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Groups across the country fight the expansion of ‘harmful’ highways

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Nearly 60 years after a mile-long highway uprooted a few busy black neighborhoods in Detroit, leaders plan to convert part of the highway into a lower-speed boulevard in a $300 million project that will rebuild those neighborhoods. and will reduce the pollution of the highway. Last month, the Biden administration awarded Michigan $104.6 million in grants from the United States 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to help with the project.

Black Bottom was a predominantly black neighborhood in the city, and the adjacent Paradise Valley served as the city’s entertainment and business district, home to jazz clubs and various other Black-owned properties. The area was razed to the ground and some 100,000 black residents were displaced when the city built Interstate 375 in 1964 as part of the country’s highway program, which created more than 40,000 miles of highways in the United States — homes demolishing, crippling communities and perpetuating inequality in the process.

“It’s a physical barrier that divides a community or separates one community from another,” said Antoine Bryant, director of planning and development in Detroit. “It’s an important initiative where we want to make sure we’re righting a policy that was essentially 60 years ago. It not only led to the demise of the center for African American culture, housing, and promotional activities, but also the elimination of generational wealth for many African Americans in the city.

The project, which will break ground in 2024, will fill in the ditch that carries the highway and add amenities such as bike paths, wider sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, Bryant said. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg acknowledged the damaging effects of the 1956 highway program at the launch of the grant initiative over the summer, saying, “We can’t ignore the basic truth that some of the planners and politicians behind these projects have built them right in the heart of vibrant, populated communities — sometimes in an effort to reinforce segregation. Sometimes because the people there had less resistance. And sometimes as part of a direct effort to replace or eliminate black neighborhoods.”

The stories of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom are well known in cities across the country. From 1957 to 1977, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 more than 475,000 households and 1 million people displaced, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Decades later, state and city leaders across the country are battling the now-obsolete roads, and many residents are urging them to face past decisions to build highways that have negatively impacted black and Latino communities. But what some consider to be a past to reckon with is an ongoing injustice, say proponents across the country fighting to prevent highways from being built or expanded through black and Latino neighborhoods.

In Houston, Stop TxDOT I-45 organizers are begging the state to cancel plans to widen Interstate 45 from downtown Houston to the Sam Houston Tollway, by adding lanes in each direction. to the Houston Chronicle. Widening the highway would bring numerous environmental concerns – air pollution and flooding – as well as social concerns. Under the plan, at least 300 companies employing more than 24,000 people would uproot and destroy 1,400 homes to NBC affiliate KXAS. Organizers with Stop TxDOT I-45 said expansion into the area would hurt the predominantly black and Latino communities along the stretch.

Kendra London joined Stop TxDOT I-45 three years ago when she learned of the state’s plans to expand the highway. She said her family, who have lived in the Fifth Ward for a long time, were displaced in the 1970s during the construction of Interstate 10. So she is aware of the damaging effects of highway projects. Growing up, she heard stories of her grandmother coming home from work only to learn that she would no longer have a backyard due to the highway expansion.

“They expelled residents in 73; they’re going to evict the residents here again in 2022,” the 41-year-old London said of the Texas Department of Transportation. She highlighted a few public residential communities planned to be removed for the highway widening. “It’s going to destroy Clayton Homes, they’re going to destroy the back of Kelly Village. The residents don’t know where they are going.”

A Stop TxDOT I-45 protest in Houston, Texas on June 21.Thanks to Brian Barr

Texas Department of Transportation officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a TxDOT spokeswoman, Veronica Beyer, told: the Houston Chronicle that the extension is necessary. “As more people move to Texas, the reality is that our roads will get busier and busier. Without additional capacity, the increased traffic will spread further into neighborhoods and local streets,” Beyer said.

About 350 miles away, residents of Allendale, Louisiana, work to I-49 Inner City Connector Projectwhich would extend a 3.6-mile stretch of I-49 through the small, predominantly black neighborhood in Shreveport. Dorothy Wiley, part of the Allendale Strong advocacy group, said she has lived in Allendale for more than 15 years after fleeing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“It would destroy the park and drive over a bayou,” Wiley said of the connector. “It would knock out all the houses here and some businesses, churches. And living within 150 meters of a highway causes asthma, heart problems and premature birth. Let’s invest in the neighborhoods threatened by these highways. We can heal more communities.”

The proposed plan would connect I-49 to I-49 North at the I-20 interchange in Shreveport, according to a website for the project. State leaders have been working on the plan since 2009. But Wiley said Allendale Strong has been barred from talks about the plan. “Allendale Strong has no voice of its own in the process. We are treated as if we don’t count. They are ignoring our informed input,” she said.

However, some welcome the connector. Bruce Roberts, director of the North Shreveport Business Association, told KTSB that the connector would provide better access to Allendale and stimulate economic development. “There you see the developments attracting, there you see companies attracting because they have a larger area. I think we need to see what the bigger picture is here,” he said.

Neither the Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments nor the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development immediately responded to a request for comment.

Stop TxDOT I-45 and Allendale Strong are two of the more than 70 groups across the country that have the Freeway Fighters Network, a coalition of groups advocating the dismantling of harmful highways and urging city leaders not to expand highways or build new ones. Ben Crowther, who coordinates the network, said that in addition to the Detroit plan, Interstate 81 in Syracuse, New York, and the McGrath Highway in Sommerville, Massachusetts, are other highway-to-boulevard projects that are close to being scrapped. Such projects seek to address pollution and social damage by transforming outdated highways into slower-speed streets. From Maine to California, groups are waging their own battles against city and state leaders on these highways, which, Crowther says, is proof that highways wiping out and polluting black and Latino neighborhoods aren’t just a thing of the past.

“The moment we try to repair damage that we have caused, we also have to stop causing new damage,” said Crowther, explaining how the network came to be. “We actually hadn’t stopped building new highways that are still harmful to communities, especially communities of color. We wanted to bring all these local coalitions together to create a national movement, a unified voice to push the public and the federal government to repair some of the damage the road network has caused and stop causing new ones. injury.”

Crowther said the grants and support through Biden’s infrastructure plan is a big step in the right direction, but urges leaders to think beyond just removing highways. Lauren Hood, chairman of Detroit’s planning committee, said the city must consider how it will restore the community, even after Interstate 375 is gone. Hood said it’s unlikely that officials even factored in the demolished city in their plans to remove the highway before residents brought its history to their attention. Hood recalled attending a public meeting of the Michigan Department of Transportation in 2021, where officials talked about the walkability of a new boulevard but “didn’t mention Black Bottom once.”

She said “negative feedback” from those in attendance, frustrated that officials had not initially recognized Black Bottom, most likely prompted city and state leaders to include the devastated Black neighborhood on the I-375 plan.

“We should think about long-term repair,” Hood said, focusing on the black communities affected by the highway. “We owe something, something that lasts forever. Not just a one-time offer. Not only does a fee have to be paid; we also need power. We also need to be in a position to hold agencies accountable so that something like this doesn’t happen again.”

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