The Twin Swords
America’s cities were cut down with roads paved of dubious intentions. Now, with a chance to correct one of our most destructive legacies, will we rise to meet the challenge?
3,000 men marched in a melange of military & civilian uniforms along the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan. Led by the calvary of New York City’s Police Force, these men weren’t going into battle, at least not in the traditional sense. After a raft of self-congratulatory speeches and requisite ribbon cuttings, the troops ascended the West Side Highway. Begun in 1929, with its first section completed in 1930, the West Side opened on November 13th as the first elevated expressway in the world.
Celebrations were in order for this global first. The roadway marked a triumph over a stretch of Eleventh Avenue, which had been known as Death Avenue for the chaos of its surface level trains, horses, pedestrians and other vehicles that all too often collided into one another. Cool as they were, New York’s Cowboys were only a temporary solution to Death Avenue’s danger, a vestige of the past that would soon make way for the modern world.
The West Side’s completion was important not just for its physical triumph over chaos, but for the symbolism of it. It marked the beginning of the subjugation of cities and people to cars. Inspired by New York’s success, the earliest mention of a national Interstate System was described in a 1939 report from the Bureau of Public Roads entitled Toll Roads and Free Roads. Momentum continued with 1944’s Federal-Aid Highway Act, which framed the allocation of funds “after the war” for the development of a 40,000 mile system.
Euphoric after victory in World War II, attention was directed towards the home front. With National Defense top of mind, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 into law, which provided $25 billion (~$250 billion in 2021 dollars) in funds for the construction of 41,000 miles of highways. As the lore goes, the system was inspired by Eisenhower’s 1919 trip with the U.S. Army’s first transcontinental motor convoy, where he struggled moving across the country from Washington to San Francisco. In Germany, the General’s inclinations towards clear militarized access were reinforced with his exposure to the Autobahn, where he “noted the enhanced mobility of the Allies when they fought their way into Germany.” Despite the mythologizing of the capitalist prowess of our highway system, 90% of the costs were assumed by the federal government, a Soviet level of state-sponsored support. With so much free money floating around, States scrambled to get roads built, and built, and built.
One figure loomed larger than all others in the development of highways: Robert Moses. Moses’ brilliance was his ability to leverage the glut of public funds towards his own vision for what the world should look like. New York’s Power Broker, as masterfully detailed by Robert Caro in his legendary text of the same name, used his near unchecked power to transform New York into the city it is today. While a bird’s eye view of the National Interstate System looks clean and orderly, Moses knew this wasn’t the case when one zooms down to the city level, stating “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” Instead of gliding past uninhabited corn fields and mountain ranges, urban roads plowed through strong neighborhoods and eviscerated communities.
In addition to his love of highways and the public dollars available to fund them, Moses was one of the earliest and most prolific users of Title I Urban Renewal Funds. This provision from the Housing Act of 1949 federally financed the clearance of designated slums to “improve” them. Moses created extensive brochures that shifted the burden of proof to receive funds from outlining slum conditions to the subjective description of blight that could lead to slum conditions. A meaning so vague it would be impossible to disprove its connotations in court, the blight test was adopted. Taking advantage of the opaqueness he created, he designated areas all around the city as blighted.
Combining Eisenhower’s FAHA with his mastery of Title I, Moses went into overdrive. Of his many notorious projects, the Cross Bronx Expressway reigned supreme. Over the course of its 13 year construction, more than 5,000 families were displaced, and hundreds of structures demolished. Where one’s neighbor used to live, now was occupied by spans of concrete monoliths. Restaurants, shops, places of worship and neighborhood centers shut down, isolated from their communities. The resulting lack of access to jobs, pollution (children in the South Bronx have among the highest rates of asthma in the country) and severed community ties has led to the areas bisected by the Cross Bronx to become some of most impoverished in the country.
Called “the most racist human being I had ever really encountered “ by Caro, many of Moses’ urban renewal projects targeted the neighborhoods of Black, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and other marginalized groups. Infamously, he adorned the railings of a park in Harlem, a predominantly Black neighborhood, with monkeys. In place of the mixed-use vibrancy lent by brownstones, tenements and apartment buildings, renewal projects were monolithic, spartan and isolated, with little provisions allocated for ongoing maintenance. Based on where the projects were located, for Moses and planners around the country, blight could well have meant anywhere minorities & immigrants lived.
Cities were viewed by mid-century planners as warzones to conquer, the next frontier in the return from Europe and the Pacific. Undoubtedly, cities needed many improvements. Thanks to the Great Depression and World War II, for nearly two decades little was built or maintained, which led to overcrowding and disgraceful living conditions. But, the scale of the problems took on a much different element when wrapped with xenophobic and racist fear-mongering. Fulfilling their own sensationalized tales of widespread urban destitution, planners wielded two swords: one to cut through cities, the other to cut them down. The conquerors viewed minority & marginalized groups as their opponents in this battle towards progress, unsympathetic of their needs beyond a surface level “liberation” to modernity. Across the country, swathes of urban areas were simply demolished. Beyond the austere housing projects and concrete arteries that replaced many thriving neighborhoods, parking lots stood as mementos to historic structures, and weeds grew unfettered where homes formerly nurtured.
Highways didn’t just connect the hinterlands to the cities they razed, they also ferried wealthier residents out to the newly developed suburbs. In order to promote homeownership, suburban homes were heavily subsidized by the federal government. Formerly onerous mortgage terms, like high down payments and one year interest payback periods, were revised to allow prospective homeowners to put as little as 5% of the money down, and spread interest payments over 30 years. These new loans were federally insured, which gave developers protection to speculatively build the millions of homes that were needed to address the nation’s severe housing shortage.
But homes weren’t built for all who needed them. As White veterans and middle class families moved out to suburbia on the government’s dime, African Americans were effectively prohibited from doing so. The Underwriting Manual of the Federal Housing Administration, the framework which laid out who could be insured, conspicuously excluded marginalized groups. As Richard Rothstein detailed in his remarkable work, Color of Law, maps were coded by the Home Owners Loan Corp (HOLC) and the FHA that designated “safe” places to insure mortgages. In a process called redlining, residents of red colored neighborhoods were deemed too risky to be insured. Everywhere African Americans lived were colored red.
This has resulted in profound injustices that continue today. While White families were able to build, and pass down, wealth through generations of homeownership, Black families were precluded from this opportunity. For the first 30 years of the FHA’s history of insuring mortgages, Black families were forced to remain as tenants in cities that were being demolished. As most of the economic opportunity moved out to the suburbs with those who fled the cities, Black families were systematically blocked from partaking in the American Dream. In a daily sinister reminder of what they couldn’t have, White commuters drove over the heads of Black communities on their way into, and back out of, downtowns to work everyday.
Even after the Fair Housing Act made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on the color of their skin, the color of the HOLC maps stayed with these oppressed groups. Rejections for housing applications were no longer based on race explicitly, but because someone came from a “troubled” area. Over several generations, these troubled areas have spiraled as a direct result of the federal policies that deprived resources and precluded their residents from building wealth. It should come as no surprise that urban highways are a continuation of the legacy of redlining, as Rothstein notes, “The Underwriting Manual recommended that highways be a good way to separate African-American from white neighborhoods.”
In 2021, we’re still dealing with the after effects of policies made in the twentieth century. In some cases, we’re doing the same things. We need to rectify the mistakes that have been made, or losses will compound for yet another generation. If we could mobilize such immense federal support to destroy our cities, why can’t we do the same to bring them back?
Recently, Senator Chuck Schumer introduced the $435 billion Economic Justice Act, which included $10 billion for the pilot Restoring Neighborhoods and Strengthening Communities Program. These funds would be used to tear down urban highways and engage with members of the community where redevelopments would take place. It’s critical to not repeat the errors of the past by telling marginalized communities how their neighborhoods should look.
Highway removal programs have been successfully implemented around the world, with several examples in the states. A personal favorite of mine is the removal of the Cheonggyecheon expressway in Seoul. In 2001, the city decided the tear down the 16 lane highway to daylight a stream that concrete had covered up long ago. The project was an unqualified success: pollution levels were drastically reduced, property values have increased by many multiples, and the city gained what has become one of its most popular public spaces. The best part — traffic didn’t increase, people simply found other ways to get around.
Highway removal programs can’t just stand alone. They must be supported by funding the hoped for improvements that will come as a result of removal. This is because the original urban highways weren’t merely transportation projects, they effected every aspect of life in the neighborhoods they tore through. Select programs could include:
- Funds for nationwide affordable housing and community development
- A designated public transportation bill that would allocate money outside of omnibus legislation (that must be reapplied for annually), and is not grouped into bills with $330 billion worth of highway spending
- Expanded store front grants & loans for small businesses from the SBA, with increases in federal & local staff to aid small business owners
- National education bill that would provide funds for new school facilities and resources
- Miscellaneous programs to fund parks and community facilities at the local and state levels
As can be seen, $10 billion is a paltry sum in economic development terms to get to where we want to go. The final cost of the interstate highway system exceeded $500 billion. While not every mile of the system passed through urban areas, the destruction to property and incalculable loss of future prosperity is certainly worth more than $10 billion. It might even approach $500 billion.
If we want to rectify the mistakes of the past, we have to put our money where our mouths are, and subsidize the rebuilding of our great cities, just as we subsidized their destruction. Hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country would be created. Not only would we be working towards curing the injustices of the past through developing more equitable places, but we would also be creating a more sustainable world for posterity. We can save future generations from the injustices our lifestyles have caused, which are already changing our climate in severe and unknown ways. After we defeat the vestiges of mid-century planning, we can drop our swords, and build a better tomorrow.