When Interstate 244 rammed through Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood in the 1970s, the community had already experienced the wrath of racism. In 1921, a white mob had unleashed horrific violence against the Black neighborhood, killing 300 people and destroying 35 acres of commercial and residential property. Then in the 1930s, redlining policies in Oklahoma’s highly segregated second-largest city had made it impossible for Black Tulsans to own property in the only part of town they could live.
By the late 1960s, the area was declared “blighted” and targeted for demolition in the name of “urban renewal.” Five decades after it had been wrecked, Greenwood was wrecked again.
The story of I-244 and its disastrous effects on a community is one that’s repeated across the country, as Black and brown neighborhoods were ravaged to make space for highways in the ’60s and ’70s. Now, many of those highways are nearing the end of their lifespans. A new report identifies 15 of the worst offenders and advocates for their removal, which would alleviate pollution, spur economic development, and dismantle a tool that has long been used to perpetuate racial segregation. An estimated 11.3 million people live within 500 feet of a major highway according to figures from 2010, and a disproportionate number of them are racial and ethnic minorities.
The Freeways Without Futures report was published by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), an organization that advocates for walkable cities, and it comes in the midst of President Biden’s infrastructure plan rollout, which calls for a $20 billion fund to reconnect neighborhoods cut off by old transportation projects. Some of these, like I-10 in New Orleans and I-81 in Syracuse, New York, are included in the report.
In Oklahoma, Tulsa’s Young Professionals Urbanist Crew—created through an initiative of the Tulsa Regional Chamber to attract and retain young, creative talent—has now put forth a proposal to tear down I-244, which is one of the highways listed in the report, and rebuild the street grid that predated it. The proposal seeks to right decades of racist planning, but is still in its infancy. In other cities, highway removal has been a part of the conversation for years.
In the Black neighborhood of Tremé in New Orleans, Claiborne Avenue once boasted a grassy median lined with century-old oak trees and over 120 Black-owned businesses. When bulldozers came to clear the land for the construction of I-10 in 1966, they destroyed a landmark public space that was central to the neighborhood’s Black community, and doomed its thriving business corridor, where property values rapidly diminished and the number of businesses fell to only 35 in 2010.
The Claiborne Expressway was designed for a lifespan of 40 years, and at more than a decade past that, the structure is crumbling, and the pollution from it has been linked to higher rates of asthma, other lung diseases, and heart disease. Discussions about removing “the monster” (as locals call it) go back over a decade, but fears of gentrification, exacerbated by what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, have complicated the process. Residents have been conditioned to expect a neighborhood’s revitalization to lead to increased housing prices and displacement.
“It’s rooted in those years of gentrification rushing in and poor and Black people being pushed out,” says urbanist Amy Stelly, who lives a block and half from the highway and believes it’s possible to improve the community without pushing out long-time residents.
In 2017, Stelly cofounded the Claiborne Avenue Alliance—a coalition of local residents and business owners dedicated to removing the highway. Recently, their efforts were validated when the White House named I-10 as an example of a historic inequity to be redressed in its infrastructure plan.
“My dream is to restore the corridor to its formal glory, and to help establish Black businesses,” says Stelly, who’s in the process of creating a land trust, whereby an organization acquires available real estate and resells it at below market value to help renters transition to homeownership and stay in the neighborhood.
Stelly’s fight for racial justice through highway removal is one of many across the nation. The CNU report estimates at least 1 million Americans were robbed of their homes through eminent domain seizures to build the highways we have today. Following the highway revolts of the ’60s and ’70s (most famously in New York City, where Jane Jacobs rallied opposition against Robert Moses’s proposal for a 10-lane expressway through SoHo and Little Italy), the movement to tear down highways has been gaining steam in the past decade. “We’ve seen an increasing spotlight on racial injustices that highway building inflicted upon communities of color,” says Ben Crowther, who manages CNU’s Freeways Without Futures initiatives. “We recognize they perpetuate the system that distinguishes between has and has not.”
To date, a total of 15 highways have been removed, including a few relocations, which Crowther cites as “another form of mitigation.” After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco famously chose to remove rather than rebuild two of its damaged highways, resulting in the Embarcadero Promenade we know today.
In 2017, Rochester, New York became one of the more contemporary success stories. Built in the 1950s to facilitate suburban commute, Rochester’s Inner Loop defaced established urban neighborhoods, many of which were predominantly Black, in favor of a wide concrete trench insulating downtown from the rest of the city. The Inner Loop East Redevelopment saw a sunken, 12-lane expressway transformed into a two-lane integrated boulevard, complete with sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and a 10-foot-wide cycle track. “The big question once we got to planning design was: We have a clean slate, how do we rebuild it?” says Jim Hofmann, principal at global engineering and design company Stantec, and project manager on the Rochester Inner Loop Transformation. “The focus ended up being on pedestrian and bicycle access.”
Building more roads brings more drivers (a phenomenon known as induced demand), but can removing roads reduce the number of drivers? Since the project started in 2014, the report states that walking in the Rochester area has increased by 50%, and biking by 60%. “That would tell me that some people who were forced to get in their vehicles aren’t anymore,” says Hofmann.
For Crowther, induced demand is like free pizza: The more slices you give, the more eaters will come. “There’s a lot of value in removing highways at this moment because it demonstrates that alternative city building styles can work and that you don’t need to build more highways and add more lanes to be successful,” he says.
Ultimately, tearing down highways is about building more sustainable—and equitable—cities. When I-244 spliced through Greenwood, it was planned by white people and for white people. Tearing it down might not fully resuscitate the Greenwood District, but it could help Black Tulsans reclaim the land that was taken from them. As Crowther says: “We’ll keep building highways until we see the power that removing them has.”