The Racist History of America’s Highway Boom

When President Eisenhower created the United States Interstate Highway System in 1956, transportation planners crisscrossed the nation’s urban areas with highways that, by intention and indifference, carved out black communities. Overall, during the first two decades of highway construction, more than 1 million people had lost their homes all over the country.

In Nashville, city ​​officials added a curve to Interstate 40 in 1967 to avoid a white community in favor of destroying hundreds of homes and businesses in a prominent black neighborhood. Route planners in Birmingham, Alabama, did the same when routing Interstate 59.

After Ku Klux Klan leaders and others destroyed the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Okla., a century ago in the deadliest racial massacre in the country, locals quickly rebuilt the commercial area known as “Black Wall Street”. But the neighborhood was demolished for good when Interstate 244 and US 75 were built through its center in 1971.

In several places, the east-west path of Interstate 10 through Los Angeles County engulfed distinct black and Latino neighborhoods.

In Boyle Heights, freeways, including the 135-acre East Los Angeles Interchange – one of the busiest in the country, where Interstates 5 and 10, US 101 and State Route 60 meet – expelled at least 10,000 people in what was a Mexican, multi-ethnic community in the 1950s and 1960s. In South Los Angeles, an affluent black neighborhood called Sugar Hill was bulldozed. Then, to build the Interstate 10 terminus on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, the engineers razed the Pico district, forcing pockets of the city’s black, Mexican and Japanese residents to leave.

All of this happened not only because of explicitly racist decision-making, but also because of how race influenced national housing and economic policy at the time, Eric said. Avila, professor of history and Chicano studies at UCLA and author of several books on urban freeways. .

The freeway program worked in concert with contemporary urban renewal efforts, which sought to remove housing and businesses deemed substandard and replace them with new developments and easy transport routes for new commuters.

But these new suburban residents were almost entirely white. Discriminatory housing practices and low-interest loans given only to white residents prevented others from moving to new housing estates. By contrast, highway builders often defended property in black neighborhoods by arguing that land there was the cheapest — a fact that was backed by government-backed mortgage redlining policies that discouraged investment in neighborhoods. black areas.

“Black neighborhoods were seen as scourges. They were considered slums,” Avila said. “The dominant perspective at the time was to eradicate the scourge, to get rid of the slums. These neighborhoods have simply been wiped out without any effort to repair the damage that has been done.

Another reason highways ran through black and Latino neighborhoods was political power. As widespread reaction to freeway construction grew in the late 1960s, white communities were often able to block roads or reroute them.

In Southern California, highways that paved black and Latino neighborhoods — such as Highways 5, 10 and 110 — have been completed, while those proposed to pass through whiter, wealthier areas in Reseda, Laurel Canyon and Beverly Hills have been arrested.

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