Highways Transformed Modern Environment, For Better And Worse

May 6, 2016

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is shining a light on the country’s highway system, which connected post-war America, while cutting through the heart of many inner cities. Here's a look at the legacy of the interstate system.

Florida's Old Capital circa 1970, seen from Apalachee Parkway. A black neighborhood called Smokey Hollow was leveled to make way for the road.
Credit https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/14144

The Eisenhower Interstate System sent veins of concrete crisscrossing the nation, connecting cities to the suburbs, and cementing the automobile’s place in the American imagination.

“This is the American dream: a freedom on wheels. An automotive age, traveling on time-saving superhighways...”

That’s a documentary on the highway system, produced by General Motors in 1954. This sweeping network, designed to bind the country together, also cut through the heart of inner cities: I-95 in Miami, I-277 in Charlotte, I-375 in Detroit. Neighborhoods were leveled, their residents forced out or isolated by the new construction. Nearly 1 million people were displaced, many of them from low-income, minority communities.

“Remember a lot of this activity and a lot of the decisions were made prior to the federal civil rights legislation, prior to the Voting Rights Act. And so decision makers really thought of low income and minority communities in many ways as the communities of least resistance,” he said.

That’s U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. He grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the shadow of a highway expansion project.

“This area was not an area where you had chain grocery stores. It wasn’t an area where you had pharmacies. It wasn’t an area where the doctor’s office was located. And part of that was it was harder to get to. It became clear to me only later that these freeways were carrying people through my area, but not really to it,” he said.

Jeff Brown is an urban planning professor at Florida State University. He says, for policymakers the benefits of the highways were twofold: expanding public mobility, and eliminating so-called 'urban blight'.

“A lot of the press accounts and what people were talking about, slum clearance and clearing out neighborhoods that were sort of seen as being in the way of local progress. And of course those neighborhoods tended to be disproportionately low income and/or minority neighborhoods,” he said.

The Smokey Hollow Commemoration, seen from underneath Apalachee Parkway.

In Tallahassee there is a memorial for one of these communities, called Smokey Hollow. Just down the hill from the state capitol, the churches, businesses, and homes were deemed an eyesore. The neighborhood was destroyed and displaced to make way for Apalachee Parkway, the iconic drive leading up to the capitol building. Today, the frames of recreated shotgun houses, gardens and fruit trees stand beneath the highway that replaced them. Cicero Hartsfield was six when his family left Smokey Hollow.

“It was a community where the people were tight-knit. Part of that was just a means of survival, considering that segregation was still very strong during those times. Things where people shared food, help when somebody needed some assistance,” he said.

Fifty years later, Florida’s transportation system is still car-centric, pushing pedestrians and cyclists to the way side. Plans to expand the state’s highways, such as the Tampa Bay Expressway, are met with public resistance. Residents of Seminole Heights worry the expressway will destroy their neighborhood. Critics believe more lanes will only lead to more traffic. Secretary Foxx says if policymakers want to learn from past mistakes, and they must consider the communities, not just the commuters.