Pathways to Displacement
Although the interstate highway system is a valuable asset for Americans, one researcher argues that its construction during the racially charged 1950s and 1960s increased segregation among urban populations.
Dr. Ray Mohl, the history department chair at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, studies the development of the nation’s interstates and their effect on people and the landscapes. In a new book, From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America, he provides a chapter on the impact of interstate construction on housing in centralized urban areas.
“My paper deals with housing destruction, but it’s an important part of the story,” Mohl says. “When you knock down homes for hundreds of thousands of people, you have to find new places for them to live.”
Mohl argues that postwar policymakers and highway builders — especially at the state and local level — used interstate construction to destroy minority neighborhoods, part of a concerted effort to reshape the racial landscapes of American cities.
Officials often made decisions with little or no public input and rarely provided for the relocation needs of people whose homes were destroyed by highway construction, Mohl says.
“The purpose of the interstate put out to the public was to create an interstate system to speed traffic between point A and point B. That was a good goal. There’s no doubt about that,” he says.
However, others saw highways as a means to solving perceived problems in urban America. Developers, unions, businessmen and city officials pushed for the interstate system believing it could stimulate downtown business, contribute to an appreciation of property values and counter “the threat posed by slum housing to the public health, safety, morals and welfare of the nation.”
In short, they intended to route interstates through poor neighborhoods, a process that destroyed large minority enclaves and displaced thousands of people.
“The problem with that is one person’s slum may be another person’s home,” Mohl says.
At least 330,000 urban housing units were destroyed as a direct result of federal highway building projects between 1957 and 1968. In the early 1960s, federal highway construction dislocated an average of 32,400 families each year.
During most of the expressway-building era, little was done to link highway planning with public or private housing construction or even with relocation assistance for displaced families, businesses or community institutions such as churches and schools, Mohl says.
Although federal funds paid for the bulk of interstate construction, state highway departments working with local officials selected the actual interstate routes, Mohl says. This allowed state and local officials to design urban expressways to carry out their own racial, housing and residential segregation agendas.
“The engineer’s perspective was changed and altered by the local considerations,” Mohl says. “In many plans, there were racial considerations in making the route decisions.”
Highway planners usually aimed interstate construction at poor, Black neighborhoods, but not in every case. In Chicago, expressways bulldozed swaths through a variety of ethnic neighborhoods. In Boston, they cut through Chinatown and part of the city’s Italian North End. In New York City, they ripped through a primarily working-class Jewish community.
In the end, highways and the urban renewal destroyed more inner-city housing than was being built at the time, Mohl says. The expressway building of the 1950s and the 1960s produced the much larger, more spatially isolated and more intensely segregated second ghettos characteristic of American society today.
Eventually, political pressure on federal officials led to a softening of the narrow, technocratic engineering mentality that had dominated interstate construction. As a result, some routes were altered to avoid neighborhood destruction, while other projects were canceled.
Congressional legislation also was enacted to require highway projects after 1965 to provide relocation housing in advance of construction. By that time, Mohl says, most of urban interstates were in place and their damage was done.
“History has no easy lessons,” Mohl says. “What can we learn is how we got where we are and develop a sensitivity to the problems that occurred getting here.”
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