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Equity / justice How does a highway become racist?


Dear Leader
Staff member
Urbanists recently have taken to calling expressawys and freeways that pass through black neighborhoods "racist", supposedly because they believe cthe routes of those roads specifically targeted minority neighborhoods.

While some highway construction was seen as a form of "slum clearance", far more plowed through otherwise stable neighborhoods of all shades -- black, white, mixed, and integrated. In many cases, I've heard urbanists claim that some urban expressway or another is racist, even when it was planned and built through what was at the time a predominantly white neighborhood, and there is no proof of ulterior motive -- no evidence that planners anticipated racial transition along its path, intentionallysited the highway to serve as a kind of demographic or social barrier, or meant to cause misery for future generations of black residents out of sheer malice.

The Kensington Expressway in Buffalo, New York -- what we natives call "the 33" -- is often given as an example of a "racist highway". Some call it "a white road through a black neighborhood". Today, the 33's path northeast out of downtown cuts through neighborhoods that are predominantly black, from downtown to the city line. it wasn't always like this, though.

The Kensington Expressway first appeared on planning maps in 1946 as the "Airline Expressway". At the time, every neighborhood along its route were entirely or mostly white ethnic. From downtown to the city line, the makeup of neighborhoods along the way went like this:

Fruit Belt -- working class, predominantly German and Italian.
Masten Park -- lower middle class, mixed white ethnic, leaning German.
Hamlin Park -- middle to upper middle class, predominantly Jewish and Italian.
Fillmore-Leroy / Highland Park -- middle class, mixed white ethnic, leaning German.
Kensington -- lower middle to middle class, mixed white ethnic.



Expressway plans for Buffalo, 1946

In 1946,. Buffalo's small black community was centered on Michigan Street near William Street, with a small enclave of railroad porters living at the north end of the Cold Spring neighborhood, near Main and Michigan. It wasn't anywhere near the future path of the Kensington Expressway.

When construction of the Kensington first began in the late 1950s, through the Fruit Belt and Masten Park, the neighborhood was still predominantly white. There was a small, but growing number of black people moving to the Fruit Belt, as the Northern Cites Migration brought new residents to Buffalo, and the city's "colored section" expanded northward towards Sycamore and Genesee Street. Black people moving to Buffalo experienced housing discrimination, and often paid above-market rents for houses and apartments that were nearing the end of their functional and structural life. However, Buffalo didn't have the kind of racist stand-your-ground "improvement associations" that proliferated Chicago and Detroit. Racial transition in Buffalo's neighborhoods had a few hiccups, but was quite peaceful compared to other industrial Great Lakes Cities.

The City of Buffalo was especially aware of the challenges to find housing for displaced Fruit Belt residents that are black. However, black households only made up 5% of all displaced households in the first stage of highway construction.


Neighborhood meeting for the Kensington Expressway in the Kensington neighborhood.


Kensington Expressway path through the Fillmore-Leroy and Kensington neighborhoods

Construction continued through the 1960s, into Fillmore-Leroy and Kensington. At the time, those neighborhoods were still mostly white, although black families were beginning to move into the area near ECMC and Burgard High School. The Fillmore Leroy Area Residents Association (FLARE) started around that time, with the goal of promoting stable racial integration. Unfortunately, Fillmore-Leroy was resegregated by the mid-1980s.


The children of Kensington, 1972 -- four years after the 33 was built through the neighborhood

Middle class black families began to trickle into Kensington in the 1970s, years after the rollers left, the asphalt cured, and ribbons cut. Despite the efforts of organizations like Kensington-Bailey Neighborhood Housing Services, the Kensington neighborhood was essentially resegregated by the end of the 1990s. Today, while there's still a smattering of white holdouts in Kensington, Buffalonians think of Kensington as part of the "East Side". Quotation marks, because others now associate the term more with race than geography; what our grandparents used to mean by "the Colored section".

hourglass BCE 1968-07-04.jpg

The infamous Hourglass (Buffalo Courier-Express, July 8 1968)

hourglass bce 1968-04-26.jpg

(Buffalo Courier-Express, April 26 1969)

The last missing piece of the Kensington Expressway was "The Hourglass" in Hamlin Park. The Hourglass was the remaining intact part of Humboldt Parkway, which once connected Delaware Park and Humboldt Park; all part of the greenbelt around central Buffalo that Frederick Law Olmsted laid out a century earlier. The Hourglass became a choke point between the eastern and western portions of the otherwise completed Kensington Expressway. In the eyes of commuters and civic leaders, something needed to be done about it. In 1970, the trees were gone, six lanes of traffic flowed through a cut in the middle of Humboldt Parkway, elected officials and downtown business leaders rejoiced, and Frederick Law Olmsted was rolling in his grave. By the time The Hourglass was gone, the population of Hamlin Park was predominantly black, save for some older white holdouts that didn't follow their old neighbors to North Buffalo or the suburbs. Because the expressway was routed down the middle of Humboldt Parkway, removing The Hourglass caused almost no residential displacement -- unlike the Fruit Belt, Masten Park, Fillmore-Leroy, and Kensington.


"Fixing" The Hourglass

So, back to the thread title: what really makes a highway racist? The current criteria among urbanists seems to be "it goes through an area populated primarily by people of color." There's also an assumption of racial malice on the part of the planners, engineers, and civic leaders involved in the project. However, this ignores the history of the highway and the neighborhoods around it, the highway's role in a larger regional or national network, local geography, and the impacts from highway planning and construction elsewhere in a region.


My problem is less the argument of the freeway construction and weather or not it impacted minority neighborhoods. We all know a freeway some where that intentionally or not cut right through a black neighborhood. Looking at NYC or one of the other east coast cities because we cut our freeways through rich white neighborhoods in the West. My problem is the lasting grudge. This was done 40+ years ago. It's done. The question now is how do we repair what we now learned might not have been the best thing. How do we reconnect the neighborhood? How do we minimize the impact? Let go of you hate and anger toward the city. That leads to the dark side. Besides, no one at the city was there when it happened. Except maybe old Ed who we keep in the basement zoning file room.