Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently kicked off a social media frenzy when he said that racism has sometimes been a part of highway planning and construction.
The remarks came in an interview conducted by the Grio, a news outlet focusing on news of special interest to a Black audience.
“There is racism physically built into some of our highways, and that’s why the jobs plan has specifically committed to reconnect some of the communities that were divided by these dollars,” Buttigieg said during the interview, which was published on April 6. He was referring to President Joe Biden’s proposal known as the American Jobs Plan, which would provide funding for various types of infrastructure, including roads, highways and bridges.
Three days after the interview, Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group, tweeted Buttigieg’s statement with the mocking caption, “This is not parody.”
Replies flooded in, accusing the group’s tweet of being ignorant of history. “Anyone who has ever studied road-building history of *any* major American city knows what Pete B. was talking about,” tweeted James Fallows, a writer with The Atlantic.
We reached out to experts on highways and urban history and found wide support for Buttigieg’s assertion, although other factors often played a role as well. Buttigieg’s office also provided links to articles on the subject.
Even in cases where it’s hard to document whether racist thinking explicitly drove highway construction, the existence of divided and weakened neighborhoods in so many cities has been “racist in effect,” said Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.
Highway planning in U.S. urban areas
While some examples of racism in U.S. highway planning have been cited from the 1930s and 1940s, the highest-profile allegations have involved the Interstate Highway System, which was established in the mid-1950s and was in its heaviest design and building phase through the mid-1970s.
Most of the system consists of inter-city routes, which generally run through lightly populated areas and have attracted little controversy. However, the routes through cities — which often required the clearing of densely populated neighborhoods — were controversial at the time, and have only become more so in recent years.
One fundamental reality of road-building, experts say, is to keep costs down, and the price tag for land acquisition can sometimes exceed the cost of construction.
Sometimes the quest for cheaper real estate led through public parks or dilapidated waterfronts. These produced some unpopular examples of vista-scarring blight — some of which were later torn down or scaled back, such as the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco.
But in other cases, highway planners eyed routes through populated areas — and “inevitably, this sent interstates barreling through the poorest parts of town,” Swift said. “In the years during which the system was being laid out, that usually meant African American neighborhoods.”
Often, the motivations for road-building came from political and business leaders in urban centers, who sought to stop the loss of population and businesses from downtown by luring back car-driving suburbanites, said Mark H. Rose, a historian at Florida Atlantic University.
“In hindsight, we correctly understand that a tacit racism was a part of many of the planners’ decisions,” said Tom Lewis, the author of Divided Highways and a professor of English at Skidmore College. “It was rarely, if ever, overt. Planners had little guidance other than to create a safe highway at the least possible cost.”
But he added: “The effects on the underrepresented, especially Blacks and Latinos, were devastating.”
Often, extra-wide rights of way were approved so that “decaying” homes and apartments in a project’s path could be demolished. “It seemed a win-win to planners, but it didn’t feel that way to the people who found themselves in the juggernaut’s path,” Swift said.
Black neighborhoods scarred by highways
There are numerous examples of Interstate highways tearing through existing neighborhoods populated largely by people of color.
In Miami, I-95 ran through the predominantly Black neighborhood of Overtown. In Alabama, portions of I-65 or I-85 were routed through Black communities in Montgomery and Birmingham. In Los Angeles, freeway planners targeted Boyle Heights, a neighborhood with many Mexican Americans.
In North Carolina, a freeway decimated the “Black Wall Street of the South” in Durham’s Hayti neighborhood. The North Claiborne Avenue area of New Orleans was the home of the Black Mardi Gras, but in the early 1960s, highway planners all but destroyed the neighborhood for an elevated section of I-10. Other examples can be found in Baltimore, Detroit and Richmond, Va., among other cities.
Sometimes Interstates were built in ways that kept racial groups apart.
“In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear,” Princeton University historian Kevin M. Kruse has written. “Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as ‘the boundary between the white and Negro communities on the west side of town.”
In St. Paul, Minn., I-94 was built through the Rondo neighborhood, which had been settled initially by Jewish residents and then by African Americans moving out of the tenements of downtown St. Paul, said Rebecca Wingo, a historian at the University of Cincinnati who has written about the history of Rondo along with community resident Marvin Anderson.
Initially, developers proposed two routes, one along an abandoned railroad and the other along Rondo Avenue, the neighborhood’s main artery. The state chose the path through the Black neighborhood.
“Some residents took the lowball offer on their home and moved away; others fought through the legal system; still others sat on their front porches with shotguns and waited for police,” Wingo and Anderson wrote.
All told, the highway construction displaced over 750 families and 125 businesses. “But it’s not like Rondo residents were able to go and buy a new home for the price of their payment — their homes were undervalued, and racist housing covenants prevented residents from buying in certain areas,” Wingo told PolitiFact.
The legacy of Robert Moses
One of the most notorious examples of racism in highway planning predates the Interstate system: the Southern State Parkway on New York’s Long Island, which was built by the powerful planner Robert Moses.
In Robert Caro’s critical biography of Moses, The Power Broker, Caro reveals that Moses ordered his engineers to build the bridges low over the parkway to keep buses from New York City away from Jones Beach, making it less accessible for many poor minorities without cars.
Thomas J. Campanella, a professor of architecture, art, and planning at Cornell University, investigated the anecdote and found aesthetic concerns may have played a role — but that unusually low bridges on the parkway give credence to the allegation of racism.
“It’s fair to say that the Southern State Parkway has racism in its DNA,” Campanella told PolitiFact.
Controversial highways in white neighborhoods
Buttigieg referred to the racist legacy in “some of our highways.” But some racially mixed or predominantly white neighborhoods also found themselves in the path of urban Interstate projects.
Steven Malanga, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, has noted several examples, such as I-70 in Indianapolis, which was routed through the multiracial Southside neighborhood, and Boston’s Central Artery Project, which sliced through the largely Italian American North End (and which was, after many years, rerouted underground).
“I have no doubt given those times and the breadth of projects that, in some cases, planners targeted low-income Black neighborhoods because they were easier targets,” Malanga told PolitiFact. “That was reprehensible, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the system was built on widely racist terms.”
Moses’ projects also affected mixed or predominantly white neighborhoods. “His Gowanus Expressway destroyed New York City’s largest Scandinavian community, in Sunset Park,” Campanella said. “The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway blew out the Italian and Puerto-Rican neighborhoods of South Brooklyn and much of working-class Jewish Williamsburg. The Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed a vibrant Jewish community in the Bronx.”
Moses “was an equal opportunity offender,” Campanella said.
Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway, planned in the 1950s, would have cut a swath through SoHo and Little Italy, said David Goldfield, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. But the project was scuttled when residents — who were mostly white and predominantly from nearby Greenwich Village — organized to stop it.
Elsewhere, too, residents were able to stop projects from tearing through neighborhoods. A planned highway in Washington, D.C., drew fierce opposition from Black and white residents alike, since it would have run through a combination of wealthier and lower-income neighborhoods. And in Baltimore, an alliance between the city’s poor and working class of all races stopped I-70 from entering the city proper.
“The most successful efforts to stop the highways were not those that focused on racial justice or those that were put in place to protect Black communities,” Deborah Archer, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and a professor at New York University School of Law, told NPR. “The people who were most successful were the ones that focused on environmental justice and protecting parks and their communities in that way, not because we were concerned about the massive destruction and disproportionate impact that the highway construction had on Black communities.”
Buttigieg said, “There is racism physically built into some of our highways.”
In city after city, highways of the Interstate era and before have prompted the demolition or fragmentation of Black neighborhoods — due, historians say, to a combination of racism, lower acquisition costs for real estate, and weaker political muscle to oppose the projects.
Mixed neighborhoods and those inhabited by lower-income white Americans were also divided, or at least targeted, by highway planners.
We rate the statement True.
Amy Sherman contributed to this article.