For more than 50 years, Interstate 81 has cut through the heart of hard-luck Syracuse, New York, raining vehicle exhaust on its Southside neighborhood, where most residents are Black and poor. Road builders at the time were largely free to ignore environmental, historical, social or other factors, allowing them to focus on the most direct route from one point to another. More often than not, that meant routing those freeways through Black neighborhoods, where land was cheap and political opposition low.
"When they put that highway up they destroyed this community," said David Rufus, a lifelong Southside resident who is now an organizer for the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
Black neighborhoods were targeted even when more logical routes were available, research by the late urban historian Raymond Mohl shows. Existing long-distance highways, like the New York State Thruway, largely skirted city centers. The new interstates were built right through them.
Syracuse wasn't the only city where Black residents were displaced by the U.S. freeway-building boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Across the country, local officials saw the proposed interstate system as a convenient way to demolish what they regarded as "slum" neighborhoods near their downtown business districts, historians say. With the federal government picking up 90% of the cost, freeway construction made it easier for politicians and business leaders to pursue their own "urban renewal" projects after residents were evicted.
University of California, Irvine law professor Joseph DiMento, an expert in the policies of the freeway-building era, explains, "The reasons they were built were heavily for removal of Blacks from certain areas."
*In Miami, Interstate 95 was routed through Overtown, a Black neighborhood known as the "Harlem of the South," rather than a nearby abandoned rail corridor.
*In Nashville, Interstate 40 took a noticeable swerve, bisecting the Black community of North Nashville.
*In Montgomery, Alabama, the state highway director, a high-level officer of the Ku Klux Klan, routed Interstate 85 through a neighborhood where many Black civil rights leaders lived, rather than choosing an alternate route on vacant land.
*In New Orleans and Kansas City, officials re-routed freeways from white neighborhoods to integrated or predominantly Black areas.
The road-building program ultimately displaced more than 1 million Americans, most of them low-income minorities, according to Anthony Foxx, former transportation secretary under Obama.