Redlining and Highways

I do try to keep thing nonpartisan, but sometimes objective truths become partisan issues, and often the study of human geography would have been just the think that would have improved our collective political dialog. Department of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg (a.k.a. Mayor Pete) said “there is racism physically built into some of our highways.” Online detractors noted that rebar, concrete, and asphalt can’t be racist, etc. You see the over-literal interpretation, but I want to discuss his bigger point—how has racism shaped the building of infrastructure and urban landscapes?    

The term redlining has a specific definition and a broader application. First the narrower definition; redlining was a historical practice in the early to mid-20th century where banks and other decision-makers, used city maps with that marked low-income neighborhoods (pre-dominantly African American), and would deny potential home-owners’ loans to purchase in these neighborhoods.  In an era of legalized segregation, where in a bind; they could not move into the white neighborhoods, but they could not get loans to purchase a home in their own neighborhood.  The maps literally used a red line to mark the neighborhoods where the banks would not provide any home-leaning services to the residents.  Explore this fantastic interactive map, Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America. You can use this to find redlining close to your home, or the city where I teach, Providence, RI.

1929 Home Owners Loan Corporation Map of Decatur, IL.

More broadly speaking, redlining is not just about the denial of home loans.  There were many practices such as this that meant African Americans in the United States could not get access to the full range of services, utilities, resources, and planning to see improvements in their neighborhoods.    

The era of redlining also coincided with the era of the private automobile and the beginning of a large freeways on the American landscape.  The major freeways in urban centers weren’t placed on conveniently open spaces, this open space was made by tearing down (typically) poor neighborhoods that had less of a political voice.  African American neighborhoods in Baltimore, Oakland, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati…the list is far too long. Read this piece in the Guardian for some images and examples.

A poster against the creation of proposed highway in Washington DC. Source: DC History

So, when Mayor Pete says that “there is racism physically built into some of our highways,” he means it, and it a part of our historical geography.  The road itself might not be racist, but the institutions that led to its construction in a poor Black neighborhood is, and leaves a legacy on the built environment.  Redlining is obvious illegal today, as would the way old highways were designed, but the neighborhoods they shaped, the communities that the railroad tracks or the highways divide, they still are impacted by these policies of yesteryear.        

New York City urbanists for generations now have adored Jane Jacobs as the champion for local communities, and the one who opposed the evil, neighborhood-destroying urban planner Robert Moses.  This is partially true, but it is a bit simplistic, because hating the one individual (Robert Moses) for creating oppressive elements into the landscape misses the bigger point that he was simply in charge of the system, and if it weren’t for him, their would have been another to take his place.  Let’s use one famous NYC, Robert Moses example of racism in the built landscape:

Images from Long Island, showing bridge overpasses that limit public transportation to beaches.
  • Action: Robert Moses designed Long Island bridges and highways with low overpasses.
  • Result: Long Island beaches are inaccessible through mass transit.
  • Purpose: Limit access of NYC poor from the affluent beaches of Long Island.

What are the implications of these facts?  One single instance of this type of infrastructural planning might look fishy and could be a sign of racial bias, class-based bias, or might even be a coincidence, but the preponderance of evidence all over the country from this era leads to the obvious conclusion that U.S. infrastructure, especially the highways, was shaped by racist decisions and continues to have racial impacts.  The amount of evidence is so overwhelming, that for any honest observer, the conclusion that there were racist decisions that shaped U.S. infrastructure is not even remotely controversial.  See the examples all over the country to get a sense of the pattern, then examine examples in your community to see who these practices have shaped American cities.

GeoEd Tags: race, landscape, urban, political, USA.

About the author: Shandra Johnson
I love to research and I'm very organized. I've worked in retail which is enjoyed. I wish I could find a job that allowed me to have more time with my son.

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