The racist story of the American highway boom

When President Eisenhower created the US Interstate Highway System in 1956, transportation planners tore the country’s urban areas with highways that divided black communities through intent and indifference. In total, more than 1 million people across the country lost their homes in the first two decades of motorway construction alone.

In 1967 Nashville civil servants added a curve to Interstate 40 to avoid a white community and demolish hundreds of homes and businesses in a prominent black neighborhood. Highway planners in Birmingham, Alabama did the same with the routing of Interstate 59.

After Ku Klux Klan leaders and others destroyed the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the nation’s deadliest massacre a century ago, residents quickly rebuilt the industrial park known as Black Wall Street. But the neighborhood was finally demolished when Interstate 244 and US 75 were built through its center in 1971.

In several places the east-west route of Interstate 10 through Los Angeles County devoured different Black and Latino districts.

In Boyle Heights, highways, including the 135-acre East Los Angeles interchange – one of the busiest interstates in the country where Interstates 5 and 10, US 101, and State Route 60 meet – have at least 10,000 people in a former Mexican and multiethnic Community in the 50s and 60s. In South Los Angeles, an affluent black area called Sugar Hill was bulldozed. Then, to build the terminus of Interstate 10 on the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, engineers paved the Pico district, forcing the city’s pockets of black, Mexican, and Japanese residents to leave the city.

All of this came about not only because of explicitly racist decisions, but also because of the influence of race on the country’s housing and economic policies at the time, said Eric Avila, a professor of history and Chicano studies at UCLA and author of several books on urban highways.

The freeway program worked with contemporary urban renewal efforts aimed at scrapping low-quality homes and businesses and replacing them with new developments and easy commuter routes for newly embossed suburbs.

But these new suburbanites were almost all white. Discriminatory real estate practices and low-interest loans made only to white residents prevented others from moving to new subdivisions. In contrast, highway builders often defended ownership of black neighborhood land by arguing that land was cheapest there – a fact based on government-sponsored mortgage redlining guidelines that discouraged investment in black areas.

“Black quarters were seen as rot. They were considered slums, ”said Avila. “The prevailing perspective of the time was the eradication of the rot, the elimination of the slums. These quarters were simply wiped out without attempting to repair the damage caused. “

Another reason highways ran through Black and Latino neighborhoods was because of political power. As widespread backlash to highways construction increased in the late 1960s, white communities were often able to block or divert the roads.

Across southern California, highways crossing the Black and Latino neighborhoods – such as Interstates 5, 10 and 110 – were completed, while those crossing whiter, more affluent areas in Reseda, Laurel Canyon and Beverly Hills were stopped.

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