Memory  /  Explainer

Interstate Lovesong

How popular and official narratives have obscured the damaging impact of the interstate highway system.

As urban planner and historian Sarah Jo Peterson writes in Justice and the Interstates, the edited volume published earlier this year based on the The Metropole’s April 2021 theme month of the same title, the sanitized narrative provided by government agencies went as follows: “The Interstate Highways were intended to be a system for intercity (or interstate) travel, but they had unintended effects for cities because they became used inappropriately for travel within urban areas.”

The impact felt by Black and Brown communities—the destruction of community, the loss of housing in an already stratified and segregated market, deprivation of generational wealth, and countless environmental hazards—was frequently blamed on “urban renewal” and corrupt urban politicians, not planners or engineers.

The truth is that planners knew in the 1950s that the interstates threatened urban communities. In 1958 a report by the National Committee on Urban Transportation acknowledged that safety and congestion would be central problems and that “failure to plan for relocation in advance may result in unfavorable public relations and delay the program.”

The same year, the Sagamore Conference—convened by the Highway Research Board and attended by top federal, state, and municipal officials, academics, and civic leaders—issued a report that clearly noted the perils of highway construction. It warned of widespread displacement, with low-income, non-white, and elderly residents facing the “greatest potential injury.”

Yet, beginning in the mid-1970s, literature from the US Department of Transportation, which is used frequently in graduate schools and absorbed by aspiring planners and engineers, recast this history as a series of minor, unexpected, and unintended consequences. But often the consequences were explicitly intended and devastating. In Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1950s, for example, Sam Englehart—the man who innovated gerrymandering—punished civil rights activists by running the new highway through West Montgomery, home to Rosa Parks, E. D. Nixon, and others.

Highway proponents argue that mistakes were made due to the newness and scope of the system, but that protests in the 1960s addressed these issues. Unfortunately, the efforts of activists to thwart highway construction failed to benefit Black and Brown neighborhoods. While the “freeway revolts” of the 1960s and 1970s did halt construction in various cities across the United States, this advocacy failed to include non-white homeowners.