In a November 2021 press conference, Grio reporter April Ryan asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg a question that seemed to make sense to him, if to no one else.
“Can you give us the construct,” Ryan asked, “of how you will deconstruct the racism that was built into the roadways?” To his credit, I suppose, Buttigieg had no trouble distilling the road construction question lost in the morass of Ryan’s amateur deconstructionism.
Responded a self-assured Buttigieg, “I’m still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a black neighborhood…that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices.”
Overlooked in Mayor Pete’s response was the quietly subjunctive “if.” Although the notion of a “racist highway” has become accepted wisdom in Democratic circles, Buttigieg pulled his punches. And well he should have. In researching my forthcoming book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities, I was able to identify any number of highways that damaged ethnic neighborhoods, including the New Jersey neighborhood in which I grew up, but none that divided white from black.
Buttigieg has yet to identify a “racist” highway either. The first highway the Department of Transportation chose to “deconstruct” was Interstate 375 in Detroit, but I-375 did not divide a white and black neighborhood, not even at its conception. In a 2022 MSNBC article comically headlined, “Biden administration announces first major step to fight America’s racist roads,” reporter Ja’han Jones concedes that I-375 “was built to bisect Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood and its epicenter of Black business, Paradise Valley (emphasis added).” Affirmed Buttigieg, “This stretch of I-375 cuts like a gash through the neighborhood.”
The highway, now known as I-280, that cut a gash through my Newark neighborhood was also conceived in 1959. Having studied its origins, I can attest that state highway planners, like so many of that era’s social engineers, showed an impressive indifference to the likely outcomes of their plans. Race, however, played no discernible part in the planning.
At the time, this working-class neighborhood, Roseville by name, was predominantly white and heavily Catholic. The Catholic part mattered in that Catholic schools held such neighborhoods together long after Newark’s Jewish neighborhoods emptied. People loved our neighborhood. The word “idyllic” came up often in my communications with former residents. Wrote one typical correspondent:
The community had soap box derbies, Halloween parades, ice skating rinks as well as all of the small stores lining the streets sitting amongst single family homes, apartment buildings, doctors offices, funeral homes, bus stops and the train stations. The neighborhood had everything. It was truly Idyllic.
Incoming Italian families fortified the Catholicism of the largely Irish Roseville after housing planners leveled the adjacent “Little Italy” in the early 1950s. Armed with federal money and the power of eminent domain, the planners replaced the shops and homes of more than 3,000 residents of that thriving Italian neighborhood to build a massive housing complex that would fail almost as soon as it was built. Calling it “Columbus Homes” offered little solace to the dispossessed.
The planners were just getting warmed up. In March 1959, the State Highway Department published the “East-West Freeway study: an analysis of two alignments.” As cavalier as the planners were about destroying neighborhoods, not even Pete Buttigieg could read racism into this document. As proposed, the freeway was to run roughly 20 miles from Newark’s western suburbs to the New Jersey Turnpike just east of Newark.
First among the eight “standards” to be considered for the freeway was whether it recognized Newark “as the business and industrial center of New Jersey.” Ranked only sixth was the question of “how much damage” the freeway would “inflict upon residential and commercial areas through which it passes.” Ranked higher were standards such as “sufficient entrances and exits in Newark” and “exit ramps for downtown.”
The answer to the question of “how much damage” a depressed six-lane roadway could inflict was complete, total damage. The Highway Department took our house in 1965. By 1970, this heretofore vibrant neighborhood was shot. In 1963, highway planners got another chance to take out a black neighborhood. This should have been easy given that Newark was roughly 40 percent black by that time, but they missed again. They designed I-78 to run through the heavily Jewish quarters of Weequahic and Clinton Hill and put the kibosh on those neighborhoods as well.
I confess to not having studied every city in the depth I dedicated to Newark, but I happen to live in a metro that has reportedly more freeway miles per capita than any metro in the world, and that is Kansas City. Having done several documentaries on the city for the local PBS station, I know its history well.
The one ethnic group that has the best claim to being intentionally severed from the rest of the city is the Italians. A pre-interstate freeway did cut off the largely Italian North End from downtown, but, if anything, that highway helped preserve the integrity of the neighborhood. I could find no evidence the severing was done intentionally. Yes, some highways did cut through black neighborhoods and Hispanic neighborhoods. That said, roughly 90 percent of the residents displaced to build the interstates in greater Kansas City were white, and no highway separates a white neighborhood from a black one.
To be fair to the planners, they may have accelerated the collapse of cities such as Newark, but they did not cause it. Those interested in the primary cause might wish to revisit Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s scarily prescient 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Wary of alienating his newly secured base, Moynihan’s boss, President Lyndon Johnson, chose to deep-six the report, and we have been paying the price for his opportunism ever since.
Jack Cashill’s Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities is available for pre-order in all formats.