Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has taken flak from some conservatives for his new Reconnecting Communities initiative. He says its purpose is to redress the fact that planners and politicians of the past built highways directly through the heart of vibrant populated communities for such vile purposes as to reinforce segregation or to eliminate black neighborhoods.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has mocked Buttigieg for being woke, adding that he didnt know how a road could be racially discriminatory. Indeed, the preposterous notion of racist roads has become a popular meme on the Right. It all seems like a ridiculous parody.
Yet there is an element of truth in Buttigiegs assertionsits just too bad that he draws all the wrong lessons from them.
The government highway-building frenzy of the 1950s and 1960s, much of it performed under the aegis of the federal governments National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, took a terrible toll on our nations cities. From Seattle to Hazel Crest, Illinois, to the Southwark neighborhood of Philadelphia, property was seized, homes were demolished, and people and businesses were displaced.
The historian Tom Lewis writes that the Interstate Highway System took more land by eminent domain than had been taken in the entire history of road building in the United States.
It wasnt just a house here and a house there. From 1947 to 1969, about 98,000 homes were razed for highways in California alone.
In Camden, New Jersey, Interstate 95 displaced 1,289 families. In Cleveland, 19,000 men, women, and children were moved to make way for roads. In Milwaukee, the North-South Expressway displaced 600 families over 16 blocks in a section that was 70% African American. And this was no slummost of the housing was either single-family homes or duplexes, and rates of homeownership were higher than was typical in urban cores at that time.
The stories of those whose homes and businesses and city blocks were destroyed by the bulldozer of eminent domain are heartbreaking. A writer from the ghetto in Newark, New Jersey, pleaded with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Richard Nixons urban affairs adviser: They are tearing down our homes and building up medical colleges and motor clubs and parking lots and we need decent private homes to live in. They are tearing down our best schools and churches to build a highway.
The North Nashville project of I-40 leveled 234 African American-owned businesses, 650 houses, 27 apartment buildings, and even a number of churches in Tennessees capital city. This was nothing short of criminal.
One local businessman, Flem B. Otey III, the 31-year-old African American proprietor of Oteys Quality Grocery in North Nashville, told a reporter that the highwaymen were waging an assault on the wellspring of American prosperity: free enterprise. No race or group has ever gotten out of the ghetto except by the entrepreneurial route, said Otey. But now theyre closing that route off.
A cement octopus, in the words of folksinger Malvina Reynolds, fed by gas taxes and unleashed from on high, consumed American neighborhoods.
In trying to make amends, Buttigieg has emphasized the racial angle, which seems de rigueur for Democrats these days. Giving priority to projects that are focused on equity and environmental justice, he is ignoring the fact that working-class white neighborhoods were also devastated by the highwaymen. Class, not race, was the real driver of the destruction.
Unfortunately, Buttigiegs awareness of the historic wrongs of the highway builders has not translated into enlightened policy. One might look at the sorry history of neighborhood-demolishing transportation projects and conclude that massive government infrastructure undertakings carry with them massive human costs. One might also come away from an examination of the crimes committed by government highway builders and forswear the use of eminent domain.
Certainly, this history cautions against the use of federal money, which always comes with strings attached, to address local needs.
Alas, the Reconnecting Communities program is just another federal program dispensing tax dollars from on high to those who jump through the right hoopsas if the same institutions that disconnected communities can now be trusted to reconnect them.
Here, government bureaucrats are the problem, not the solution. The revitalization of urban neighborhoods devastated by road-building will be accomplished by the entrepreneurship and enterprise of people like Otey, not grant-giving politicians like Buttigieg.