May 24, 2016

Your Stories: How Urban Freeways Divided America’s Neighborhoods

By Gracie McKenzie

Listeners share stories about how highway construction has affected their neighborhoods.

Listeners share stories about how highway construction has affected their neighborhoods.

Were America’s urban freeways built to connect us to each other — or keep us apart?
On our show in late March about the impacts of the country’s highway system, we heard about freeways intentionally built through low income, minority neighborhoods. The topic resonated with listeners — so much so that we received hundreds of emails, comments and social media messages about the effects of highway construction in neighborhoods across the country. We’ve collected them in a map below, along with information from our panelists and callers just in time for our Memorial Day rebroadcast (and widespread highway travel). Click through the map and our list to read more stories.
Do you have a story to add? Share it with us here.


Birmingham, Alabama

“There’s an effort in Birmingham to move Highway 20/59, currently which bisects several African-American communities. And I know some non-profit organizations that want to take a stance on it, but are afraid of the Alabama Department of Transportation basically taking their seat at the table on other things, so it’s not a stand that people are willing to take.” – Call to the Diane Rehm Show from Jonathan in Birmingham

“Has anyone noticed that there are NO Zyp bike stations north of I-20/59? It’s a line of demarcation for so many amenities that whites take for granted.” Facebook comment from Martha, Birmingham

“Birmingham’s 20/59, which has all of the negative characteristics currently being discussed, is in severe disrepair and in need of replacement. The local community as well as local government officials have pushed for a reroute and redesign as a solution. The state DOT has ignored these efforts and plans to rebuild this interstate in the same location.” – Facebook message from Andre

“The Alabama Dept. of Transportation is still working their road-building through the inner city in Birmingham, expanding I-20/59 through the city center in Birmingham, despite the crime of local citizens. They have even threatened the Mayor’s Office to withhold other road repairs if he supports the citizens! I-20/59 is one of the most dangerous roads in America already; expanding it to ten lanes is insane.” – Facebook wall post from Martha, Birmingham

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Montgomery, Alabama

“The state highway director in Alabama planned to run the interstate that was being built in Montgomery through the home of Ralph Abernathy, who was Martin Luther King’s deputy, as well as to destroy the two churches that were involved in the organization of the Montgomery bus boycott. Ralph Abernathy himself wrote to President Kennedy to protest this action. The response from the Bureau of Public Roads was to tell the state highway director to cool it for six months and let the dust settle and then go ahead with his plan. As it turned out, the state highway director was caught in that period skimming funds from the Highway Department and that attracted too much attention to him so the plan never went forward. His design was moved a couple of blocks so that it skirted the churches and saved Ralph Abernathy’s home. But this was typical of the way in which highways were used throughout the country.” – Richard Rothstein on the Diane Rehm Show

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Little Rock, Arkansas

Little Rock, Arkansas from above. (Murrayultra/Wikimedia Commons)

“In this beautiful little backwoods state we have here, it seems as though everything your panel is talking about is still occurring. We have a major thoroughfare that runs through Little Rock, Interstate 40, and then it connects with I-30 right there, and we have a terrible congestion problem. You really can’t change the past, even though we all know why these interstates were developed like they were. But now they’re talking about expansion of I-30 to relieve just terrible congestion at that major point right there, and the expansion is going to once again disparately hit the African-American community, who is rising up and saying, ‘Hey, what about us?’ And it seems like the highway commission is not hearing them and really doesn’t care.” – Call to the Diane Rehm Show from Jerry in Little Rock

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Connecticut

“This site shows how real estate law supported the policy of keeping African-Americans away from the suburbs. This supports the information given on the show that shows purposeful harm was intended by the intra-city highway planners of that era.” – Disqus comment from Deborah

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Los Angeles, California

“In the 1950s, wealthy African-Americans began to move into a white middle-class neighborhood. Ethel Waters, for example, and another famous African-American actress Hattie McDaniel moved into the neighborhood. It was called Sugar Hill. The first thing that happened was that the neighborhood association in that neighborhood tried to buy them out. The neighborhood association got together and tried to buy out the African-American families who were moving in, offered them more money than they paid to get them out of the neighborhood. When that didn’t work, they tried to enforce a legal agreement prohibiting them from living in the neighborhood. And when that didn’t work, the city council then decided it would be an African-American neighborhood. It rezoned it for multiple-family housing. It eventually became a slum. And then the Santa Monica Freeway was built to clear that slum to destroy the neighborhood. So these policies all worked together in an unconstitutional fashion to segregate Los Angeles.” – Richard Rothstein on the Diane Rehm Show

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Jacksonville, Florida

Interstate 295 crosses the Buckman Bridge near Jacksonville. (JamieS93/Wikimedia Commons)

“The two highways (Route 95 and the 295 beltway), the river and the bridges have cut off the black neighborhoods and destroyed many black businesses and the lovely homes of the major black leaders in the community. Sixty years later this city has never recovered. That area has been an ugly blight on the city and adds to the poverty of the area because many jobs and businesses were ruined. My family lost three businesses and our home.” -Facebook message from Brooke, NYC

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Orlando, Florida

“Having grown up in Orlando, it was obvious that the highway layout was intended to create a wall separating the more affluent neighborhoods from the African-American neighborhoods. Eatonville is the nation’s oldest black township north of Orlando and has no exit or access ramp to Interstate 4.” –Facebook message from Todd, Sarasota, Florida

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Southwest Florida

“This progam proves what I felt to be true. As snowbirds who winter in SW Florida, I have witnessed racism. In the rural agricultural areas, highway construction lasts for years. The residents are forced to endure washouts, erosion and added car expenses for the incredibly inadequate roads. Road construction can last as long as five years, because projects are abandoned in favor of tourism areas.” – Facebook comment from Cindy, Michigan/Florida

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Atlanta, Georgia

“In Atlanta, they refuse to run public transportation to the suburbs because they’re afraid to give ‘those people’ easier access to the suburbs.” – Disqus comment from Erin

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Chicago, Illinois

Interstate 94 cuts through the city of Chicago, as seen in 2015. (Alfred Twu/Wikimedia Commons)

“The Polish community suffered mightily from the highways that divided neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Chicago. My father’s parents bought a house to be near their church. I-94 literally came between them. Similar displacements were suffered in the Italian nearer the city center. A little before, the Kashubian community was driven from the lakefront by harbor developments. Such projects tend to impact ‘the poor’ because the poor tend to live in neighborhoods where land is cheap and houses less expensive.” -Disqus comment

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Mulberry Grove, Illinois

“Interstate 70 came through southern Illinois and split in half the Royal Acres subdivision (an African-American community) in Mulberry Grove, Illinois.” – Facebook comment from Nancy

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Oak Park, Illinois

“It’s about time this is discussed. I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. They built an interstate smack through the west side of Chicago, dividing my little historic suburb in half and creating a north side versus south side mentality, even amongst the whites. Then the FHA sponsored the white flight sell off of the historic Austin community on Chicago’s west side. Nowadays, that’s the drug sales capital of Illinois and the DOT is planning to widen the interstate to service the far western suburbs in a different county.” – Email from Katherine

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Indianapolis, Indiana

Downtown Indianapolis from above in 2005. (Derek Jensen/Wikimedia Commons)

“In post-WWII I grew up in a thriving interracial neighborhood rich with local schools, businesses, churches and community centers. It was the heart of the black middle class in Indianapolis. In the 1960s Highway I-65 was run directly through the center and today it is a decimated ghetto. I noticed the same assault committed in the healthy black-integrated center of Des Moines where my grandparents (he an attorney) lived and countless other black middle class communities around the United States. It seems to be a uniquely American style of ethnic cleansing.” – Email from Keni, Indianapolis

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New Orleans, Louisiana

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Baltimore, Maryland

“In Baltimore, Barbara Mikulski successfully led the effort to stop I-70 from cutting an ugly swath straight through poor neighborhoods, both black and other ethnicities were to be displaced. And a great political career was launched!” – Email from Mike, Baltimore

“You know, Baltimore is regarded as a major American city. But for anyone who’s been there, you’ll note that it’s a major American city without a major transportation system. And every city that started out, you know, getting a transportation system at the same time as Baltimore, including Washington, D.C., has far surpassed it. The state had already invested $300 million in the plans for it, and the Department of Transportation was holding $900 million this summer to begin construction on this Red Line. This was going to revitalize the community and was designed to, in some ways, ameliorate what had happened to the west side of Baltimore 30 years ago, when there was a planned highway that destroyed the Harlem Park neighborhood and then was abandoned. And so the disparate impact of this on African-Americans is very clear and very evident… In one day, a single man, the governor, eliminated a project that had been 15 years in the making and an over $1 billion investment at that moment in Baltimore City. And for African-Americans in Baltimore living on the east and the west side, who need that transportation to be able to get to jobs, they were just swept away in this process.” – Sherrilyn Ifill on the Diane Rehm Show

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Hyattsville, Maryland

“I grew up in Hyattsville, just outside Northeast DC, and my old neighborhood, Queens Chapel, would have been obliterated by I-95 had it not been for the efforts of Julius Hobson, an ‘infamous’ political gadfly in DC. He successfully opposed the highway construction on racial bias grounds and was successful. His efforts in DC effectively saved Queens Chapel on the north of the projected highway… And you might remember the proposed outer beltway around DC which actually took public input. The rich white people in Great Falls, VA and Potomac, MD said ‘Not here!’ and the project was cancelled.” – Email from Mike, Baltimore

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Ocean City, Maryland

“There was a plan to build a bypass out to Ocean City adjacent to an African-American community. It turned out it had been the third time in 60 years that this African-American community either had a highway built through it or directly adjacent to it. And when you stand at the intersection of Route 50 and Route 13 out in Salisbury, Maryland, you can look at all sides and see a community that has been literally bifurcated, cut in half, with churches hanging on one side and residences on another side, in order to built this highway out to the beach. The irony, of course, is that when these highways were being built, African-Americans were not even allowed to actually be at Ocean City except on one prescribed day in September. So these highways were built for the convenience of whites and to support and invigorate the white middle class, very often at the expense of African-American communities.” – Sherrilyn Ifill on the Diane Rehm Show

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Sudbrook Park, Maryland

“What a fascinating program. Growing up white in Sudbrook Park, a suburban community designed by the landscape architect icon, Frederick Olmstead, in the 1950s and 1960s, I would watch the more affluent white families with their African-American maids. Still, the Maryland State Highway Administration fought hard to build the Northwest Highway through the park. It was due in large measure to the courage of the women in Sudbrook Park who organized to lead a successful fight to have the park placed on the National Historic Register and deny the project. Sadly, our African-American neighbors were not even allowed to live in the community in the 1950s and 1960s. Change is long overdue.” – Email from William, Bel Air, Maryland

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Boston, Massachusetts

Boston’s South Bay interchange has been reconfigured since this photo was taken in 2006. (Garrett A. Wollman/Wikimedia Commons)

“The Southwest Corridor project in Boston decimated an important Black community — from the South End to Jamaica Plain — hundreds of acres of land (and housing) were cleared to make way for a highway to make it easier for white people to get into the city. It was finally stopped but the houses had been torn down and the neighborhoods destroyed. Some people would like to ‘forget’ these instances of institutional racism. Shame on them.” – Disqus comment

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Detroit, Michigan

“If you think Baltimore is bad come to Detroit. There are many major cities which not only lack subways but don’t even have a viable bus system, and its practically impossible for low income residents to get to jobs at all.” – Disqus comment from Brandon

“I grew up in suburban Detroit and I’m a college professor now. And my artwork, I’m an artist, all deals with Detroit history and its sort of decline over the last 60, 70 years. And this issue is really a huge one at the heart of it. A lot of the things I was finding about, some of the struggles of the African-American community there related to the highway system, that decimated African-American neighborhoods, moved whites and jobs out to the suburbs. What I think’s a little interesting now, though, is there’s this huge push to revitalize Detroit. And there’s been a lot of new construction, new businesses moving back into the city around these neighborhoods, or around these interstates that were constructed. But it does seem to be like a lot of the jobs and businesses in are tailored to upper class, young white people who are moving in. So, it’s sort of interesting to see how we’re seeing these neighborhoods revitalized. This effort tried to be corrective, but in a way, it’s still problematic.” – Call to the Diane Rehm Show from Whitney in Detroit

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Hamtramck, Michigan

“Hamtramck, not far from Ann Arbor, had a small African-American community in the 1950s. Then the city developed a plan in which it called for the population loss of the city with the elimination of the African-American neighborhoods. The Bureau of Public Roads then proposed an interstate that would lead to a Chrysler plant that was being built in Hamtramck. The interstate was designed to run through the African-American neighborhood to destroy it… It became an all-white community. It hadn’t been before. Some years later, a federal appeals court found that this was done on a deliberate racial basis, and ordered the city of Hamtramck to build housing only for those African-Americans who could still be found, who had been displaced some years before, who had moved back into the Detroit ghetto, and who wanted to move back to Hamtramck. Well, very few of them could be found at that point, so very little housing was built.” – Richard Rothstein on the Diane Rehm Show

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Saint Louis, Missouri

“In Saint Louis, the Metrolink light-rail system goes nowhere useful except the airport. The southernmost branch goes west a few miles, then turns south and terminates, less than 4 miles from the city limits. None of the system relieves traffic on I-55, I-44 or I-70, the south and west main arteries. Why? White people in the county will not vote for a system that gives African-American citizens easy access to the white suburbs.” – Email from William in Webster Groves, Missouri

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Cincinnati, Ohio

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Columbus, Ohio

In Columbus, Ohio, an expressway cap on Interstate 670, shown here, creates usable space on top of the highway. (Payton Chung/Flickr)

In Columbus, Ohio, an expressway cap on Interstate 670, shown here, creates usable space on top of the highway. (Payton Chung/Flickr)

“The cap in Columbus, Ohio, over I-71 is an example of restorative infrastructure.” – Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on the Diane Rehm Show

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Tulsa, Oklahoma

“In North Tulsa where I grew up, decades after the devastation of the Greenwood Riot in 1921, the city of Tulsa took some 30 years to complete a highway serving North Tulsa. Meanwhile, highways all around Tulsa were built to serve white communities like Bixby, Broken Arrow and Owasso making it possible for those areas to explode while North Tulsa languished in poverty.”  – Email from Dan in Sacramento, California

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Buffalo, New York

“We had a beautiful park system by Frederick Law Olmsted [but], in the ‘50s, they tore out a 2-mile long section of park and put in an expressway that chopped off the east side of the city and pretty much, like, put a little stranglehold around the center of the city, and even through it — through the Delaware Park. And so now they’re ripping out part of the Robert Moses Expressway in Niagara Falls to restore park access to people in Niagara Falls and trying to actually fix the expressway problem they put into Buffalo.” (call to the Diane Rehm Show from Matthew in Buffalo)

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Long Island, New York

This interchange, shown here under construction in around 1946, now provides access to Long Island from Queens’ Main Street. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

“The Long Island Expressway was built to enable whites to move out to the suburbs of Nassau and Suffolk County. But African-Americans prohibited, not because they were too poor. They have the same incomes as the whites who bought homes in Levittown for $7,000 in 1947. They were prohibited from doing so, and so the highways were part of an overall plan to segregate metropolitan areas.” (Richard Rothstein on the Diane Rehm Show)

“On Robert Moses’ part, it was gleefully deliberate. I drive daily on one of his highways out on Long Island where the overpasses were built so low as to prevent public buses from transporting any poor citizens from the City out to Jones Beach — another of his monuments to himself.” – Disqus comment

“When Robert Moses built Jones Beach and the Southern State Parkway going out to the beach, he purposely, he purposely built the overpasses at a low height to make sure that African-Americans who would be traveling to the beach by bus rather than by car couldn’t get access to the beach. There’s a wonderful biography written of Robert Moses by Robert Caro, which goes into detail about the racial attitudes of Moses. It wasn’t just with highways. Somehow, Moses had the idea that African-Americans didn’t like cold water. So the public swimming pool near Harlem was kept at a lower temperature than the swimming pools throughout the rest of the city.” – Richard Rothstein on the Diane Rehm Show

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Rochester, New York

Rochester, New York as seen from the air in 2007. (Tomkinsc/Wikimedia Commons)

“In Rochester, New York, they’re burying a freeway that ran through the middle of the downtown.” (Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on the Diane Rehm Show)

“It’s a tricky business. Rochester NY was brought up on that a piece of highway that bisects the city is being filled in. The problem with that is, is that the buildings slated to go on top of that fill, are luxury apartments. So, it’s still going to keep the city segregated.” – Disqus comment from Melissa

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Syracuse, New York

“The self-proclaimed progressive plan for ripping down the elevated portion of Interstate 81 through Syracuse NY will in fact recapitulate some of the worst errors from the 1950s. The proposed re-routing of I-81, onto the current bypass I-481, will create a much more formidable racial barrier than I-81 in Syracuse ever did. At least the latter had numerous underpasses. A look at the racial makeup of the school districts on opposite sides of I-481 shows a much starker divide, with a total of 3 underpasses over a distance of nearly 10 miles. And none of those cloverleaf underpasses, without stoplights, are safe for pedestrians or bicycles. The cloverleaf interchanges will become less and less safe for non-auto users as the traffic on I-481 increases due to its re-designation as I-81. With a grand total of 8 daily scheduled bus trips across that Interstate 481 stretch, all during morning and evening commuting times, this new intensely used interstate will be an impenetrable barricade, keeping low-income residents to the west from reaching the lily white schools and grocery stores just to the the east. It is also a guaranteed barrier to keep inquisitive and independent white teenagers from daring to travel downtown, except in the safety of their parents’ SUVs.” – Email from Mark, Syracuse

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Durham, North Carolina

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Charlotte, North Carolina

“I grew up Charlotte in a small community in the west side of the city and my grandparents had purchased a home in 1961. At that time, the community had a network of interconnected streets and then, later, decision makers decided to put two of the busiest interstates on the eastern seaboard right near the area, I-85 and I-77. And by the time I grew up, two blocks to the right of the house, there was I-85 and two blocks straight ahead was I-77. So I didn’t see the horizon as many people can from their front door. I saw fences and freeways.” – Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on the Diane Rehm Show

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Dallas, Texas

“I-30 blazes right through neighborhoods which are clearly defined as low income and mostly minority to the South and upper income in the North. There has been discussion recently to bury I-30 and re-connect the neighborhoods. Building Klyde Warren Park over Woodall Rogers is a great example of two neighborhoods (albeit both white) being brought back together via pedestrian bridging access. The park and the neighborhood connection has been a great success! And then there’s I-75 and Woodall Rogers. Both were originally build through African-American neighborhoods and on top of African-American cemeteries in the 1940s and the 1970s.” – Facebook comment from Maggie in Dallas

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Houston, Texas

“The same transportation pattern is planned in Houston to be completed in 10-15 years! I-45 separates downtown from the wealthier western suburbs. US-59 separates downtown from the eastern, historically minority and poorer neighborhoods. The current plan is to stack 45 on top of 59, providing seamless access to a growing and gentrifying downtown for the west side, creating a wall of highway between downtown and the poorer east side.” -Email from Taylor in Houston

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Roanoke, Virginia

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Comments have been edited for clarity, brevity and grammatical correctness.

Thanks so much to Chris Baronavski, Erica Hendry, Christopher Lewis and Phil Zelnar for their work on this project.

All images in this post are licensed through Creative Commons.

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