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Highways, Teardowns and Racial Justice

Road reformers want to demolish aging center-city freeways to make up for old racial harms. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it may be an effective argument.

Cars in traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a much-used, much-hated highway that cuts through a number of rich and poor New York neighborhoods.
(Sujatha Vempaty/Shutterstock)
In 1956, after several years of wrangling, President Eisenhower signed the bill that created the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. While there was some validity to including “Defense” in the title — armies do use highways — it was mostly salesmanship, and it worked.

Now we are talking about plans to shrink, deck over or tear down some of those highways, the ones that plowed through the middle of cities. And we are seeing another piece of effective salesmanship. The Biden administration, led by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, is pursuing the removal of these roads in the name of racial justice. While nothing has been funded yet, President Biden in April called for $20 billion to be spent on such projects.

“Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources,” Buttigieg succinctly tweeted. “In the Biden-Harris administration, we will make righting these wrongs an imperative.”

I support removing some of these aging and obsolete freeways. Still, the assertion that dismantling them now strikes a blow for current racial justice is mostly an argument meant to generate political support and passion, rather than a description of reality. It may be a successful argument, nonetheless.

I don’t want to diminish what occurred. Highways, as well as many other urban renewal projects, plowed through scores of Black neighborhoods in dozens of cities, destroying thousands of homes. These projects were unfair and racist in intent and effect.

But the people whose homes were destroyed are long gone, and the overall feel of the neighborhoods, if they survived at all, has usually changed.

Neighborhoods do not remain the same in their ethnic, racial or socioeconomic makeup, especially over half a century. Insisting otherwise is like trying to fix the water in a flowing river. People move on. There are a few legacy inhabitants of the neighborhoods ravaged by interstate highway construction in the mid-20th century, but they are very few.

There are some neighborhoods that have clear continuity to what came before. The Claiborne Expressway, which cuts through the once mostly Black Treme area in New Orleans, is a candidate for demolition. But the neighborhood is getting richer and whiter all the time, and will continue to do so with or without the removal of a highway. It would still be a great idea to remove the Claiborne Expressway, which would allow the Treme area to blossom even further. But it would also be a good idea to regulate the growth so it’s fair and equitable, although those aren’t easy values to carry out.

The fact is that the neighborhoods leveled by interstates were not all African American, not even most of them. Plenty of examples come to mind.
In New York, master builder Robert Moses drove the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) right through the middle of Bay Ridge and several other Brooklyn neighborhoods, including a spur through the southern section of Park Slope where I live now. It’s a giant trench filled with speeding cars that ought to be decked over, with streets and homes built on top. But my neighborhood and others nearby have been mostly white for decades. To complicate the story further, I suspect these neighborhoods actively discouraged Blacks from moving there in the 1950s. This didn’t stop Moses from putting highways through them. A highway through your neighborhood indicated first and foremost a lack of political power, and that was true about working-class areas of all colors, although it certainly affected Black areas disproportionately.

The BQE depressed property values and development in this part of Brooklyn for a long time. That’s not a problem now. Townhouses that practically perch on the BQE go for more than a million dollars, despite the road’s noise and fumes. But that doesn’t make up for the physical and social damage that the highway construction did. It was an injustice; just not a racial injustice.

If there is to be new development after a highway is removed, it ought to proceed in a fair manner to people of all races, says Norman Garrick, a professor of urban planning and civil engineering at the University of Connecticut. Garrick, who is Black, did not quite understand the emphasis on making racial amends when he first got involved with highway debates 15 years ago. But then he began to see it as a useful political tool for framing the issue.

“In the early days, this component of racial justice was definitely secondary to the recognition that freeways did such damage to urban places, as well as causing environmental damage and encouraging sprawl,” Garrick says. “The racial part was a background story.” Not any more.

John Norquist, who as mayor of Milwaukee in the 1990s successfully demolished a downtown freeway, developed the racial argument when he took over the Congress for the New Urbanism in 2004. “It slowly dawned on me the political genius of what he was trying to do,” Garrick says.

Garrick has a point. Certainly, we should remember the sins of the past to avoid repeating them.

But it’s also important to keep our eyes on the present-day specifics, and wrapping the whole effort in a gauze of virtue complicates that. If we get the details wrong, we’re likely to commit new mistakes as bad as the old ones.

On land reclaimed from highways, cities should rebuild new versions of the streets and homes that were torn out. This will reconnect neighborhoods as well as increase property value, bringing in people and business that will hopefully pay for the cost of removing the highways. This is a matter of good planning sense, not necessarily racial reparation.

So yes to tearing down highways. And yes to thoughtful, fair rebuilding in their wake. It might not be entirely accurate to tack “racial justice” to the cause, but I won’t complain too loudly if it helps.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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