The Racist Legacy of America’s Inner-City Highways

Yes, we've got to talk about this damnable road again.
Yes, we’ve got to talk about this damnable road again.

There’s an article on Vox today that offers a concise summary of just how we went from being a nation of streetcar riders to a nation of long-haul auto commuters. It’s a familiar story to anyone who knows the history of urbanism in the 20th century. First came pressure from the auto industry to build new roads for their cars, resulting in a push for public funding of “freeways.” Then came the vision of a future America modeled after the modernist Utopian dream so compellingly depicted in General Motor’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.

With public sentiment favoring a world made easy by zipping to and from suburban homes and downtown offices on ribbons of concrete — and a booming post-war economy that made car ownership more possible — President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, kick-starting the interstate system. Eisenhower didn’t want the highways to extend into the cities, but once he signed the federal legislation, the highway engineers took over. There was no turning back.

In America’s cities, highways became more than a transportation amenity. The engineers designing the road networks saw their potential as tools of so-called “urban renewal,” code for the large-scale implementation of a policy of displacement, demolition, and economic disenfranchisement. Poor, often racially segregated neighborhoods were leveled to make way for the new roads:

“The idea was ‘let’s get rid of the blight,'” says [Joseph] DiMento [law professor and author of Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways]. “And places that we’d now see as interesting, multi-ethnic areas were viewed as blight.” Highways were a tool for justifying the destruction of many of these areas.

The new freeways also isolated many other neighborhoods, ushering in their demise. Combined with federal housing bills that paid developers to tear down existing housing stock and replace it with high-rises, they resulted in the continued decimation of huge swaths of many cities.

“Many neighborhoods, predominantly black, were wiped out and turned into surface parking and highways,” Norton says, noting Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit, historical neighborhoods that were torn down to make way for I-375.

In Dallas, things were no different. The easiest way to find some of the locations of Dallas’ original Freedman’s Towns is to trace the path of the highways. This wasn’t a passive, accidental kind of racism either; some of the most powerful planners in America were forthright about their intention to use their power as transportation engineers to rewire a society built on racial and economic segregation.

Biographer Robert Caro spoke about this in a recent interview about the sustained impact of mid-century planning on New York City, which Caro wrote about in The Power Broker, his seminal book about New York civil planner Robert Moses. Caro remembers that Robert Moses — the ur-MPO planner in whose image every measly Michael Morris is graven — did not hide the fact that he was driven by a racist vision of a segregated society:

His racism—he was the most racist human being I had ever really encountered. I still remember him, he had this gesture. When I interviewed him he was already 78 or 79, but he had immense physical power, and this gesture, which I can’t even really do. [Caro loudly slams his open palm down on his desk.]

He took some call, and he hung up the call, and he just—[Caro slams his palm down again.] The quote is somewhere in there, but he says, “They expect me to build playgrounds for that scum floating up from Puerto Rico.” I couldn’t believe it. He had no apology at all.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that someone like Michael Morris can — and has — spoken about highways as agents of social, economic, or racial equality. During the debate over tearing down Interstate 345, which cuts off the eastern edge of downtown Dallas from Deep Ellum and East Dallas, Morris and others argued that eliminating it will place an undo burden on commuters from the predominately African-American communities in the southern part of Dallas County who are forced to drive to job centers in the north.

Such a view ignores the fact that the NCTCOG’s sustained regional planning strategy only serves to ensure that jobs and economic opportunity continue to migrate farther and farther from these very citizens. As I wrote Wednesday, one of the side effects of the recent DFW economic boom is that it is helping to ensconce the economic center of the region miles north of downtown. It is an economic migration underwritten by the billions in public funds that have been invested over the course of 70 years in transportation infrastructure designed to drive development northwards. Because of the region’s economic success, those who are are already forced to endure long commutes for work will live in ever more isolated communities.

In other words, the work of using transportation infrastructure to divide and disenfranchise parts of our city is not finished. Building roads through communities was just the first step. We then figured out how to move the entire city away from those neighborhoods as well.

 

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