Decades of Highway Construction and Community Destruction
America's interstate highway system was created by bulldozing through thousands of homes, businesses and neighborhoods. The impact of those losses continues to this day
Deemed “essential to the national interest” by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States’ interstate highway system became the largest public works program in American history following the passage in 1956 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act.
"According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 475,000 households and more than a million people were displaced nationwide because of the federal roadway construction. Hulking highways cut through neighborhoods, darkened and disrupted the pedestrian landscape, worsened air quality and torpedoed property values. Communities lost churches, green space and whole swaths of homes. They also lost small businesses that provided jobs and kept money circulating locally — crucial middle-class footholds in areas already struggling from racist zoning policies, disinvestment and white flight."
— How Interstate Highways Gutted Communities — and Reinforced Segregation, History.com (October 20, 2021)
Over the next two decades, more than 40,000 miles of roadways were built to connect nearly every state capital and nearly every city with more than 50,000 people. The act provided funds to states for building through major urban areas with the stated goal of alleviating traffic and better connecting the suburbs with jobs and commercial activity in city downtowns. By connecting what until then was a nation of largely disconnected and distinct places and spaces, America’s highways provided opportunities for citizens to improve their lives economically and more easily travel to points near and far.
The nation’s pursuit of cross-country connectivity held both promise and peril for Americans of color. In much of the country and especially in the South, Black and other nonwhite travelers were routinely subjected to discriminatory law enforcement practices, so much so that the hazards of taking to the road necessitated the creation in 1936 of the Negro Motorist Green Book, commonly known as the “Green Book,” which for several decades served as an essential guidebook for identifying “Sundown towns” (places where people of color were both de facto and legally prohibited from staying overnight) as well as relatively safe places for dining, lodging, sightseeing and restroom breaks.
Yet the greatest challenge to transportation and community equity largely rests in the conception and design of the highway system itself. The not-so-secret truth about the planning and decision-making done in the mid-20th century was the intentionally disparate impact of highway and bridge construction on less affluent and under-empowered neighborhoods, particularly those with predominantly Black, Latino and non-white immigrant populations.
"Slum-Clearance," "Urban Renewal" and "Federal Bulldozers"
The affected communities were rarely consulted before a development project impacting their fate broke ground.
As explained in Public Roads, a magazine published by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, cities were seen as being, in the words of a 1939 federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) report, "occupied by the humblest citizens, they fringe the business district and form the city's slums — a blight near its very core!" The planning efforts undertaken in response to the automobile boom and the promise of "urban renewal," touted the "slum-clearance" benefits of highway construction.
"My grandfather, Melvin Carter Sr., owned over a half-dozen properties in our historic Rondo neighborhood, which was destroyed to build the freeway. That freeway cost my family everything."
— Melvin Carter III, mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota, to AARP Livable Communities in 2018
(Learn more about Rondo by reading the "Before the Highway" interview with resident Marvin Anderson.)
Interegional Highways, a BPR report released in 1944, stated that the government would "facilitate the transition financing of the rehabilitation of blighted areas, to employ its powers of eminent domain in the public interest, and to fix the standards of redevelopment.... for adjacent housing, airport, park, or other public developments which the highways will be designed to serve in part."
The public officials, planners and engineers, the magazine notes, "did not address how displaced families and businesses would move on with their lives."
The people who lost their homes and properties through eminent domain were compensated, but minimally. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy submitted legislation "to authorize payments not to exceed $200 in the case of individuals and families and $3,000 in the case of business concerns or nonprofit organizations displaced as a result of land acquisitions under these programs."
According to Savings.org, $200 in 1962 is equivalent to about $1,859 in 2022 dollars. During those same six decades, $3,000 became $27,880.
Stuck and Surrounded
People who couldn't leave the area entirely had to find housing and work and rebuild their lives in whatever remained of their neighborhoods.
Because the construction and resulting high-speed, multilane highways often isolated the communities from economically thriving areas, the new roads and bridges became reinforcements for segregation and the practice of "redlining" minority neighborhoods as ineligible for home mortgage financing. The sociocultural cohesion of shared spaces, arts, education and faith-based institutions was torn apart. People became intergenerationally exposed to profound health risks through environmental pollutants.
In "The American Metropolis at Century's End: Past and Future Influences," an article published in 2000 by the Fannie Mae Foundation, historian Robert Fishman explains that the Housing Act of 1949 "funded large-scale clearances of 'blighted' urban areas."
"In a study of the impact of Interstates on cities, Professor Raymond A. Mohl of the University of Alabama at Birmingham explained how officials in one city rejected using an abandoned railroad corridor in favor of routing an Interstate through an inner-city community of African-Americans, wiping out housing in another along with the cultural and commercial heart of the community. In a northern city, an elevated freeway was used to separate a black public housing project from white ethnic neighborhoods. Elsewhere, historic preservationists blocked destruction of a historic district while routing an elevated Interstate through "a devastated black community, a concrete jungle left in the shadows by a massive elevated highway." Professor Mohl cited similar examples in many other cities.... Professor Mohl concluded that the 'forced relocation of blacks from central-city areas triggered a massive spatial reorganization of urban residential space.... The expressway building of the 1950s and 1960s, then, ultimately helped produce the much larger, more spatially isolated, and more intensely segregated second ghettos characteristic of the late twentieth century.'"
— Public Roads, Federal Highway Administration (May - June 2006)
"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.
"Too often, past transportation investments divided communities — like the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans or I-81 in Syracuse — or it left out the people most in need of affordable transportation options. In particular, significant portions of the interstate highway system were built through Black neighborhoods. The deal creates a first-ever program to reconnect communities divided by transportation infrastructure. The program will fund planning, design, demolition, and reconstruction of street grids, parks, or other infrastructure through $1 billion of dedicated funding."
— The White House, "Fact Sheet: Historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal" (July 28, 2021)
Anthony Foxx, a North Carolina native and the secretary of Transportation during President Barack Obama’s second term, experienced the impact of racially biased highway construction while growing up in a Black neighborhood cordoned off by two interstate highways.
"I didn't realize it as a kid," Foxx recalled in a 2016 NPR interview. "I didn't think about it as economic barriers, psychological barriers, but they were, and the choices of where that infrastructure was placed in my community as it turns out weren't unique to Charlotte."
Another commonality among the communities with highways running through them are the dangers faced by pedestrians. As noted in Smart Growth America's "Dangerous by Design" report for 2022, people of color are overrepresented in the percentage of pedestrian deaths in the U.S., despite making up a smaller proportion of the overall population.
"Although people of all ages, races, income levels, and abilities are affected by dangerous street design, certain populations bear the brunt of the burden," states the report on page 33. "People of color, low-income residents, and older adults are much more likely to die while walking, and the many people who exist at the intersections of these identities are even more vulnerable. Decades of structural racism have included prioritizing travel to and from wealthier, whiter communities, forced displacement, disinvestment or neglect, a focus on building new rather than repair, and spending a greater share of transportation dollars elsewhere. The results have been a greater share of poorly designed streets that lack even the most basic pedestrian safety features like crosswalks, signals, and refuges, and are frequently divided by wide, highspeed roads that create life-threatening conflicts for people walking.”
Repair and Reconnections
The Biden administration, and notably the Department of Transportation, has made it a priority to both repair and improve the nation’s transportation and community infrastructure while also addressing the legacy of the federal highway system’s impact on communities whose progress was stunted or outright destroyed.
Within the infrastructure and jobs legislation passed by the 117th Congress and signed by Biden is the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program, which designates that $1 billion must go to communities unfairly burdened by highway development. Some of the money will go toward remediation, and that work is already happening in nearly two dozen cities, including Denver, Colorado; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Long Beach, California; Detroit, Michigan; and Rochester, New York. (See the “Before the Highway” interviews with two Rochester residents.)
With the Federal-Aid Highway Act nearing its 70th anniversary, fewer and fewer women and men remain who have experienced life in their neighborhoods “before the highway.” Follow the links below to hear and learn from seven residents — ranging in age from 58 to 80-plus — who remember what happened and know what they, their families and their communities lost.
Jimmie Briggs is a documentary storyteller, writer and advocate for racial and gender equity. He is the co-founder and executive director emeritus of Man Up Campaign, a global initiative to activate youth to stop violence against women and girls, and the author of Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go To War (Basic Books, 2005). A native Missourian, his next book is an oral history of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the 2014 police killing of teenager Michael Brown Jr. Briggs’s articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Huffington Post, and The Root, among other publications.
Melissa Stanton, is a senior advisor at AARP and the editor of AARP.org/Livable and the AARP Livable Communities initiative's print publications and weekly e-newsletter. She is the author of two books (one about parenting, the other a chlidren's picture book) and has written for the New York Times, The Atlantic and People, among other publications. She and Jimmie Briggs worked together many years ago when she was an editor and he a reporter at Time Inc. magazines.
Page published February 1, 2023
More 'Before the Highway' articles
Visit the "Before the Highway" landing page for interviews with impacted communities in Florida, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas.
See the "Before the Highway: Learn More" page for links to articles, videos, histories and more about the communities impacted by the interstate highway system.
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