How highways wrecked American cities

How highways wrecked American cities

October 13, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


It’s hard to picture American cities without
the highways running through their core, but highway removal projects, like this one
in Boston, can give us a sense of how disruptive it was when the US built huge highways through
the cities after World War 2. “These new highways will have a far reaching
economic impact on the entire nation!” That was definitely true. Highways revolutionized
the ways we transport goods. But inside cities, they demolished and isolated entire neighborhoods,
…they gave wealthy taxpayers a way out of the city and gave air pollution and traffic
noise a way in. And they redesigned urban life around the
car: Now 85 percent of Americans drive to work every day. So why did American cities agree to build
highways that were bad for cities?? It’s a really interesting question, and
part of it goes back to the 1930s, when a group of auto interests such as General Motors
and AAA formed something called the National Highway Users Conference.
They began lobbying for taxes that would help fund highway construction.
General Motors started to design what a new highway system could look like. And they displayed
that vision at the 1939 World’s Fair with “Futurama”, an exhibit featuring expressways
that not only connected cities, but ran right through them. It was a design that allowed
for more cars and less congestion. By 1955, the Department of Commerce echoed
GM’s vision with something called the “Yellow Book.” It laid out all the routes that interstates
would take throughout the country under Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Act of 1956, which funded
the national highway system. A lot of it is logical, its connecting most
of the US’ major cities, but the really interesting thing is that you also have highways
slicing right through the downtowns of many of these cities. Pretty much every major city
in the country — New York, DC, San Francisco, Philadelphia — you have major highways cutting through neighborhoods,
requiring the demolition of lots of housing and other sorts of buildings.
That’s largely because some of the key contributors to the plan were auto industry members — but no urban planners.
And that’s because the profession barely even existed at the time. Nowadays there’s
a value placed on preserving neighborhoods, keeping cities intact, and that concept really
just didn’t exist in the 40s and 50s … So when people were talking about connecting
the country with highways it seemed natural to drive them through the centers of cities
as well. Local municipalities were particularly eager
to build highways under this plan because 90 percent of funding came from the federal
government and the other 10 percent from states. There’s also a darker side to the reason why all these
planners wanted to build highways through downtowns and urban neighborhoods.
Highways not only paved the way for more and more white people to move into homogenous
suburbs, they also provided cover for targeted demolitions inside the city.
During that era, federal policies and implicit priorities in planners dictated that if you
had vibrant dense downtown neighborhoods filled mostly with African American residents, instead
of being preserved under the plan, they were slated as targets for removal. They were considered
“blight,” and an easy way of getting rid of that blight was by demolishing them and paving
a highway through it. “Neighborhoods and streetcars were pushed aside to make way for the automobile.” Look at the neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit. When you go back to the 30s and 40s, these
are thriving, dense neighborhoods filled with hundreds of thousands of residents, of businesses,
and if you go back today, they’re mostly just empty grass plots.
This wasn’t just a historical accident, it became a pattern in cities across the country.
Poor and minority residents were displaced to make way for highways, and white residents
used those highways to commute into the city for jobs and commute back home at night.
The only exception to this pattern is in places where highways were slated to go through wealthy
neighborhoods. There were actually proposals to put a highway
through northwest DC. And through Greenwich Village in Manhattan. But you can guess what
happened there. Anywhere where residents had the means to
organize and protest, they were often able to stop the highways from being built, whereas
in places where residents didn’t have the political capital, and other sorts of privileges
that allow you to do that, their neighborhoods ended up being demolished, and they’re now highways today. Even before he signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956 Eisenhower was already a really big fan of highways in general. Part of that has to do with his time in Germany during World War 2, where he realized how important it is to have a good system of highways to transport goods and people very efficiently. But it also has to do with this military road trip that he took in 1919, where he went all the way from Washington, DC to San Francisco, California. And that road trip took 62 days at the time. Today, it takes about 42 hours. And part of that had to do with the state of cars at the time, but it also had to do with the state of roads at the time. After seeing that, he realized that 62 days was way too long to wait in any situation where they might need to defend the country. And that’s where he became such a big fan of highways.