December 7, 2022
In Baltimore, Maryland, there is a 1.39-mile stretch of road with no destination. A transportation project to connect I-70 with interstates 83 and 95 that was never completed, the ultimate effect of this so-called “Highway to Nowhere” was to uproot 971 homes and 62 businesses in a historically Black West Baltimore neighborhood. Now, the federal government has released over $1 billion worth of funds to begin redressing the harms of Baltimore’s “Highway to Nowhere” and highways like it that bisected, if not outright destroyed, the communities located in their path of construction. In October 2022, the city of Baltimore announced it would apply for some of these funds to study how the 600 acres claimed by its “highway to nowhere” could be returned to beneficial community use.
Baltimore’s half-finished highway project is but one of the more egregious examples of how the construction of the interstate highway system during the 20th-century wreaked havoc upon vulnerable communities, and particularly communities of color, to facilitate more convenient transportation options for car-favoring families and commerce located in suburbs. According to a 2017 study produced by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the construction of highways from 1956 to 1976 alone displaced a total of over one million people. This is in addition to the minimum 300,000 families displaced by federally-funded urban renewal projects from 1955-1966, not to mention state-sponsored renewal projects, public housing construction, and other federally-funded renewal projects that took place from 1967 onward. A disproportionate number of the households impacted by all these projects were, again, Black families, working-class people, and other communities of color.
The funds allotted through the new infrastructure bill are meant to fund initial planning projects and studies focusing on how communities negatively impacted by the construction of highways can be reconnected and re-energized. The funds are also meant to supplement other sources of funding rather than functioning to re-renew impacted communities on their own. Viewed from a comparative perspective, the scale of this funding is admittedly disappointing – for instance, the federal government also promised over $270 billion to expand highways in the near future. But combined with state and local funds as well as potential American Rescue Plan Act funding, these dollars could help foster newly thriving communities with better access to opportunity and affordable housing. Colorado’s Department of Transportation, for example, granted $2 million to affordable housing in the Globeville-Elyria Swansea community in 2018 after local activists successfully beat back plans to expand the highway that bisected the community in the 1960s, and forced officials to replace them with a cap-and-cover plan. In Durham, North Carolina, local officials have applied for $22 million worth of ARPA funding to support small businesses and other economic and community development initiatives for the historically Black neighborhood of Hayti that was adversely impacted by both urban renewal and highway construction.
Without fully redressing how interstate highways segmented communities–from both former neighbors and from opportunities elsewhere in cities–the divergent paths carved for communities by mid-century highway clearance and construction will continue to persist.
At the Redress Movement, we are dedicated to building community power to address these and other issues related to segregation by demanding actions of redress responsive to segregation’s history. To engage with more news stories related to redress and to hear more about our work, sign up to join our mailing list and keep an eye out for news updates in this section of our website. Also be sure to explore our resource pages where you can learn more about the history and consequences of segregation, read through the vocabulary of segregation, use our guide to discover how segregation affects your community, or download one of our policy briefs on current issues related to segregation and housing.