When Congress approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, it authorized what was then the largest public works program in U.S. history. The law promised to build 41,000 miles of an ambitious interstate highway system that would crisscross the country, dramatically expanding America’s highways and connecting 42 state capitals and 90% of all U.S. cities with populations over 50,000. . President Dwight Eisenhower called the massive infrastructure project “essential to the national interest”.
But the expansion of the freeway, implemented largely between the late 1950s and early 1970s, came at a cost to urban communities of color in the United States.
According to estimates by the US Department of Transportation, more than 475,000 households and more than one million people have been displaced nationwide as a result of the construction of the federal highway. Gigantic freeways cut through neighborhoods, darkening and disrupting the pedestrian landscape, deteriorating air quality and torpedoing property values. Communities have lost churches, green spaces and entire sections of houses. They also lost small businesses that provided jobs and circulated money locally – crucial middle-class anchors in areas already struggling with racist zoning policies, divestment and flight. White.
Neighborhoods destroyed and families uprooted by road projects were largely black and poor, New York University law professor Deborah N. Archer wrote in her article “White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes: Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruction. And it was on purpose, she noted. Policymakers and planners viewed the construction of highways as a practical way to raze neighborhoods considered unwanted or dilapidated. And they deployed the massive pieces of infrastructure – multi-lane platforms, concrete walls, ramps and viaducts – as tools of segregation, physical buffers to isolate communities of color. Almost no large city with a significant minority population has been spared by the legislation: New York, Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Nashville, Baltimore, Atlanta, and more. “By the time the interstate highway system was completed …” wrote Archer, “he had fundamentally restructured urban America.”
READ MORE: The epic road trip that inspired the interstate highway system
Robert Moses: “Go through towns and don’t go around them”
One of the most influential post-WWII city planners was New York City’s “construction coordinator” Robert Moses, who oversaw all public works projects in the nation’s largest metropolis. , including an astonishing array of its roads, bridges, tunnels, housing projects and parks. Not only was Moses arguably the most powerful unelected public servant in state history, his influence on federal highway policy extended far beyond New York. He was one of the main proponents of the idea that the best way to eradicate the supposed slums where blacks lived was to build highways through them.
“Our categorical imperative is to act to eliminate the slums,” Moïse said in a 1959 speech. “We cannot let minorities dictate that this century-old chore will be pushed back to another generation or ultimately abandoned.” Moses, who was also chairman of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee, said freeway construction must “go through cities, not around them.” Two of the city’s main arteries he created, the Cross-Bronx and Brooklyn-Queens freeways, did just that, running through the heart of the Bronx and Red Hook neighborhoods.
The Federal Highways Act of 1956 followed this strategy, offering to pay 90% of the cost of new state roads, with the caveat that they agree to build them in all major cities to connect emerging suburbs with city centers. cities where commuters worked and shopped. . According to Archer, road engineers have come to think of “killing two birds with one stone” to “improve traffic conditions and eliminate unwanted populations.”
WATCH: Full Episodes of “The Engineering That Built the World” online now and tune in for brand new episodes Sundays at 9 / 8c.
The black neighborhoods have been decimated
In the first half of the 20th century, the culturally vibrant black community of Overtown in Miami was widely regarded as the “Harlem of the South” and “Little Broadway”. But after the passage of the 1956 Freeway Bill, the expansion of I-95 through Miami resulted in the destruction of 87 acres of housing and commercial property in the community. According to Richard Rothstein The Color of the Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Parted America, only 8,000 of an estimated population of 40,000 remained in Overtown after the freeway expansion. Blocked from moving into white neighborhoods, displaced residents were forced to crowd into neighboring neighborhoods of the city already struggling with poverty and urban decay.
Cities across the country have experienced similar devastation. Shortly after the freeway bill, the construction of an extensive highway system passed through the black neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul, Minnesota, a mixed community known for its thriving cultural life, social clubs and integrated schools. Despite resistance from the neighborhood, around 600 families lost their homes and 300 businesses were closed when I-94 divided the community.
“It wasn’t just physical, it tore a culture apart, it tore apart who we were,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz later commented. “It was a blind act that said this community didn’t matter… this convenient place to put a highway so we could go through this place and go from town to suburb.”
READ MORE: 8 Things You May Not Know About Route 66
The construction of highways reinforces segregation and accelerates “white theft”
When the highways were built, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Congress and federal courts began to ban racist housing tactics such as restrictive housing covenants that prevented black residents from buying in white neighborhoods and “redlining,” a long-standing government practice. in zoning that had denied federally insured home loans to anyone living in a designated black community.
As anxiety grew about the prospect of integrated neighborhoods, the construction of freeways offered a solution: significant physical barriers that could be used to reinforce the racial boundaries of neighborhoods. The federal government has often based highway funding on a state or city promise to use it for that purpose.
“Instead of crossing black communities, some interstate highways circled them in an attempt to contain and confine black residents and bypass constitutional prohibitions on racial zoning,” Archer wrote. “In this way, the road network was a tool of the segregationist program, becoming” a protective labyrinth of highways, moats, concrete parapets and asphalt no man’s lands “which separated white communities from black communities and protected whites. of black migration.
READ MORE: How a New Deal housing program imposed segregation
In Atlanta, according to Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse, I-20 was designed to serve as the border between black and white communities. “By razing the poor areas of the downtown area and separating the races in the western section, the leaders of Atlanta hoped to make the downtown area and its surroundings a desirable place for white middle class,” Kruse wrote. in The New York Times in 2019. But, he added, “the so-called urban renovations and new highways have only accelerated the white robbery of the city”. According to Kruse, about 60,000 whites left Atlanta for the suburbs in the 1960s and 100,000 more in the 1970s.
I-81 was built in the heart of Syracuse, New York, to destroy the 15th Ward, a black community that planners thought was too close to the city’s gems: Syracuse University and the downtown. “[I-81] decimated a tight-knit African-American community, ”wrote Alana Samuels for Atlantic. “And when the displaced residents of the 15th arrondissement moved to other neighborhoods, the white residents fled.
Moving, she wrote, had become much easier: “There was a nice new highway that helped them escape.