Interstate 75

Imagine the interstates that you drive on everyday suddenly being demolished, disappearing — that’s what some advocates are calling for. They want interstates that were built at the expense of black neighborhoods to be torn down.

According to The Pew Trust, several of our highways and interstates were built at the expense of black neighborhoods, including Interstate 10 in New Orleans, Interstate 95 in Miami, Interstate 40 in Nashville and others.

“The highway system, in its planning and implementation, drove a physical wedge through many parts of America,” said former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Most of today’s interstates were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Today, thousands of miles of interstates and highways criss cross the country, connecting city to city but advocates say those highways have a dark past.

According to the Pew Trust, “swarths of a Black neighborhood called Overton,” was bulldozed to build Interstate 95 in Miami.

In Nashville, Tennessee, 620 houses, 27 apartment buildings and 6 black churches were flattened to build Interstate 40.

In New Orleans, a once-treelined neighborhood was cleared for Interstate 10.

“This place was the center of the community, and they wiped it off the map,” said Jay Arzu, referring to the placement of Interstate 10. “It hurt this neighborhood — and is still hurting it.” 

Interstate 81 in Syracuse, New York, decimated the 15th Ward, a close-knit neighborhood of working African Americans.

In Los Angeles, “The 10 Freeway is a prime example. It split the affluent northern parts of the LA basin from some of the economically struggling Black areas of South LA. This affected thriving Black communities, including the Pico neighborhood in Santa Monica and the Sugar Hill area in West Adams,” KCRW reported.

In Charlotte, a neighborhood called Brooklyn was flattened for what would become I-277. 1,500 buildings were torn down, and thousands of black families were displaced; 200 mostly black-owned businesses were also shuttered.

“There is a reckoning taking place,” Arzu said. “Anyone who digs deep enough realizes now that urban planning contained a degree of racism in the past.” 

By 1980, there were more than 40,000 miles of interstate. Since the 80s, an additional 5,000 miles have been added and thousands more in widening and expansion are planned but some communities are working to “resolve the racist planning decisions their predecessors made 60 years ago,” the Pew Trust states.

“In the first 20 years of the federal interstate system alone, Foxx said, highway construction displaced 475,000 families and over a million Americans. Most of them were low-income people of color in urban cores,” Think Progress wrote in a 2016 article.

Some states have started working to began reforming their interstate systems. Massachusetts, California and Texas plan to either cap some of their freeways or convert them to boulevards.

“Those cities include Milwaukee, which demolished a downtown freeway spur in the early 2000s, and Rochester, New York, whose success repurposing the former site of a sunken highway is often cited by teardown proponents. Since removing the so-called Inner Loop in 2017, the city has rebuilt the street grid and parceled out new spaces for affordable housing, retail stores and a local museum expansion,” the Pew Trust reported.

To date, 14 cities have either bulldozed or downgraded their freeways.

“The effort is to try to create a slightly more equitable Rochester,” said Arian Horbovetz. “In removing these highways, we’re facing aspects of our racist past. That’s the hard part.” 

While many cities are demolishing statues that memorialize confederate leaders, these advocates say that our highways are monuments of our country’s systemic racism.

“Freeways don’t look like monuments. They’re not statues. They’re these enormous, concrete, miles-long structures that very much speak to racist elements of regional planning, racist elements of politics, and racist elements of what, at the time, was considered to be progress,” Josh Stephens told KCRW.

You can listen to a podcast called Upzoned, with host Abby Kinney, a planner in Kansas City, and co-host Chuck Marohn, president of Strong Town. The two discuss an op-ed written by Matthew Fleischer, senior digital editor for the Los Angeles Times, about the suggested demolition of what he called “one of the most noxious monuments to racism and segregation in the country”: Los Angeles freeways.

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