Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Pathways to Displacement

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Pathways to Displacement

Article excerpt

Researcher examines how route of U.S. interstates reshaped racial landscapes

Although the interstate highway system is a valuable asset for Americans, one researcher argues that its construction during the racially charged 1950s and 1960s increased segregation among urban populations.

Dr. Ray Mohl, the history department chair at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, studies the development of the nation's interstates and their effect on people and the landscapes. In a new book, From Tenements to the Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America, he provides a chapter on the impact of interstate construction on housing in centralized urban areas.

"My paper deals with housing destruction, but it's an important part of the story," Mohl says. "When you knock down homes for hundreds of thousands of people, you have to find new places for them to live."

Mohl argues that postwar policymakers and highway builders -- especially at the state and local level-- used interstate construction to destroy minority neighborhoods, part of a concerted effort to reshape the racial landscapes of American cities.

Officials often made decisions with little or no public input and rarely provided for the relocation needs of people whose homes were destroyed by highway construction, Mohl says.

"The purpose of the interstate put out to the public was to create an interstate system to speed traffic between point A and point B. That was a good goal. There's no doubt about that," he says.

However, others saw highways as a means to solving perceived problems in urban America. Developers, unions, businessmen and city officials pushed for the interstate system believing it could stimulate downtown business, contribute to an appreciation of property values and counter "the threat posed by slum housing to the public health, safety, morals and welfare of the nation."

In short, they intended to route interstates through poor neighborhoods, a process that destroyed large minority enclaves and displaced thousands of people.

"The problem with that is one person's slum may be another person's home," Mohl says.

At least 330,000 urban housing units were destroyed as a direct result of federal highway building projects between 1957 and 1968. …

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