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The highways that destroyed the black neighborhoods are collapsing.  Some want to undo this legacy


Camara says her parents moved when she was a baby to another area of ​​Shreveport, Allendale, where she still lives. But now her current home is in danger of being bulldozed so that a second freeway, Interstate 49, can be connected directly through the city.

Shreveport leaders who want to trade Camara’s house for a highway adhere to the Dwight Eisenhower-era belief in the almighty good of the interstate highway system. The sentiment persists even decades after the underside of urban freeways became clear: pollution, noise, racism, shifting and congestion. For critics, Eisenhower’s highways were an issue in the heart of healthy cities.

Today, many of these urban highways are collapsing and a groundswell has appeared in cities across the country to demolish them. There are 30 local citizen-led campaigns to convince officials to cut freeways, according to Ben Crowther, who heads the “highways to the boulevards” program at the Congress for new town planning, a think tank dedicated to pedestrian urban environments. A Senate bill introduced last year called for $ 10 billion to be spent on relocating urban freeways. Even Detroit, perhaps America’s most car-dominated city, is considering cutting a stretch of freeway.

“Now more than ever, in the age of covid, people are rethinking how the streets and the infrastructure around them serve the people who live in cities,” Crowther told CNN Business.

Campaigners see highway removal plans as playing a role in racial justice and as a sort of amends for families displaced decades ago, like those in Camara.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is among those speaking out on the history of black neighborhoods disproportionately divided by highway plans, and called for right those wrongs.

But experts say replacing urban highways with boulevards offers no guarantee of racial justice and risks making matters worse. Rising land values ​​can trigger gentrification, damaging communities of color that have already suffered from the construction of highways.

“We need to think of not just ‘let’s go to a boulevard’ but a time of restorative justice for those who have suffered, as well as some preservation and prevention for the people who are still there,” said Calvin Gladney. , CEO of Smart Growth America, a community development organization.

The neighborhood that was

Detroit resident Kenneth Cox, 87, remembers hearing a young Aretha Franklin sing at his father’s New Bethel Baptist Church. located in the Black Bottom area. He reminded CNN Business of how he frequented the neighborhood indoor ice rink and loved vanilla ice cream at Barthwell’s, a drugstore chain.

“It was a black business mecca,” recalls Cox of Black Bottom, whose chic destination Gotham Hotel drew stars like Louie Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

But as the interstate road network was mapped out, Black Bottom was in its sights.

There was no black Detroit City Council members at the time, according to Jamon Jordan, a Detroit historian. The city’s five-member housing commission had a single black member, who quickly resigned in protest, according to Jordan.

Black Bottom was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for Interstate 375.

Fast forward to today, and Detroit and the state of Michigan are planning to tear down Interstate 375 and convert it to a boulevard. But for many Detroiters, the project at nothing to do with repairing the past.

PG Watkins, who runs the Archives for Black Bottom, which traces the history of Detroit, says some residents welcome the move so the neighborhood can thrive again, and others who believe the project is not for Black Detroit, but white residents can move in.

“A lot of people say, ‘We just have to be honest about why this is happening,’” Watkins said.

Mary Sheffield, the Detroit board member who represents neighborhoods near I-375, described the project to CNN Business as an effort by planners “to attract a different segment of society that in recent history didn’t was not residents of the city. ”

Stephanie Chang, a Michigan state senator who interviewed residents of largely black neighborhoods near I-375, found that most did not want the freeway cut.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Transportation, which is leading the project, told CNN Business that the project is not about gentrification, but mobility.

“It takes a 60-year-old highway with outdated interchanges, deteriorated bridges and pavements, and finding a suitable solution that takes into account safety, operations and improved connectivity for all users,” the carrier said. lyrics by Rob Morosi.

The department is working with the city of Detroit government, he added, which has programs and policies to deal with rising property values.

A spokesperson for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan asked about steps to ensure that Project I-375 benefits nearby black residents who may be at risk of gentrification, suggested the project was not such a case.

“The proposed Project 375 does not involve the displacement of any person – it involves the potential displacement of a suburban highway by a surface road,” said Mayor’s spokesman John Roach in an email. . “I am not aware that the potential inconvenience to commuters is a recognized form of gentrification.”

But the Michigan Department of Transportation said property values ​​and rents could rise in residential areas adjacent to I-375, indicating the project could trigger gentrification. The spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment on the ministry’s findings.

Gentrification appears to be on Buttigieg’s radar, but how he’s going to address it is unclear.

“There has been a legacy of misguided investments and missed opportunities in federal transportation policies that reinforce racial and economic inequalities,” Buttigieg said in a statement to CNN Business. “We need to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated in current projects.”

Buttigieg declined to detail the specific steps he recommended taking to avoid further damage to communities already affected by the highways.

He also wouldn’t say if he would step in and shut down Project I-49 at Shreveport, which is awaiting federal government approval. But he said ongoing projects were assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the ministry could step in to address communities’ concerns.

Jordan, the Detroit historian, finds that when he gives tours or lectures, few know the history of Black Bottom and Detroit businesses and institutions. He’s used to hearing from people who have heard that “black people messed up the city,” he said – a belief that the city was great when Henry Ford was in Detroit, and things were going. well until the black people take control of the city.

He called on the government to reach out to black businesses damaged by the destruction of the neighborhood over 60 years ago, so they can be among the beneficiaries of the redevelopment. And Jordan added that a historical marker and a a community center should be built in the new neighborhood to educate people about Black Bottom.

“There has to be some kind of recognition of what happened,” Jordan said. “There must be some misgivings with this story.”

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