget to launch a $15 billion program to “reconnect” communities fractured by the highway boom, reclaiming the spaces for urban development. Senate Democrats have filed the Reconnect Communities Act for this purpose, and it’s also part of Biden’s American Jobs Plan, the expansive infrastructure package.
This could be a stunning advance for communities of color across the nation, including my own hometown of Milwaukee. There is also obvious danger of this leading to another oblivion. It would take an effort not yet seen to ensure that this attempt to restore economic empowerment does not become another tool for gentrification and displacement.
THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS to everyone of pushing more vehicles through Black communities are apparent even without the economic impacts. The annual accident death toll has been numbingly steady, floating between 35,000 and 45,000 victims a year for the last two decades, with an estimated 42,000 traffic fatalities last year, even during the lower miles traveled in the pandemic. A half-century after the enactment of the Clean Air Act, particulate pollution from transportation still kills 29,000 Americans annually, far more than the nearly 20,000 deaths last year from gun homicide. Fossil fuel transportation accounts for 29 percent of greenhouse gases in the U.S., the single biggest contributor to climate change. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that extreme weather facilitated by a changing climate cost the United States $600 billion over the last five years, and took 4,000 lives.
All that is before the specific, pernicious effect of highway construction on Black communities, as homes were removed and businesses and cultural gathering places withered. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) says the available data suggests that at least a million people were displaced by highways. A 1964 congressional report noted, “Most displacements affect low- or moderate-income families or individuals, for whom a forced move generally is a very difficult experience. The problem is aggravated for the elderly, the large family, and the nonwhite.”
These effects were not coincidental. In 1960, the Atlanta Bureau of Planning explained that the proposed Interstate 20 west of downtown was intended to be “the boundary between the white and Negro communities.” In a paper for the Iowa Law Review, New York University Law School professor Deborah Archer cited how Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg, Florida, forced the moving of ten Black churches; how I-95 ripped through Miami’s Overtown, once nicknamed the “Harlem of the South”; and how I-4 was placed to create a barrier in Orlando between Black residents and a largely white-dominated business district.
“Of course, the interstate highway system did not cause every problem facing urban communities,” Archer wrote. “However, its construction compounded discrimination, exclusion, and exploitation, and triggered a process that weakened Black neighborhoods.”
Clayborn Benson, founding director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society and a lifelong friend, said that is exactly what happened in Milwaukee, when I-43 was built straight up the Black North Side. A park I played in as a little boy was wiped out. “The highway itself disconnected and divided the community and killed off a generation of businesses,” Benson said, estimating the number to be about 450.
Virtually every major city has a similar story to tell. Among them was the 1950s routing of I-579 through the Hill District in Pittsburgh. The area was nicknamed “Little Harlem” for all the jazz greats who played in its clubs, including Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. It’s population was 54,000 in 1950. As the Prospect reported five years ago, by 2013, the Hill District was home to only 9,500. The highway “gutted the Hill’s economic core,” according to the district’s representative to Pittsburgh’s city council, Daniel Lavelle. “It never recovered. When you displace that many people, you essentially damn that community.”
THE TOTAL FINANCIAL and cultural cost of the government taking over Black communities and displacing families and businesses is currently unknown. But the impact could be reversed once the communities are reconnected. In a new report, titled “Freeways Without Futures,” CNU cited more than 30 cities where thoughtless or cynically thought-out highways can be reconverted into mixed-used housing and small-business development, cultural spaces, family gathering spaces, walking and biking paths, and green space.
One area is Tulsa’s Greenwood, which still has a cultural core to build around, such as churches rebuilt after the massacre and a cultural center that is a repository of the history of the district. “It may not be the same as Black Wall Street,” said Ben Crowther, CNU’s program manager, “but it can hold the same ideals, businesses and stores people can walk to.”
Other projects have been proposed throughout the country, hoping to leverage potential federal investment funds. In Atlanta, there’s “The Stitch,” a deck park that would be built over a highway connector that slashed through the city’s Black neighborhoods. St. Paul, Minnesota, has imagined a five-block-long “land bridge” of affordable housing, small-business incubators, and parkland, built over a highway that tore through the Black Rondo neighborhood. Buffalo, New York, may return two and a half miles of expressway back to what it once was, a tree-lined parkway designed in the late 19th century by Frederick Law Olmsted that was considered an “oasis” in the Black community. New Orleans may tear down the elevated Claiborne Expressway, rebuilding businesses and affordable housing while restoring the tree canopy. Predominantly Black West Baltimore could transform a mile-and-a-half “highway to nowhere” that displaced 3,000 people, building parkland and retail grocers to eliminate a “food desert.” New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang has suggested capping the Cross Bronx Expressway and filling in two and a half miles with green space.
Pittsburgh is in the process of building a park that caps over a section of I-579, reconnecting the Hill District to downtown. But the project shows both the promise and peril of such revitalization. Even though Daniel Lavelle says it will welcome and “respect the historical African American neighborhood,” some Hill District community activists, such as Carl Redwood, are skeptical. He fears that the cap “represents Downtown taking over a portion of the Hill District, not the other way around.”
Virtually all of the planners, community activists, and urban-infrastructure scholars I interviewed said the key to making Biden’s proposal blossom is allowing every individual community to decide for itself what ideals it wants to project. Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, and co-editor of the book Incomplete Streets: Processes, Practices, and Possibilities, told me that building out new community spaces from what had been flattened will require far more than an architect’s rendering.
“Just cleaning up a park is not enough,” Agyeman said. “You have to have robust housing policies in place so homeowners are not driven out by rising tax rates and renters are not driven out by rising rents. You have to have patient capital that is willing to stick around and work with small businesses so they can stay around.”
Maggie Parker is a Dallas-based consultant who helps communities develop real estate plans. She said that while Biden’s proposal is highly welcome, any help from outside the immediate community will have to be sensitive to the trauma of the past. “You have a lot of people who basically say, ‘I don’t trust the city because they stole Dad’s business,’” she said.
To gain trust, Trevon Logan, an economics professor at Ohio State University who specializes in economic demography, said that whatever form a reconnection takes, the community has to see it as “reparative,” reversing decades of prior disinvestment and theft of wealth. But while honoring that past, projects must not be anchored in it. “You can’t just go back 50 years,” said Stephen Gray, a professor of urban design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design who focuses on equitable design. “What you can do is try to create a space that people can associate with, a space that’s about them. Products that are about them. Food that is about them.”
Communities paved over by freeways have fought to retain what culture they could. Residents of Barrio Logan in San Diego took over the spaces underneath the Coronado Bridge after I-5 cutthrough the community, and established Chicano Park, with murals painted over the highway pillars. Similarly, Black people in New Orleans have painted the pillars of the highway looming over the Claiborne Corridor with murals.
Extending this cultural connection to a physical reconnection requires eliminating the rain of pollutants that accompany freeways. For decades, Barrio Logan residents have campaigned for less pollution, noise, and traffic from maritime operations, recycling centers, junkyards, and auto repair shops. Multiple studies show that white people produce the pollution of commerce and consumption, but people of color disproportionately breathe in the toxic emissions. “To me, investing in communities like this means clean energy to mitigate the toxic impact of auto exhaust in these neighborhoods,” said Eric Avila, an urban planning and cultural history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
A big part of lowering emissions comes through robust public transportation, the likes of which most cities in Europe enjoy. Norman Garrick, a professor of sustainable transportation and urban planning at the University of Connecticut, added that there has to be measurable proof of equitable return for historically excluded populations in the construction and post-construction functions.
TO DATE, MOST of the most well-known highway takedown projects, from Boston’s Big Dig to San Francisco’s Embarcadero, have not had any such measurable return. Their building, and subsequent rises in commerce and real estate values, are enjoyed primarily by white contractors, merchants, and downtown dwellers.
Even the handful of projects done in Black and Latino communities have had mixed results. Take tree-lined Mandela Parkway, in Oakland, California, which replaced an elevated highway that sliced through a community of color in the 1950s but collapsed in the 1989 earthquake. Mandela Parkway, a much more sedate boulevard featuring bike and walking paths, was partially reopened in 2005. A 2019 study by University of California, Berkeley, researchers found that while the replacement dramatically lowered air pollution, median home values along the parkway soared by 184 percent between 1990 and 2010, spurring a new form of displacement.
The Black population plummeted from 73 percent of residents along the parkway route to 45 percent. Despite an increase of Latino residents and the building of some affordable housing, the white population has more than doubled, from 7 percent in 1990 to 16 percent by 2010. The study authors concluded that for Black residents, the effects of the parkway were “similar to freeway removal and tunneling. To ensure existing residents benefit from the air pollution reductions caused by freeway rerouting, affordable housing and other anti-displacement strategies, such as inclusionary zoning and renter protections, should be instituted.”
A multiracial coalition in Rochester, New York, is trying to avoid displacement in a proposed removing of a section of Inner Loop highway that isolated predominantly Black and Latino Marketview Heights from predominantly white Grove Place. One organizer, Shawn Dunwoody, told The New York Times that many residents fear people “bringing in yoga studios and coffee shops to move us out. People don’t want to get gentrified, get pushed out, get priced out.” An earlier phase of the loop removal and replacement brought in several high-end housing developments.
Even if pieces of highway do get replaced with livable space, it should not be forgotten how Black and Latino people will likely continue to live with the pollution, unless a much broader program of environmental justice takes root.
In Chicago’s heavily Latino and Black Little Village neighborhood, for example, residents fought for years to get a coal-fired power plant closed, only to see the land repurposed, against the community’s wishes, into a massive Target distribution center. Implosion of the 400-foot-tall coal plant smokestack last year sent massive plumes of dust into the community. And now community activists are concerned that diesel exhaust from trucks will billow from the distribution center.
Little Village sits just above Interstate 55. “We may not have a highway running right through our community, but we’re still a sacrifice zone,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “Our proximity to highways and these industrial corridors still robs us of our ability to create walkable spaces and culturally appropriate spaces … we’re still disposable people.”
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Pulitzer-finalist journalist and in 2021 was the recipient of the Scripps-Howard opinion writing award and the Gold Award for Teen Nonfiction for The Puffin Plan in the Benjamin Franklin Awards of the Independent Book Publishers Association.
First published in American Prospect. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.
With the Historic Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church at foreground left, Interstate 244 cuts through the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. SUE OGROCKI/AP PHOTO