What The Shortest Interstate In The U.S. Can Teach Us About Racism In Infrastructure

Northern end of I-375 in Detroit
Northern end of I-375 in Detroit
Photo: Wikicommons/Dave Hogg

I don’t know about you, but my Sunday was completely ruined by Twitter (not for the first time). That’s because over the weekend the Young America’s Foundation tweeted this:

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I understand YAF, which calls itself “a conservative youth organization,” was mocking Buttigieg’s words, but it was accidentally right: It’s not parody. Our garbage infrastructure is racist as hell and often built and designed with racism foremost in mind. The more you learn about it, the more you see it everywhere you look. Racism is obvious in the very bones of our country.

Many folks on Twitter pointed to Robert Moses, the subject of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro. Moses was the master planner of a series of parkways on Long Island who made sure to build bridges too low for buses to pass under, thereby keeping Black and poor people from enjoying the public beaches.

But this isn’t a problem of the past — it’s one that has shaped and continues to shape our cities. This subject really gets under my skin because I am passionate about two things: infrastructure and my hometown of Detroit, a city decimated by racist infrastructure policies that continue to this day.

Take the formerly vibrant Black neighborhood of Black Bottom that was demolished in the 1950s in order to build I-375. At just a smidge over one mile long, I-375 is the shortest interstate in America. It’s so pointless that there is now a movement in the city to have it demolished and turned into a boulevard and park, but there’s no way to bring back the estimated 350 Black-owned businesses and multitude of homes in the adjacent Black neighborhood Paradise Valley that were razed.

The placement of the five (yes five) other freeways that carve up the city were pointedly planned to clear out “slums,” or Black-owned homes and businesses. The freeways only increased White Flight, turning Detroit into the shell of its former self that stands today — a city of mainly single-family homes for 1.5 million people, now with a population of only 674,000. It also strained the infrastructure and facilities in the outlying areas, which are now overdeveloped suburban neighborhoods. Just look at the concrete jungle surrounded by green that suburban Detroit has become.

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Illustration for article titled What The Shortest Interstate In The U.S. Can Teach Us About Racism In Infrastructure
Screenshot: Google Maps

Where many people get it wrong is believing that racism in infrastructure is in the past. But this isn’t a past problem, racism inherent in our infrastructure continues to this day.

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I’ll continue to use my own city as an example: Detroit is the only city in America to have two separate bus systems, one for the city and one for the suburbs. That means a DDOT rider has to get off the bus at the city line and pay again to get on a SMART bus if they want to leave the city; there is no reduced-rate transfer between the two services. SMART buses do occasionally run through the city, but on limited routes meant to run suburb-living office workers straight downtown in the mornings and straight out of downtown in the evenings. It’s also one of the only metro areas that allow suburbs to completely opt out of bus service, cutting off poorer transit riders in an 80 percent Black city from the wealthy, predominately white suburbs. Of course, the vast majority of jobs are also in the suburbs.

A promised revitalization zone in midtown Detroit (which Detroiters paid dearly for in the form of tax breaks for the multibillionaire Ilitch family) turned into nothing but acres of parking lots, serving statistically white suburbanites who use the freeways to attend concerts or sporting events and then flee back over the 8 Mile Road dividing line. It’s White Flight, 2021 style. Christopher Ilitch told the Detroit Free Press that this was very much intentional:

He also defended the expanse of surface parking lots along Cass that critics say should be developed as new housing and retail. Those parking lots are owned by the Ilitch organization and produce significant revenue.

“The District Detroit is home to four major pro sports teams and many theaters,” he said, including Ford Field and Comerica Park with LCA. “We have millions of guests traveling into this area each and every year in automobiles. We don’t have mass transit in our city. ... Where’s everybody supposed to park?”

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Folks were supposed to move back into the city, drawn by a vibrant entertainment district and revitalized apartment buildings and condos the Ilitch family promised. Instead, city residents now have to put up with periodic traffic jams and parking lots that are empty most of the time taking up their neighborhoods. Ask any urban planner: parking lots are a cancer in communities.

This is just one example of how racism continues to shape a single city’s infrastructure and affect the very lives of everyone inside and outside of the city. You never want to make general statement in journalism, but this is one I feel confident in stating: In every American city, there’s a tale equally heartbreaking and infuriating about non-white people being displaced or manipulated by infrastructure.

Managing Editor of Jalopnik.

DISCUSSION

personalsphere
PersonalSphere

Can we just have fun car articles and not this political bullcrap. Some of us come here to escape all that and articles like these ruin my day because now one of the only escapes is just like the rest of media these days.