(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view of the underpass under the I-81 freeway in Syracuse, New York, U.S., April 28, 2021. REUTERS/Zoe Davis
By Andy Sullivan
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Reuters) – Syracuse wasn’t the only city where Black residents were displaced by the U.S. freeway-building boom of the 1950s and 1960s.
Across the country, local officials saw the proposed interstate system as a convenient way to demolish what they regarded as “slum” neighborhoods near their downtown business districts, historians say. With the federal government picking up 90% of the cost, freeway construction made it easier for politicians and business leaders to pursue their own “urban renewal” projects after residents were evicted.
“It was a mistake that many cities were making,” said University of California, Irvine law professor Joseph DiMento, an expert in the policies of the freeway-building era. “The reasons they were built were heavily for removal of Blacks from certain areas.”
Existing long-distance highways, like the New York State Thruway, largely skirted city centers. The new interstates were built right through them.
Road builders at the time were largely free to ignore environmental, historical, social or other factors, allowing them to focus on the most direct route from one point to another.
More often than not, that meant routing those freeways through Black neighborhoods, where land was cheap and political opposition low.
Some black neighborhoods were targeted even when more logical routes were available, research by the late urban historian Raymond Mohl shows. According to his findings:
*In Miami, Interstate 95 was routed through Overtown, a Black neighborhood known as the “Harlem of the South,” rather than a nearby abandoned rail corridor.
*In Nashville, Interstate 40 took a noticeable swerve, bisecting the Black community of North Nashville.
*In Montgomery, Alabama, the state highway director, a high-level officer of the Ku Klux Klan, routed Interstate 85 through a neighborhood where many Black civil rights leaders lived, rather than choosing an alternate route on vacant land.
*In New Orleans and Kansas City, officials re-routed freeways from white neighborhoods to integrated or predominantly Black areas.
Residents in a handful of cities, including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore, successfully mobilized to block freeway construction in Black neighborhoods. But that was not typically the case.
The road-building program ultimately displaced more than 1 million Americans, most of them low-income minorities, according to Anthony Foxx, who served as transportation secretary under Democratic President Barack Obama.
U.S. freeways flattened Black neighborhoods nationwide