Infrastructure bill could address past harms to Black, low-income neighborhoods caused by the interstate system

Stronger Houston

HOUSTON – It can be easy to forget as we travel the busy highways of Houston that homes once stood where many roads are now. But in the communities that were impacted by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the memories and impact of displacement remain.

The 41,000 miles of interstates created across America were supposed to pave the way, not only for faster commutes, but jobs and prosperity. In the process, the program displaced more than 475,000 households and one million people from 1957 to 1977.

“Here in Houston, historians have estimated that somewhere between 40,000 people were displaced between the 1950 and 1960s,” said Luis Guajardo of the Kinder Institute for Urban Studies.

Tanya Dubose said her family is in that number.

“My great-great-grandfather came here in 1924. He bought a house right here on the North Loop,” said Dubose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council.

Her family’s roots in Independence Heights, which was the first city incorporated by African Americans in the United States, run deep.

The stories of displacement were passed down from her mother.

“It was talked (about) when they were little children saying, ‘You know they’re going to take our homes. The freeway is coming.’ One of the things she remembers is her grandfather having to sell that land and think about where are they going to move,” Dubose said.

The Dubose family was one of 331 families who lost homes to the expansion of what is now the North 610 loop.

But that wasn’t the only interstate that divided or dismantled Houston communities.

“I- 45 had the worst impact because that split Third Ward, split 5th and 4th Wards, and split areas north of downtown. Neighborhoods were lost,” said state representative Garnet Coleman.

For the first time, the federal government is acknowledging the damage left behind.

In a presidential memorandum issued in January, President Joe Biden wrote:

“The Interstate Highway System disproportionately burdened historically Black and low-income neighborhoods. Many urban interstate highways were deliberately built to pass through Black neighborhoods, causing destruction of housing and other local institutions.”

It’s a legacy that lives on till this day said Luis Guajardo.

“Sometimes we’re not cognizant as we’re driving on these roads and highways. Just how much was there before, and who was impacted by that kind of separation and segregation. The decision of power and where alignment of highways went through really became weaponized, and that became a tool to confirm a lot of the racial redlining practices and segregation practices that were occurring,” he said.

With many Black neighborhoods here in Houston and in cities across the country still disconnected from access to high-quality housing, jobs and public transit, the Biden administration is proposing a $1 billion investment as part of his sweeping infrastructure plan. An effort to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice and promote affordable access”.

“Through a program of this type, and through investments like this, you are able to re-stitch some of that. You are able to kind of heal some of those divisions in a community. You are able to kind of give voice to community leaders and neighborhoods that have been separated and physically destroyed,” Guajardo said.

But with the controversial North Houston Highway Improvement Project that would expand parts of I-45 and take homes and businesses in the same areas that were impacted 50 years ago, some fear history is repeating itself.

“This area has totally changed. Will it change again? I’m sure it will, but one of the changes we don’t need is we don’t need more people displaced (and) more culture erased,” Dubose said.

Still, she sees signs of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new efforts toward equity in the fact that they stepped in to temporarily halt the new I-45 project.

RELATED: Federal officials tell TxDOT to halt I-45 expansion

Biden’s infrastructure plan has yet to be passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.