But where would all these new highways go? In a 1954 statement to the President’s Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program, Robert Moses, then an influential urban planner in New York City, said that the new highways “must go right through cities and not around them.”
In many cases, planners and local officials steered the routes of the highways through what they termed “blighted” neighborhoods in the name of “slum clearance.” The American suburbs boomed as highways cropped up, with wealthier residents moving out of cities and now commuting to work by car.
According to Ben Crowther of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an organization that tracks highway removal projects across the country, state and federal officials disproportionally built the highways through communities of color in cities. This happened because their properties had been devalued through redlining, a discriminatory practice in which people were denied loans or mortgages because minority neighborhoods were deemed unworthy of investment by banks and other lenders. This made the cost of land in these areas much cheaper for the government to acquire for construction.
“As a highway builder, you’re looking for the path of least resistance when choosing the path for your highway,” Crowther says. He adds that, politically speaking, communities of color didn’t have powerful allies willing to advocate for them when highway builders developed plans for their routes.
As a result, many highways were built through the heart of urban communities. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates highway construction displaced members of more than 475,000 households between 1957 and 1977, with more than a million individuals displaced nationwide.
To name a few examples, in Miami, Florida, the expansion of I-95 through the vibrant Black community of Overtown led to the destruction of 87 acres of housing and commercial property. The construction of I-94 through the Black neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul, Minnesota, resulted in an estimated 600 families displaced and 300 businesses shuttered. And freeway construction through the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles pushed out at least 10,000 residents in the 1950s and 60s.
In other cities, such as Atlanta, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, the highways ripped through a path that reinforced already-existing racial divides between Black and White neighborhoods.
“When you use or drive upon a highway, that’s infrastructure that’s built at someone else’s expense,” says Crowther. “Should we be reinvesting in that type of infrastructure if it has winners and losers like that?”