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Overcoming US Highway Injustices: From Displacement to Opportunity

By now it is widely understood that urban freeways did little to solve urban transportation and mobility issues; it has become clear that cities cannot build themselves out of congestion with bigger roadways, but they can damage themselves considerably in the process of trying.
Kansas City freeway bisecting downtown (photo: ArchPlan)
Most also recognize that mostly poor communities were impacted by the massive clearances for the construction of urban freeways and by the noise and pollution brought by increased automobile traffic,  and that in America those injustices were inflicted most often on predominantly African American communities.
What  dawns on most only very slowly is that the destruction of entire neighborhoods and communities was not only unintended "collateral damage" caused by a failed transportation policy, but that this damage was frequently an intentional part of a larger strategy of segregation, exclusion, control and plain old racism.
When President Obama appointed former Charlotte, NC mayor Anthony Foxx to the Secretary of Transportation position vacated by Ray LaHood, he chose somebody who not only came from one of those many neighborhoods that had been ransacked by freeway construction, but someone who is an ardent promoter of cities,equitable transportation and environmental justice.
Anthony Foxx speaking about urban freeways at the
Center for American Progress last week




Foxx has taken the issue of urban highway injustice and given it prominence by speaking about it clearly and loudly. At a speech at the Center for American Progress last week he described his own experience this way:
"The people in my community at the time these decisions were made were actually not invisible," he said. "It is just that at a certain stage in our history, they didn't matter....Businesses didn't invest there. Grocery stores and pharmacies didn't take the risk. I could not even get a pizza delivered to my house". [...]  "roughly two-thirds of the families displaced [across the US] were poor and mostly African American".
In a city like Baltimore where the only completed segments of inner urban freeways displaced thousands of African Americans, this resonates and evokes the freeway wars that raged in this city from after WW II until the seventies. To date, the successful defeat of most of the freeways planned for Baltimore, those that would have leveled the now affluent communities of Fells Point and Federal Hill, has been seen as a success story. But seen from Foxx's environmental justice angle though, black people in Baltimore were the losers anyway, since all the displacement that did occur happened in African American communities. 
Encircled by freeways: African American Community of Butler, Ft Worth, Tx
(photo: ArchPlan)


By promoting three new principles for urban transportation, Secretary Foxx publicly inverted the past highway policies. The three principles are part of a new "Ladders of Opportunity" initiative and are an outcome of the insights of Obama's Sustainable Communities initiative, which was built on close collaboration between HUD, EPA and DOT.
Principle one: While transportation needs to connect people to opportunities, it should also "invigorate opportunities within communities."
Two: Projects need to take into account communities that "have been on the wrong side of transportation decisions," and figure out ways to make them stronger.
And three: The projects should be built for and by the communities they go through.
Emphasizing the connection of the disadvantaged to opportunity, the strengthening of communities along the highway (instead of its origin and destination), and serving the communities along the way is a public admission of the wrongs of the past. Such a high profile acknowledgement of the urban freeway failure is unheard of.  It isn't surprising that in the Secretary's examples, Baltimore ranks high. He used this city as one of six cases where urban freeways created the opposite of connection: 
"Robert Moses wanted to plow through a West Baltimore community known as Harlem Park, a then-thriving middle-class African American neighborhood. Harlem Park was destroyed before the project was stopped." (Foxx)
Indeed, the famous/infamous New York planner had his hands also in Baltimore just as the almost equally famous/infamous Henry Barnes who redesigned Baltimore's streets in the early fifties in favor of cars and access to downtown from the suburbs. (He worked first in Denver, then Baltimore, and later New York City). Moses saw expressways as a tool to clear out "slum areas." Baltimore's Harlem Park community is described by Foxx as a then "thriving middle-class black neighborhood". Moses called it a "slum" and he said that "the more of them that are wiped out, the healthier Baltimore will be in the long run." Foxx's view from within, is not only fairer and more equitable it is also reflective of the insight, that cities cannot thrive without being inclusive which was certainly not Robert Moses' perspective.
West Baltimore before the freeway (the diagonal is Fremont Ave)


Baltimore after the freeway and Martin Luther King bypass
(the diagonal is Fremont Ave)


Many scholars have pointed to the nefarious aspects of those old transportation strategies before, including Sherrilyn Ifill, a University of Maryland law professor and President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
I think people tend not to notice or to pay attention to issues of transportation and transportation infrastructure as a civil rights issue and it's one of the matters I've been pressing. Because access to jobs, access to mobility, reducing housing segregation, all of these things are deeply dependent on transportation decisions that happen in many ways out of sight and out of mind. 
So these highways were built for the convenience of whites and to support and invigorate the white middle class. And very often this was done at the expense of African-American communities. [...] I would have to say that this continues to this day (Sherrilyn Ifill on NPR's Diane Rehm show).
By turning the outcomes of the old policies upside down and aspiring for bridges instead of barriers, for access instead of inclusion, and for connection instead of separation, Secretary Foxx is not only offering a better transportation approach, he addresses the needs of the 21st century city in general which cannot be tribal but must be open and inclusive, not only in transportation but on all levels. 
So far, Foxx's new approach is mostly symbolic. The principles are only voluntary and DOT won't have the power to effect comprehensive change to the ways transportation and urban policy have been done for over half a century.


But the new Ladders of Opportunity program is a step in the right direction. Its website includes right on the homepage the acknowledgement of past US highway injustices inflicted on communities of color:
There is a regrettable legacy of aligning and designing transportation projects that separated Americans along economic and even racial lines. At a time when our nation has so much infrastructure to repair and replace, we have a chance to do so in a much more inclusive way that will simultaneously expand economic opportunity and socioeconomic mobility throughout America. The choices we make about future transportation projects, to the people they touch and places they connect, will play a role in determining how widely opportunity expands throughout America. (Ladders of Opportunity website).
The Ladders of Opportunity policies  follow the Sustainable CommunitiesInitiative of  DOT, HUD and EPA which had yielded grants to a number of cities and metro areas. The grant in the Baltimore area was used for identifying ways of increasing opportunity for disadvantaged communities. dubbed the Opportunity Collaborative. It resulted in a detailed blueprint for the region in the areas of housing, workforce development, and transportation. Five transportation related Opportunity Grants have been awarded to Baltimore including bus shelter improvements, Howard Street transit corridor improvements, a reconfiguration of the Fulton Avenue bridge across the Baltimore "Highway to Nowhere", a Westport transit plaza and bettering the Pulaski Highway, a battered old commercial corridor.
Interstates immediately accessible from
downtown St Louis (photo ArchPlan)

But the best intentions on the federal level won't go anywhere when local or State policies derail them. In his speech Secretary Foxx explicitly mentioned Baltimore and the sad example of the Red Line, a fully designed $2.9 billion New Starts project that the newly elected Republican Governor chided as a "boondoggle" and canned in spite of a considerable federal commitment.

"We had planned to commit about $1 billion to this project, only to have it cancelled by the state of Maryland,"  Foxx.

The Baltimore NAACP and other groups have filed a civil rights complaint in response to Governor Larry Hogan's Red Line decision.

Back in Robert Moses times Baltimore and Washington became frontier cities in a national movement  against urban freeways. Baltimore activists had recognized even then that the fight required collaboration between the black communities on the west and the white ones on the east. A city-wide interracial coalition against inner-city expressways called Movement Against Destruction (MAD) was created and prevented the demolition of 28,000 housing units, saving numerous stable and historic neighborhoods and saved the city's Inner Harbor from a massive downtown expressway interchange. Senator Barbara Mikulski began her political career in this fight. The other side, the freeway proponents were not all simplistic bigots or city haters. Many groups tried to improve the various alignment proposals and employed community centered arguments to promote the projects. They argued that the investment in freeways could leverage community investments and for the  east-west highway they included transit in from of a metro line in the median of the freeway with stations envisioned as development hubs, not unlike the current talk about TOD.

But as noted, the saved communities were mostly white and  the two only realized elements of the freeway plan, the Highway to Nowhere and a short downtown leg off I-95, both displaced African Americans in established vibrant communities such as Rosemont, Harlem Park and Sharp Leadenhall. The community investments never materialized, nor did the metro line; instead the now bifurcated neighborhoods never recovered from the blow and decay accelerated. in the affected communities this legacy was never forgotten. Mistrust has tainted almost any discussion about transportation in Baltimore ever since.

Especially for those who were not directly affected, it takes time and distance to sort out a simple truth in the very story of struggles, namely if they were as long, complex and protracted as the Baltimore freeway fights. The Baltimore struggle over alternative freeway alignments lasted about 25 years and had many twists and turns.  
The Baltimore "highway to nowhere" in winter: a bleak canyon
A detailed report can be found in Raymond Mohl's account assembled in 2002, or in the document "The Baltimore Interstate Highway System" by UM Professor Garrett Power, both describe the roles of Baltimore mayors, community leaders, consultants, Robert Moses, the American Institute of Architects, and then social worker Barbara Mikulski. 
One of the noteworthy but less frequently named consequence of freeway related slum clearance was emphasized early on by a lone dissenter in the Baltimore City Council, Tom Ward: The massive loss of taxpaying properties in favor of roadways that cost money without providing (direct) revenue. The displacement of thousands of households did create a double whammy, the injustice of losing a home and the added tax burden on those left behind in ransacked communities. This is a death spiral from which many cities ravaged by rampant freeway construction have yet to break free.

When Maryland's newly elected Governor canned the the shovel ready east-west surface-subway rail line which had been slated to become the transit successor of the aborted east-west highway, the opportunity of giving that bit of freeway some purpose evaporated and with it the promise of the much needed access for the isolated and dis-invested communities that Robert Moses had described as slums.

The old smokestack centers of early industrialization need that shift to a new knowledge economy more urgently than the newer sunbelt cities. Access, collaboration, communication, partnership, openess and information are the necessary attributes which must replace exclusion, separation, and division.

While this sounds like a social, economic, and political challenge, transportation factors prominently into the picture. The ubiquitous road barriers are not simply accidental but they are the sad manifestation and symbol of obsolete and often obscene policies of the past. Thus they lie at the heart of what vexes many US cities to this day, physically and symbolically.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff,JD. Reviewed for accuracy by Art Cohen, Baltimore anti freeway activist

NPR's Diane Rehm Show with Secretary Anthony Foxx
Richard Rothstein: From Ferguson to Baltimore
A Departure From Decades of Highway Policy (Atlantic Magazine)
The Role of Highways in American Poverty (Atlantic Magazine)
The Interstates and the Highways (Mohl)
The Baltimore City Interstate Highway System (UM, Prof Garrett Power)
Before and after pictures, 60 Years of Urban Change
More Cities are razing Urban Freeways (Christian Science Monitor)
Freeways and the decline of St Louis
The Road that Goes Mercifully Nowhere (This Big City, 2013)

This article is accompanied by a series of articles on my local daily blog that highlights a number of the Baltimore traffic follies.

Providence, RI  before freeways


I think people tend not to notice or to pay attention to issues of transportation and transportation infrastructure as a civil rights issue [...]. Because access to jobs, access to mobility, reducing housing segregation, all of these things are deeply dependent on transportation decisions that
Providence, RI, after freeways


happen in many ways out of sight and out of mind. (Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP).
I think we've recognized the failures of a mobility-first framework and the metrics that we've used just to measure how fast we can move vehicles and the need to connect people to economic opportunity. And so places like Denver, places like Chicago, places like Kansas City, San Francisco, are all at the forefront of doing this. (Robert Puentes, Brookings Institution)