Infrastructure bill could remedy past damage to low-income black neighborhoods caused by interstate system

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

The 41,000 miles of highways created across America were supposed to pave the way, not only for faster commutes, but also for 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 around 40,000 people were displaced between the 1950s and 1960s,” said Luis Guajardo of the Kinder Institute for Urban Studies.

Tanya Dubose said her family was among 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.

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His family’s roots in Independence Heights, the first African-American city in the United States, run deep.

The stories of displacement were passed on to him by his mother.

“We talked about it (of which) when they were little children, saying, ‘You know they’re going to take our homes. The highway is coming. One of the things she remembers is her grandfather had to sell this land and think about where they’re going to move, ”Dubose said.

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

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

“I-45 had the worst impact because it divided the Third Ward, the 5th and 4th Quarters, and the areas north of downtown. Neighborhoods have been lost, ”said State Representative Garnet Coleman.

For the first time, the federal government recognizes the damage left behind.

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

“The interstate highway system has disproportionately burdened historically black and low-income neighborhoods. Many interstate urban highways were deliberately built to cross black neighborhoods, causing the destruction of housing and other local institutions.

It’s a legacy that continues to this day, said Luis Guajardo.

“Sometimes we are not aware when we are driving on these roads and highways. How many were there before that was affected by this kind of separation and segregation. Power’s decision and where the highway alignment went really became weapons, and it became a tool to confirm many of the racial redlining and segregation practices that were occurring, ”he said. he declares.

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

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“With a program like this, and with investments like this, you can redo some of it. You can sort of heal some of these divisions in a community. You can kind of give voice to community leaders and neighborhoods that have been separated and physically destroyed, ”Guajardo said.

But with the controversial North Houston Freeway Improvement Project that would widen parts of I-45 and take away homes and businesses in the same areas that were affected 50 years ago, some fear that history never repeats itself.

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

Still, she sees signs of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new equity efforts in stepping in to temporarily shut down the new I-45 project.

RELATED: Federal Officials Call on TxDOT to Stop Expansion of I-45

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

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