Nobody in authority heeded Chinatown residents’ objections in the late 1980s before the shovels and earth movers began to claw a trench through the heart of Philadelphia for the Vine Street Expressway, splitting their community in two.
On Monday, Democratic U.S. Reps. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia and Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware said at a discussion in Chinatown that it’s long past time to right some wrongs as they discussed legislation they are sponsoring to reconnect urban neighborhoods around the nation shattered by highway construction — many of them home to brown, Black and low-income people.
The proposal, incorporated into the surface transportation bill that the House recently passed, would provide $3 billion in grants each year for five years to tear down these concrete walls or to alter them, such as by building caps over expressways that would provide a way to cross over and to develop parks or other community amenities on them.
“The highway is a symbol to communities of color like Chinatown, that our communities have to bear the challenges for the benefit of commuters,” said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. Among them, he said, are pollution from auto traffic.
“This highway and many like it across the country are inequitable,” Chin said.
Mobility justice is having a political moment in Washington and the nation at large as part of the ongoing confrontation of racism catalyzed by the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. The Biden administration has supported equity in transportation as a key element of its proposals for infrastructure spending.
Indeed, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted about the Vine Street Expressway in March, a rare event for the leader of a department that historically has spent much more on highways than transit. He later said in an interview that “there is racism physically built into some of our highways.”