How America Built Its Highways to Serve the Wealthy and White

The following is an excerpt from The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City by Eric Avila. Copyright © 2014. Reprinted with permission of University of Minnesota Press.

In this age of divided government, we look to the 1950s as a golden age of bipartisan unity. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, often invokes the landmark passage of the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act to remind the nation that Republicans and Democrats can unite under a shared sense of common purpose. Introduced by President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, the Federal Aid Highway Act, originally titled the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act, won unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans alike, uniting the two parties in a shared commitment to building a national highway infrastructure. This was big government at its biggest, the single largest federal expenditure in American history before the advent of the Great Society.

Yet although Congress unified around the construction of a national highway system, the American people did not. Contemporary nostalgia for bipartisan support around the Interstate Highway Act ignores the deep fissures that it inflicted on the American city after World War II: literally, by cleaving the urban built environment into isolated parcels of race and class, and figuratively, by sparking civic wars over the freeway’s threat to specific neighborhoods and communities. This book explores the conflicted legacy of that megaproject: even as the interstate highway program unified a nation around a 42,800-mile highway network, it divided the American people, as it divided their cities, fueling new social tensions that flared during the tumultuous 1960s.

Talk of a “freeway revolt” permeates the annals of American urban history. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a generation of scholars and journalists introduced this term to describe the groundswell of grassroots opposition to urban highway construction. Their account saluted the urban women and men who stood up to state bulldozers, forging new civic strategies to rally against the highway-building juggernaut and to defeat the powerful interests it represented. It recounted these episodic victories with flair and conviction, doused with righteous invocations of “power to the people.” In the afterglow of the sixties, a narrative of the freeway revolt emerged: a grass- roots uprising of civic-minded people, often neighbors, banding together to defeat the technocrats, the oil companies, the car manufacturers, and ultimately the state itself, saving the city from the onslaught of automobiles, expressways, gas stations, parking lots, and other civic detriments. This story has entered the lore of the sixties, a mythic “shout in the street” that proclaimed the death of the modernist city and its master plans.

By and large, however, the dominant narrative of the freeway revolt is a racialized story, describing the victories of white middle-class or affluent communities that mustered the resources and connections to force concessions from the state. If we look closely at where the freeway revolt found its greatest success—Cambridge, Massachusetts; Lower Manhattan; the French Quarter in New Orleans; Georgetown in Washington D.C.; Beverly Hills, California; Princeton, New Jersey; Fells Point in Baltimore—we discover what this movement was really about and whose interests it served. As bourgeois counterparts to the inner-city uprising, the disparate victories of the freeway revolt illustrate how racial and class privilege structure the metropolitan built environment, demonstrating the skewed geography of power in the postwar American city.

One of my colleagues once told me a joke: if future anthropologists want to find the remains of people of color in a postapocalypse America, they will simply have to find the ruins of the nearest freeway. Yet such collegial jocularity contained a sobering reminder that the victories associated with the freeway revolt usually did not extend to urban communities of color, where highway construction often took a disastrous toll. To greater and lesser degrees, race—racial identity and racial ideology—shaped the geography of highway construction in urban America, fueling new patterns of racial inequality that exacerbated an unfolding “urban crisis” in postwar America. In many southern cities, local city planners took advantage of federal moneys to target black communities point-blank; in other parts of the nation, highway planners found the paths of least resistance, wiping out black commer- cial districts, Mexican barrios, and Chinatowns and desecrating land sacred to indigenous peoples. The bodies and spaces of people of color, historically coded as “blight” in planning discourse, provided an easy target for a federal highway program that usually coordinated its work with private redevelop- ment schemes and public policies like redlining, urban renewal, and slum clearance.

My colleague’s joke also signaled a shared suspicion among city people of color that the interstate generation of freeway builders targeted their communities with malicious intent. This conviction persists in the barrios and ghettos of American cities. In a 1997 interview, for example, a former Overtown resident begged to understand why state officials routed Interstate 95 through the heart of Miami’s historic black neighborhood: “Now all you white folk . . . you tell me the justification. . . . If that isn’t racism you tell me what it is.” In St. Paul, Minnesota, after Interstate 94 bisected the city’s historic black neighborhood, a former resident explained his belief that the “white man’s freeway” was built to “allow white people to get from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis five, ten minutes faster.” And as the following chapters illustrate, such racially inflected skepticism also finds recurring ex- pression in the barrios of southwestern cities like East Los Angeles, where six major freeways ravaged the area during the 1960s, just as it transitioned into the nation’s largest concentration of Mexican American poverty.

In the context of urban history, infrastructure can make or break a community. In the United States, the historical development of urban infrastructure has both formed and followed the inscriptions of race, class, and gender on the urban landscape. Ample in more affluent communities, usually absent or minimal in historic concentrations of urban poverty, infrastructure does not serve its public equally. Some cities have a more equitable distribution of infrastructure than others, but many urban neighborhoods remain woefully underserved. During the postwar period, the interstate highways sparked the development of new communities, new jobs, and new forms of commerce and enterprise, particularly for the great white suburban middle class of the postwar era. They did not (and do not) serve affluent communities very well because many in those communities successfully resisted local routing proposals, and they often decimated poor, working-class, and racialized neighborhoods, wholly vulnerable to the conclusions that highway planners derived from their meticulous data. These neighborhoods harbored the very conditions that infrastructure is designed to prevent—congestion, pollution, disease, crime—yet remained bereft of public investment. A better solution, in the logic of the time, was to simply eradicate these communities altogether through invasive public-works projects. Small wonder, then, that urban communities of color continue to express a pervasive belief that conquest and modernization are two sides of the same unlucky coin.

This book strives to listen to what inner-city people think about the freeways that fracture their communities and to open our senses to what is seen and heard in the shadows of the freeway, in the communities exempt from the dominant narrative of the freeway revolt. To some extent, The Folklore of the Freeway records long-standing grievances against the freeway and its presence in the inner city, but it moves beyond a simplistic narrative of victimization to explore a dynamic relationship between structure and culture, between the physical fact of the freeway and its refraction through the prisms of identity, language, and place. The surprising results of this investigation tell us not only what freeways do to inner-city people, but also what people do to inner-city freeways. Spatial justice remains elusive in the barrio and the ghetto, but there the freeway revolt continues.


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