Recent events in cities such as Ferguson, Baltimore and New York have led to calls for a new national dialogue about race, class, criminal justice and opportunity. I do agree that we need a dialogue, but I also believe this dialogue should be rooted in action that seeks to turn the page on our history. One way we can start is by understanding and undoing mistakes that were made while designing our transportation system.
Interstate 77 near Interstate 85 in Charlotte, NC. Photo courtesy Flickr user Jon Dawson.
Some of these mistakes go back six decades to when we started building our nation’s interstate highway system. President Eisenhower’s goal was to build what would ultimately become a more than 40,000-mile network. The idea itself was not new. What was new, with Congress’ support of Eisenhower’s plan, was a federal government willing to cover 90 percent of the construction costs.
From the perspective of state and local governments, if there was a highway plan – even a crosstown expressway that would have to be routed through high-density urban neighborhoods – there was no thinking twice. It went forward. Years later, reflecting on this era, one Baltimore journalist would write, “With such mouthwatering subsidies, it was hardly worth not building” them.
The side effect of building highways like this was the destruction and dislocation of many well-established African-American neighborhoods. At this time, in the 1950s, urban African-American neighborhoods were adding new residents precisely as the automobile boom was pulling the majority of Americans out to the suburbs. White urban planners, reacting to this, would see new expressways as a way to bring people back into central business districts. How would they do it? They did it by choosing routes through black and poor communities where they knew public resistance would be the least problematic. They did it by relying on the use of eminent domain to power their plans forward.
From 1957 to 1972 up to 35,000 families were displaced by highway construction annually, and a disproportionate number of those displaced were low-income and minority families. What is more, planners did not even typically view the razing of communities as an unfortunate downside of these projects. The words of planners, as well as famous highway proponents and builders, reveal instead that it was intentional. Our highway system is indeed a relic of a time when Jim Crow was the law of the land.
Describing what would become a symbiotic relationship between highway building and what planners called “urban renewal” or “slum clearance” programs, Thomas MacDonald, the leader of the former U.S. Bureau of Public of Roads, once described the destruction caused by urban expressways as a “happy circumstance” that allowed some neighborhoods to be “converted to a public asset.” Then there was the highway designer Robert Moses. Speaking of the African-American neighborhoods that would be eliminated by a proposed East-West Expressway in Baltimore, Moses, like MacDonald, would not mince words. The more neighborhoods that are “wiped out,” Moses said, “the healthier Baltimore will be in the long run.”
The scars of these highway designs are still visible.
The scars of these highway designs are still visible. The Staten Island neighborhood called Tompkinsville, where Eric Garner died after police put him in a chokehold, was once a prosperous neighborhood. But in the 1960s, Moses’ Staten Island Expressway was built right through Tompkinsville and the community was subsequently set apart from Staten Island’s mainstream economy. For many commuters, the Staten Island Expressway provides a vital link to Manhattan, but residents who live near it have a different perspective. They call the Expressway the “Mason-Dixon line.”
Syracuse, New York, in turn, has what residents call its “Berlin Wall,” which is none other than a short stretch of Interstate 81. Built in the 1960s, the expressway was routed through Syracuse’s 15th Ward, the heart of the black community, which was already being cleared for urban renewal. As the expressway cut through the community, it created a dead zone in which residents lacked even a grocery store. The expressway continues to separate the city racially and economically.
Even today, very few high-income areas are surrounded by freeways. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, I remember looking through the front window of my grandparents’ house, where I was raised, and seeing a pair of large fences two blocks away. Straight ahead of me was I-85; I-77 was to the right. To the thousands of drivers passing by every day, that stretch of road was just another mile on the journey. To me, those fences blocked any connection to the outside world. I was fenced in. There was one way into the neighborhood and one way out.
We were the kind of family whose car’s fuel tank rarely reached full. My grandfather would use his pocket change to fill the tank and drive until the gauge ran just below empty again. Sometimes he got gas twice in a day as a result. My view out the window was another reminder that my opportunities were limited – not only financially, but physically.
Transportation should encourage upward mobility.
My one way out was education. I remain grateful that the opportunities I had ultimately carried me past those fences. But transportation should encourage upward mobility as well. In this young century – particularly as much of our infrastructure is overdue to be replaced, including that expressway in Syracuse – we are ready for an era of meaningful public input, inclusive design, and federal, state, and local government that encourages upward mobility through supportive infrastructure.
In my time as Secretary of Transportation, I have traveled more than 200,000 miles and visited more than 100 communities. The threads of a new American fabric are being woven right now. I’ve seen Columbus, Ohio redesign a highway so that it no longer divides a historically black neighborhood from the central business district. In Los Angeles, ground has been broken on a new rail line to one of the city’s poorest communities. In Detroit, where a resident tragically walks 21 miles to work because the bus system is so unreliable, the city is now receiving new buses so the system can run on time again.
But what about West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray grew up? It is well known that neighborhoods there struggle with poverty, crime and abandonment. But is it equally understood that it wasn’t always this way? Do people know that a transportation choice in many ways planted the seeds of West Baltimore’s decline? The heart of West Baltimore — and black Baltimore — used to be Harlem Park. A 1968 study in fact showed that the neighborhood was solidly middle class; it had an above-average rate of homeownership for Baltimore.
But by then residents also knew that the East-West Expressway was coming. Its route ran right through Harlem Park, and ultimately more than 1,000 families – 85 percent of them African American – would be displaced. The project was canceled before much of it was built. But the abandoned piece of highway – the “Highway to Nowhere” – remains, and, all these years later, plans to heal this wound have never reached fruition. Perhaps the most restorative plan ever proposed, the Red Line, an east-west mass transit line, would have used the abandoned highway right-of-way to reconnect West Baltimore – where more than half of residents lack vehicle access – to the rest of the city. But the project was canceled this year by Governor Larry Hogan, who called the project a “wasteful boondoggle.”
Turning the page will require us to realize that transportation provides more than throughput. Yes, we can right the wrongs of the past and begin a new era of connecting millions of Americans to the 21st century global economy. It will require better design, more effective public input processes, public officials with good listening skills, resources and a willingness to think beyond simple “winners and losers.” Piece-by-piece, we can reinvent our transportation network to show the world and future civilizations that America values all of her people.