In the heady days after the Eisenhower administration announced landmark legislation to create an interstate highway system, visions of future travel captivated the national consciousness.
Soaring bridges. Cloverleaf interchanges. Higher speed limits. The modern interstates would have them all.
Take Interstate 77, which was greeted with fanfare in Charlotte, Va. “It’ll be wide, handsome, and toll-free,” a 1959 newspaper story gushed.
Yet building the system would cost more than the millions of dollars that states and the federal government poured into construction. In Charlotte, it meant bulldozing Brooklyn, a vibrant Black neighborhood where, former resident Barbara C. Steele recalled in a 2004 oral history, “everybody knew everybody, and everybody was somebody.”
In many cases, that was by design.
“The interstate highway system provided a safe, fast way of getting from coast to coast,” said historian Gretchen Sorin, author of Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights. “The problem was when you put in highways, you have to figure out where to put them.”
Rectifying at least some of these past transgressions is a goal of the Biden administration’s massive infrastructure push, with billions of dollars proposed to “reconnect” communities and address historic inequities. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has acknowledged the “racism physically built into some of our highways” and the “lasting damage” suffered by the communities that were targeted.
In March, Buttigieg tweeted about Philadelphia’s Vine Street Expressway, which severed Chinatown when it was built in the late 1980s.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia and Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware announced legislation in July to reconnect urban neighborhoods shattered by highway construction. In Wilmington, community leaders and state lawmakers are working on proposals to cap part of I-95, which displaced hundreds of families and businesses when it was constructed.
Many highway construction decisions were set in motion long before the interstates themselves, at a time when America was booming — and bursting at the seams. Veterans had returned home from World War II and started or expanded families; Black Southerners continued streaming to Northern cities for greater opportunity. Urban centers grew more and more crowded.
In response, the federal government underwrote a massive construction program that fueled the rise of the suburb. But people of color were systematically excluded. Around the country, redlining and racially restrictive deeds and covenants discouraged and often outright forbade them from buying or renting suburban homes.
The supposed blight of America’s central cities, especially racially mixed, lower-income neighborhoods, became a cornerstone of the interstate highway system.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the program’s greatest champion, originally envisioned a network akin to the German Autobahn that would largely bypass cities as well as help them empty fast in the event of a Cold War-era nuclear attack. State leaders eager to use federal funds to eradicate what they saw as slums and transportation planners who wanted to connect suburbs to downtown cores as efficiently as possible ultimately forced him to settle for a highway system that sliced through cities — and neighborhoods of color.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 promised 41,000 miles of asphalt. And when it became time to finalize route plans, Avila said, “race strongly influenced routing decisions.”
Many interstate advocates made no secret of their intentions. In Miami, for example, the I-95/395 interchange was slated to bypass Overtown, the city’s historic Black center, and use a nearby rail corridor before planners acquiesced to pressure and routed it directly through the neighborhood. No public hearings were held in the community.
The pattern was repeated over and over across the nation: White leaders used the specter of urban deterioration to justify construction through low-income neighborhoods of color. Homes and businesses were razed.
The new interstates fed suburbanization. (A 2007 study found that the average new highway routed through a central city reduces its population by 18%.) As population dwindled, poverty concentrated, and investment further declined.
Impacted community members fought back, protesting what they called “White men’s roads through Black men’s homes.” Revolts were staged in at least 50 cities. But despite packing city council meetings, organizing marches, and circulating petitions, most failed to prevent interstates from coming through their neighborhoods.
“There are very few instances where that kind of formal political protest was able to find any success,” Avila said.
Highway routing decisions still cast a long shadow on American cities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people of color live near interstates and other major roadways than their white counterparts, and these groups experience “disproportionately larger adverse health effects from air pollution.” Such proximity is associated with higher levels of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and death.
It can be dangerous in other ways, too: Traffic fatalities disproportionately impact drivers, passengers and pedestrians of color. A study released in June by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that places with low-income populations and concentrations of people of color have measurably higher levels of vehicle traffic and higher speed limits despite having more residents who walk, bike or take public transportation to work.
“Urban people of color remember what freeways did to their neighborhoods,” Avila said. “They remember what was lost. They carry that memory with them.”