“One of the biggest monuments to racism in America is the urban highway system:” What It Looks Like to Reconnect Black and Brown Communities Torn Apart by Highways

Billions of dollars in widening and extension plans are underway in Austin, San Antonio, Shreveport, Tampa, Portland, Cincinnati, Madison, Denver and beyond as roads reach obsolescence and populations increase. The scale and volume of these new projects underscore the challenge for voices calling for a different kind of urban future in St. Paul, New Orleans, Miami and Houston. They are a reminder of why some neighbors are unconvinced by, and even suspicious that “reconnection projects” would benefit them, when the original projects did not. That is why many groups are calling for policies such as land trusts, affordable housing funds, or programs to support Black and immigrant-owned businesses in conjunction with highway revision plans. In most places, it is not only the physical infrastructure that needs repair, but also the social and economic fabric.

By Rachael DottleLaura Bliss and Pablo Robles July 28, 2021, Bloomberg

Take any major American city and you’re likely to find a historically Black or immigrant neighborhood demolished, gashed in two, or cut off from the rest of the city by a highway. This legacy of racist federal transportation policies continues to define the landscapes of urban spaces.

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Proposed land bridge location

SELBY AVE.This map shows the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. In the first half of the 20th century it was home to most of St. Paul’s African American residents. Bounded by University Avenue in the north and Selby Avenue in the south, the neighborhood’s center was Rondo Avenue, a thriving corridor for Black-owned business and wealth.Grocery stores, barber shops, drug stores, tailors, carpenters and car shops lined Rondo Avenue, providing spaces to do business, meet, shop and socialize during segregation and the Jim Crow era.By the 1960s, the neighborhood’s business core was gone, replaced by newly constructed Interstate 94. Homes that had been a short walk to the shops now overlooked a six-lane highway shuttling commuters between the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Homes and businesses were seized and destroyed under eminent domain. The neighborhood was split in two.Now, ReConnect Rondo, a nonprofit, has proposed plans to build a cap over the freeway. The land bridge would re-knit part of the neighborhood and create up to 22 acres of land for the community to use as commercial, residential and park space.

Highways like Rondo’s were part of a nationwide effort to build the interstate highway system, sometimes in concert with federal urban renewal programs that sought to demolish neighborhoods considered “blighted” in the name of revitalizing cities. These demographic maps of seven U.S. cities in the 1950s show examples of how highways devastated established Black communities and hubs across the U.S.

As many of these highways near the end of their lifespans, a national reckoning with structural racism has put them in the spotlight, and has elevated plans, dreams and fights to reconnect what was divided.

Addressing those racial injustices is one small part of the Biden administration’s proposed sweeping infrastructure plan, with a recommendation to allocate $1 billion (cut down from $20 billion) to “reconnect communities cut off by historic disinvestment.”

Ideas for how to do that range from tearing down viaducts and replacing them with boulevards, to burying highways beneath a new tract of affordable housing, or elevating freeways to build public space beneath them.

But in no city will any single construction project bring back the bustling corridors that were lost. Residents who remember well the recent history of highways fear further infrastructure changes could bring further displacement. Meanwhile, some communities are simply fighting to keep more highways from being built.

Reclaiming Land Above the Highway

In Rondo, Minnesota transportation officials are considering ideas for upgrades to the aging highway, including a plan to bury it underneath a 22-acre land bridge topped with new development designed for community members.

ReConnect Rondo hopes to restore land that was taken away, and in doing so provide commercial, residential and open space for the benefit of the community. Most of the organization’s board members are descendants of, or current, Rondo residents. “The community owning land is a motivating factor here. We need to create and generate wealth within Rondo,” says Marvin Anderson, co-founder and board chair of ReConnect Rondo. Rondo has changed over the half-century since I-94 cut through the neighborhood, with many residents forced to move, he said. “We want an opportunity to build a community that reflects what Rondo lost,” says Anderson.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation acknowledges that the construction of I-94 by the former Highway Department disconnected neighborhoods. According to a spokesperson for MnDOT, while the department hasn’t applied for additional funding for the Rondo land bridge, it has supported the project in various ways—including partnering on a feasibility study that estimated a $460 million cost for the plan.

There are also still pieces of the puzzle to put together for ReConnect Rondo and St. Paul. At a virtual community feedback meeting in early July, some attendees expressed concern that because residents of color and Rondo descendants are spread across St. Paul now, they will not directly benefit from the land bridge. Others worried about rising property values and costs, how commercial and residential space on the land bridge will be distributed and that the community wasn’t fully involved in the ReConnect Rondo planning process. But Anderson says the initiative came out of community meetings going back to 2009. And the process isn’t over yet.

On July 1, the Minnesota state budget was passed, approving around $6 million in funding for the Rondo land bridge which will be used for pre-planning, community input and creating a master plan for the project. “All eyes are on Minnesota, on how you do this with genuine return to the community. It can’t happen if you don’t have Rondo descendants at the table, those who are current youthful voices, as well as those who have experienced the loss themselves,” said Keith Baker, executive director of Reconnect Rondo.

Turning the Highway Back Into a Boulevard

In New Orleans, I-10 follows the route of Claiborne Avenue, the once-leafy corridor through the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. Completed in the late 1960s, the elevated highway displaced hundreds of homes, as well as businesses and oak trees that lined the boulevard.

I-10 construction near St. Bernard Circle & Claiborne Avenue, May 1967Louisiana Undertaking Co. on Claiborne Avenue, May 1967

Historic photos show the construction of I-10 above Claiborne Avenue in 1967.
Historic photos show the construction of I-10 above Claiborne Avenue in 1967.

Photographer: William Russell. Tulane University Special Collections, Hogan Jazz Archive, Special Collections, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University.

Conversations about revitalizing the thoroughfare beneath the Claiborne Expressway began almost as soon as the highway went up. A study on how to improve the corridor that concluded in 2013 examined the idea of demolishing the highway but produced little community consensus. Now, Amy Stelly, a local urban designer and co-founder of the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, is holding outreach events to drum up support for tearing down the “bridge” and returning Claiborne to a street-level boulevard. “One of the biggest monuments to racism in America is the urban highway system,” she said.

The destruction created by the Claiborne Expressway garnered a mention in President Biden’s original infrastructure plan. But Stelly’s vision for dismantling has struggled to gain local traction. The viaduct has become part of community life: Covered in murals of jazz greats and civil rights legends, its underbelly shades vendors and second line parades that congregate on weekends. A plan devised in 2017 to install food stalls and cultural event space under the viaduct has seen slow progress, while the city has said that surface street repairs and water system improvements are higher priorities than a disruptive highway removal project. Some neighbors are skeptical of who would benefit from erasing the eyesore in a neighborhood already heavy with gentrification pressures.

“If anything, I would think the construction would accelerate the uprooting of existing businesses that are there,” said Jarrett Cohen, a local resident and investment manager. “The folks who are investing in the corridor right now are not Black people.”

But Stelly says that something needs to be done about the half-century-old structure’s aging parts and flooding issues, as well as decades of neighborhood disinvestment in which she believes the highway played a prominent role. According to Shawn Wilson, secretary ​​of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the Claiborne Expressway is safe for travel, though it will eventually need major improvements or reconstruction—but perhaps not a teardown. “In spite of the ill-informed decision to build it, the corridor has become a vital transportation link for tourism, downtown workers, business travel and multimodal commerce,” he said via email. “Removing this highway link in its entirety will have serious consequences for the economy of the city of New Orleans and the entire metropolitan area.” Said Stelly in response: “I dare him to come live next door.”

Elevating the Highway and Building Public Space Beneath It

In Overtown, the historic center of Black life in Miami, the construction of I-95 and I-395 destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and nearly wiped out the neighborhood. Like Rondo, Black Bottom and other neighborhoods, Overtown was a self-sufficient place for Black Miamians to live, work, shop and dine. It even became known as the “Harlem of the South” for its lively cultural and intellectual scene where renowned personalities such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday spent time. In the 1960s, around 20 square blocks in the heart of the neighborhood were transformed into the highway interchange, and around 10,000 people were relocated and displaced in the process.

In Miami, change is not a theoretical conversation. The city has already begun construction on a multi-year, $800 million-plus project to update the 60-year-old I-95, I-395 and State Route 836. The project will expand the highway to make more room for cars, but it will also elevate highway bridges that currently cover much of Overtown, and use the space under the highway to create a park and trail that connect Overtown to Biscayne Bay. The space, dubbed the “underdeck,” has been presented by the Florida Department of Transportation and Connecting Miami project as a way to reconnect Overtown to other parts of Miami and right some of the wrongs of the original highway construction.

In Overtown, the scope of the displacement and subsequent neighborhood change means the community isn’t the same one that existed before the highway. “Now you find ten-story, twenty-story [buildings]. The physicality of the place is different,” says Jean Cidelca, a local architect and guide for Tap Tap Tours’ Historic Overtown Walking Tour.

Still, proponents of the plan say they relish the opportunity to preserve and commemorate Overtown’s history — and to benefit the community that’s left.

“Yesterday is gone forever, which is why it is extremely important that whatever we do in this common space preserves, memorializes and codifies the rich history,” said Dr. Nelson Adams III, chairman emeritus of the St. John Community Development Corporation, an Overtown nonprofit.

Adams, whose grandparents’ home in Overtown was razed to build the highway, is now part of an effort to get feedback on the project from community stakeholders. He is optimistic about the prospect of building a well-lit and well-resourced community space under the highway. But with little clarity about what exactly that space will look like or what investments will be made in the neighborhood, he says the devil will remain in the details. If there are going to be business opportunities or positions to serve on a board, for example, community members want to be part of those opportunities for investment.

Aspirationally, this is going to make some folks feel good that we’ve sort of attempted at least to right a wrong, to reconnect,” he said. “But what does that really mean in a tangible way?” Like many Black communities in America, Overtown has suffered many broken promises. “Folks who understand that history are looking at all of this with a jaundiced eye.”

The City of Miami is partnering with the Florida Department of Transportation to finalize the underdeck plans, says Oscar Gonzalez III, Senior Community Outreach Specialist for the project. Renderings of the project show a park space and greenery under the highway from the bay to I-95, but the details of the plan are still in flux as the planners receive additional community feedback.

Stopping New Highway Expansions That Repeat Past Mistakes

Even as communities grapple with how to reverse the injustices created by highways, others are fighting plans to expand and build new ones that activists say will impose many of the same harms. A $7 billion plan in Houston would add 24 miles of freeway along I-45 as well as I-10 and I-610, and displace more than 1,300 homes, businesses, schools and places of worship. But grassroots and civic organizations have opposed the state project for years, and the city has offered an alternative plan to repair the highway without expanding it, while investing in transit and pedestrian connections instead. Recently, federal officials intervened, in an early sign of how the Biden administration might handle highway projects poised to repeat mistakes of the past.

Despite opposition, and claims that expanding the highway would only increase traffic, the Texas transportation department has said that its proposal would meet the region’s needs, “including updating the highways to current design and safety standards, relieving traffic congestion, improving storm water drainage, and improving the evacuation routes,” according to a February press release marking its decision to advance the project.

In March, the Federal Highway Administration asked Texas to “pause” the expansion while it reviewed civil rights complaints; shortly thereafter, Harris County sued the state alleging inadequate public outreach or environmental reviews. Now TxDOT is inviting the public to comment on whether it should move ahead with the expansion as planned, or eliminate funding for it. That doesn’t please critics, either.

“It’s crappy – there’s no third option to say, ‘work with localities and find an option that everyone supports,’” said Molly Cook of Stop TxDOT I-45, an opposition group that calls for transit and pedestrian infrastructure in place of highways. “No matter which way you look at it, this project won’t relieve congestion, it will cost a fortune, it will destroy the city, and it will deepen the grooves of hate and racism that already harmed so many and left a lasting impact on their communities.”

Veronica Beyer, media relations director for TxDOT, said that the outcome of the new public comment period would neither prohibit nor guarantee a fresh look at alternative options.

“Should this funding be removed from this project, the Texas Transportation Commission would decide what to do with the funding,” she said. She added that the agency has suspended work on the project and is cooperating as federal officials conduct their investigation.

Whether or not that expansion breaks ground, there is plenty of momentum in other parts of the country to build more urban highways. Billions of dollars in widening and extension plans are underway in Austin, San Antonio, Shreveport, Tampa, Portland, Cincinnati, Madison, Denver and beyond as roads reach obsolescence and populations increase. The scale and volume of these new projects underscore the challenge for voices calling for a different kind of urban future in St. Paul, New Orleans, Miami and Houston. They are a reminder of why some neighbors are unconvinced by, and even suspicious that “reconnection projects” would benefit them, when the original projects did not. That is why many groups are calling for policies such as land trusts, affordable housing funds, or programs to support Black and immigrant-owned businesses in conjunction with highway revision plans. In most places, it is not only the physical infrastructure that needs repair, but also the social and economic fabric.

“In most cases, it is going to be the same agency undertaking a removal as the ones who built the highway in the first place,” said Ben Crowther, who researches urban highways at the Congress for New Urbanism, a think tank. Those doubts will take more than eye-catching architectural renderings to quell, just as no tear-down alone can bring a neighborhood back.

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In the demographic maps, one dot represents 20 people in a given census tract. Dots are distributed randomly within each census tract, and may not represent where people live within the area. The 1950 decennial Census data were entered from printed census publications and made available by IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System.

The 1950 decennial Census demographic data provided is broken down into three groups: White, Black (Negro) and other nonwhite and does not specify ethnicity. The 2019 demographic data is from the American Community Survey 2019 5-year estimates, with one dot representing 20 estimated people. Black, White and Asian groups do not include people who identify as Hispanic/Latino.

Historic building layers in St. Paul and Miami digitized from aerial photographs and historic maps, including the maps from the Sanborn Map Company.Sources

Decennial census data from 1950 compiled by Steven Manson, Jonathan Schroeder, David Van Riper, Tracy Kugler, and Steven Ruggles, IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 15.0, University of Minnesota.

Historic St. Paul and Rondo advertisements courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, collected and digitized by Dr. Rebecca Wingo and students (Keaton Belbas, Clinton Kunhardt, and Louisa Mullin) at Macalester College.

Historic aerial images courtesy of the United States Geological Survey. Satellite imagery from MapboxOpenStreetMap.

Historic maps created by the Sanborn Map Company, made available by Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

Additional map layer data and from the U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey. Claiborne Avenue address data courtesy of Greg Beaman, Claiborne Avenue History Project. Houston displacement estimates from the North Houston Highway Improvement Project environmental impact statement, 2020.