The urban renewal movement of the 1950s and 1960s aimed to improve cities by removing slums and urban blight. This often meant the destruction or gentrification of minority neighborhoods. This movement intersected with the beginning of the American Interstate system. As city planners decided where to place these new highways that connected their city to the rest of the country, they often turned to low-income, minority areas. By clearing these neighborhoods for highway construction, they could achieve two goals, remove urban blight and successfully build a new highway. This happened in countless cities across America. Simply search highway construction and displacement, and thousands of articles from our country’s cities tell stories of residents displaced from their homes as a new highway flattens their neighborhood. This trend is not limited to the beginning of the interstate system; it has continued throughout its history to present day.
One of the most dramatic examples of highway construction displacing residents occurred in north Miami. In the 1960s, the route for I-95 was carved through Overtown, Miami’s historic Black community. The neighborhood was essentially cleared for the highway, displacing 10,000 residents. Despite the presence of an abandoned railroad track through the city that could have housed the roadway without displacing residents, city planners bent to pressure from the white business community and chose to build I-95 through Overtown instead.
The Harrison-Walnut neighborhood in Oklahoma City met the same fate as many other predominantly Black, low-income neighborhoods; it was cleared to make way for I-235 (a section of I-35), displacing 500 residents. The construction of 1-235 also cut off the historic Black neighborhood of Deep Deuce off from the rest of northeast Oklahoma City. It then placed Deep Deuce in proximity to the new developing Bricktown, which would eventually lead to gentrification of the neighborhood.
The Interstate highway system has contributed greatly to urban growth and ease of transportation both in cities and between them, but it is important to note the cost that comes with their construction. Low-income, minority neighborhoods were often targeted as the best places to place the new roadways, as this fit into the racist, unjust agenda of urban renewal. Knowing this, it is important to study the effects of highway construction when doing environmental justice research.