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Decades of Highway Construction and Community Destruction

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“These areas were then typically rebuilt,” he continues, “as high-rise towers set in massive ‘superblocks,’ or maybe worse, remained vacant for decades. Urban renewal helped rid the cities of some of their worst slums, but the ‘federal bulldozer’ also leveled many close-knit neighborhoods. The superblocks invariably lacked the vibrant streetlife of the older districts, and the high-rise towers proved to be especially ill-suited to meet the needs of poor families living in public housing.”

Adds Freeman: “Many local redevelopment agencies used ”urban renewal’ as ”Negro removal’ clearing away African-American neighborhoods close to downtown and concentrating public housing in hypersegregated ghettos.”

With “federal bulldozers” clearing neighborhoods for highways, civil rights activists protested the building of — as stated by the Emergency Coalition on the Transportation Crisis, a multiracial collective of  Washington, D.C., residents — “white men’s roads through black men’s bedrooms.”

Back to the Future

In April 2021, while discussing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act later signed into law by President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg publicly stated what urban planners, sociologists and many local leaders have long understood.

“There is racism physically built into some of our highways, and that’s why the ‘jobs plan’ has specifically committed to reconnect some of the communities that were divided,” he told TheGrio, a digital media network focused on Black news and culture.

As one proof point, Buttigieg spoke about urban planner Robert Moses, who for more than four decades, starting in the 1920s, oversaw the design and construction of roadways, bridges, parks and housing projects throughout New York City and several neighboring counties. Moses’ projects are estimated to have displaced at least 250,000 Black and Latino residents and directed heavily polluting traffic through their neighborhoods.

By building highways through the city rather than around it, Moses leveled neighborhoods he deemed to be slums. Among his many simultaneously held positions was the chairman of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee. (Aside from the lasting impact of his projects, Moses continues to be a presence today due to both The Power Broker, the still-popular 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of him by historian Robert Caro, and the off-Broadway play Straight Line Crazy, starring acclaimed actor Ralph Fiennes.) 

But even before the 1956 highway act and the resulting “urban renewal” projects embraced by local leaders and influencers, race played a factor in determining where roads were built, or not.

Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, points to the Federal Housing Administration (established in 1934 and a precursor to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) as an integral player in the encouragement and promotion of segregationist practices. In an arcane document called the Underwriting Manual, the FHA stated, “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.” The manual goes on to recommend using highways to separate white and Black communities.

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