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Reply #166: Racism, the Interstate Highway System, and Urban Renewal [View All]

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Brewman_Jax Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Jan-23-09 04:06 PM
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166. Racism, the Interstate Highway System, and Urban Renewal
In the light of the 50th Anniversary of the Interstate Highway Program, there are some historical facts that have been left out. There's no question that the Interstate Highways have been a boon to commerce and economic growth, but, the cost of that has been overlooked. Especially, because racism has caused the greatest cost to be paid by those that benefitted the least.

In Racial Zoning to Community Empowerment, Charles Connerly traces how the city of Birmingham, Alabama used zoning laws, slum clearance, segregated housing projects, urban renewal, and particularly the design and development of interstate highways were used to segregate black residents from whites. The neighborhoods that lost the greatest populations were all black and all had interstate and federal highway projects running through them. In East Birmingham, highway planners actually made a stretch of highway less safe for drivers by routing it through a black neighborhood - a routing that would require an unexpected decrease in car velocity and potentially cause accidents. Complaints from residents of other black neighborhoods like College Hills fell on deaf ears. Looking at this in 2008, it seems obvious that city officials and city planners worked together to disenfranchise and ultimately destroy black neighborhoods. Highways were constructed in this city to re-enforce pre-existing racial boundaries. It seems so much more subtle (and therefore hard to challenge) than outright, unabashed racism. The creation of Interstate 59 through the Tuxedo neighborhood was one of the more frustrating examples of this because the justification was tearing it down (under the 1949 Housing Act) was that it was "blighted." Similarly, Gans' account of West End residents in Boston, though they were Italian or of other European ancestry, faced developers and planners that were unwilling to listen to working-class, "ethnic," city residents. Though Gans actively tries not to romanticize the reality of West End residents, I felt it was such a shame that this part of Boston history was destroyed in an attempt to "beautify" an area. Though the residents never successfully organized on their own behalf - nor did they cultivate an effective representative from their communities, it is obvious in their accounts that the West End was a community where the residents felt kinship between themselves.

In Detroit, as in the nation, federally-funded highway construction (and later expansion and maintenance projects) dwarfed public works projects of the past. Buses and trolleys languished, expressway construction boomed, particularly after the passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. Huge swaths of city were demolished to make way for expressways--and as was the case with so many urban redevelopment projects, black working-class neighborhoods were most heavily impacted. The Chrysler Freeway blasted through the heart of Paradise Valley, replacing Hastings Street, one of black Detroit's main shopping and entertainment districts. The Lodge and Ford Freeways cut through the city's most established black west side neighborhoods. By the end of the 1960s, it was possible to pass through vast sections of the city at sixty or seventy miles per hour on submerged, limited access highways.

It was a story repeated throughout the U.S. during this time: by the mid-1960s, interstate construction in urban areas was destroying roughly 37,000 residences annually; this, in addition to the 40,000 more that were being torn down each year in the name of "urban renewal," which translated into the building of shopping malls, office parks and parking lots. By 1969, nearly 70,000 homes, mostly occupied by blacks and Latinos, were being destroyed for the interstate program alone, in virtually every medium and large city in the country.

As Tim Wise notes, the reasons for "urban renewal" using the Interstate Highway construction was far more blatant than simply access to the city from the suburbs. Indeed, displacement was no coincidence or mere unintended consequence of the highway program. To the contrary, it was foreseen and accepted as a legitimate cost of progress. In 1965, for example, a Congressional Committee acknowledged that the highway system was likely to displace a million people before it was finished. This displacement was not only expected, but indeed it was championed as a way to "clear out" black and brown ghettos. The American Road Builders Association a lobby with obvious interests in the creation of tens of thousands of miles of interstates praised the construction as a way to eliminate "slum and deteriorated areas," thereby countering the "threat posed by slum housing to the public health, safety, morals and welfare of the nation." One federal official even admitted in 1972 that the interstate program was seen as a good way to "get rid of the local niggertown."

The destruction of urban residential space prompted citizen protests, also known as "highway revolts", across the nation: in the South (Miami, Montgomery, Columbia, Birmingham, Charlotte, Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Atlanta, in addition to Nashville), the North (South Bronx, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Camden, NJ), the Midwest (Kansas City, St. Paul, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Chicago), and the West (Los Angeles, Pasadena, and Seattle). In fact, opposition to many of the proposed interstate routes forced the government to pass new regulation in the late 60s, ostensibly ensuring relocation assistance or new housing construction to replace units destroyed: a promise that would go largely unfulfilled in each and every community affected.

But there was a problem for those persons being cleared out: due to racial discrimination in suburban and outlying areas, persons of color displaced in this fashion had nowhere to turn for housing. Certainly the white builders, developers, and others who supported the destruction of so-called slums, weren't thinking of challenging the blatant racism in lending or zoning that was keeping their suburban spaces all-white. In fact, at the same time black and brown housing was being destroyed, millions of white families were procuring government guaranteed and subsidized loans (through the FHA and VA loan programs), that were almost entirely off-limits to people of color. So, ironically, the government was reducing the housing stock for people of color at the same time it was deliberately expanding it for whites: and, in fact, since the interstate program made "white flight" easier and cheaper than ever before, it can even be said that white middle-class housing access was made possible because of the destruction of housing for African American and Latino communities.

So rather than eliminate slums, the interstate program facilitated their worsening causing black and brown neighborhoods to become even more cut off from the rest of their respective cities, as highways cut through the hearts of their communities, negatively effecting commerce in the place where it was needed most. Their deterioration was assured due to red-lining and other racist policies.

In New Orleans, for example and take note of it, all those who thought Katrina's displacement of black folks was unique, or who have chosen to blame the black community there for the condition of its neighborhoods the I-10 sliced and diced through the main artery of two of the city's largest black communities: the Trem and the Seventh Ward.

The Trem--the oldest free black community in the United States was (still is) bordered on one side by Claiborne Avenue, above which the I-10 would be constructed. The Claiborne corridor was home to as many as 200 black-owned businesses in its day, and included a wide median (known to locals as a "neutral ground"), lined with huge oak trees and plenty of space for recreation, community picnics, family gatherings and cultural events. Once completed, the I-10 had destroyed what was, for all intent and purposes, a public park 6,100 feet long and 100 feet wide, along with hundreds of business and homes. In the Seventh Ward, home to the city's old-line Creole community, residents saw the same kind of devastation, also from the construction of the I-10 along Claiborne, including the virtual elimination of what was once the nation's most prosperous black business district. I've seen that area personally, before Hurricane Katrina. One can see the pilings of the elevated I-10 highway and easily imagine what could have been there before the highway, and see the sad conditions of the aftermath.
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