How Chattanooga is working to right the wrongs of urban renewal

America’s highways are a marvel of engineering that linked a large country with high-speed lanes, high-volume trucking and was built in mid-century. The highways’ barriers through the cities often had racist meanings and intentions.

Although almost all highways were funded federally, local decisions often governed by them. This led to the segregation and displacement of Black residents as well as real estate possibilities for suburban whites.

Why We Wrote This

The urban renewal period helped certain communities thrive while devastating others. The fault lines were often based on race. Chattanooga in Tennessee hopes to overcome this divide.

“The devastation was systematic and complete,” destroying community commerce and paving over history, all with little compensation for those impacted, says Robert Bullard, co-editor of “Highway Robbery.”

In Tennessee, Chattanooga’s Westside housing project exemplifies the point. It is an example of the social and economic dislocation that has resulted from a large infrastructure project.

Cities, which have inherited similar problems from urban renewal times, are trying to minimize the damage done. Chattanooga has the advantage of having the ability to reduce road size and involve the community in the planning process. Chattanooga is also considering Dr. Bullard’s punch list: Include impacted communities and convert land into mixed-income housing in order to prevent gentrification.


When the freeways were built in Chattanooga more than 50 years ago, Black communities like Violet Hill or Blue Goose Hollow vanished into the earth and were replaced by asphalt.

Notched between Lookout Mountain and Raccoon Mountain, the city rose to 11th place in the U.S. for per capita spending on new highway projects during the urban renewal era. At the same time, Chattanooga built Westside, a 200-acre, warren-like public housing project for those displaced by what many white Americans saw simply as progress.

The brick tenements were left as a “distressed assets” and are being sold off to the junkyard.

Why We Wrote This

The urban renewal period helped certain communities thrive while decimating other. However, the fault lines often fell according to race. Chattanooga in Tennessee hopes to overcome this divide.

Westside, a result of America’s huge infrastructure projects and economic dislocations on both sides of it all, is almost completely surrounded by highways. Peter Norton, associate professor of history in the engineering school at the University of Virginia, calls it “the Berlin Wall effect.”

Embedded in the highways that wall off Westside are values that, at least in the past, accepted taxpayer-funded disconnection of Americans based on race, class, and the ability to fight back politically. The area has become so isolated from supermarkets that foodtuffs are the dominant product on the black market.

Now Chattanooga and other cities need to know if the cement values are shifting. Cities across the nation are trying to address the negative effects of urban renewal. The hope is that by modifying or removing highways, economic, social and cultural exchanges will be restored to areas once closed off with concrete.

“There’s a lot of situations where [highways], can be taken out or modified as boulevards for the benefit of the community,” Dr. Norton.

What are the benefits of smaller roads?

Chattanooga, for one, already has learned the power of downsizing. When it turned Riverside Parkway from a four-lane trucking road to a two-lane boulevard in 2004, it saw a renaissance. As developers were able to access the riverfront, real estate prices soared. However, Westside did not reap the rewards of this boom.

“There is a risk that we may repeat the mistakes made by urban renewal. Some of these highway redesign efforts have a gentrifying effect, and that doesn’t improve the equity picture,” says Dr. Norton, who is also the author of “Fighting Traffic.”

Indeed, whether such effects can be guided equitably is far from clear for cities from New Orleans to Miami, as municipal leaders try to balance demands for social equity with the needs of some 250 million U.S. drivers, many of them stuck in weekday gridlock.

“Something has got to give, and the thing that can’t give is … road capacity,” says Gary Biller, president of the National Motorists Association, an advocacy group in Waunakee, Wisconsin. We are skeptical about the future of urban life, as much of what is being proposed for it is only theoretical. People still do need to get around.”

Yet experience doesn’t bear out many drivers’ worst fears. As Chattanooga did, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston have modified or removed major highways, without significantly increasing commute times. These times were not unusual in large cities like Boston. Nearly all of these cases have seen local communities benefit, as drivers find other routes and make different travel decisions.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

A bicyclist works his way down Riverside Parkway in Chattanooga on Sept. 11, 2021. Riverside Parkway was once a four-lane road with two points for access to downtown. It is now a two-lane, tree-lined boulevard with many crossing points. The 2004 boulevard conversion led to a riverfront renaissance in the city. It is unclear if this success could be repeated to benefit the city’s less fortunate residents.

How did we get there?

Despite the headaches and heartaches, America’s highways are the crowded envy of the world, a midcentury engineering marvel that connected a massive country with high-speed lanes and high-volume trucking – in some ways, the cornerstone of the nation’s world-leading $22.7 trillion gross domestic product. But as the highways cut through the cities, they often had racial intent and meaning.

Former Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield spoke plainly when he said the new interstates planned in the late 1950s would serve as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities.” But it wasn’t just a Southern issue. Dr. Norton.

Although almost all highways were funded federally, many local authorities had to make decisions. These roads ran through Black neighborhoods and served other purposes than segregating people. They also displaced more than one million people. Highways provided real estate opportunities that were largely dominated by white suburbanites.

” The devastation that occurred was complete and systematic” because highways forced out homeowners and renters and destroyed community commerce. There were also no compensation for the impacted. Robert Bullard is coeditor of Highway Robbery and professor of urban planning at Texas Christian University. “The infrastructure that was being put in place was destructive infrastructure, was discriminatory infrastructure.”

One win in an ongoing battle

Americans have seen the potential for such damage all along.

In the Fairfax, Virginia, neighborhood of Gum Springs, founded by a Black man once enslaved by George Washington’s family, local residents took to the streets as early as 1967. A casket was pulled across the highway by protestors who wanted to stop a highway expansion.

Neighbors won this fight. But they are again facing a proposed expansion of the Richmond Highway. Notably, Gum Springs is the only stretch where there’s thought of expanding to 13 lanes. The proposal has been delayed by local groups who have succeeded in delaying the county vote.

When you build highways through poorer neighborhoods, “you’re separating and divising the Black community culturally and socially, and also eroding their heritage,” Queenie cox, a Gum Springs resident, says.

Basically, the effort to scale back the Gum Springs expansion, she says, is “just having equity and being treated like the other communities in the Mount Vernon district.”

Ms. Cox knows that push for equity faces tremendous forces.

Massive new highway projects will be built to ease traffic congestion in Orlando, Florida, Austin, Texas, and Charleston, South Carolina. Others would need more demolition of the so-called sacrifice villages.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

Dorothy Talley sits on her stoop in Chattanooga’s Westside neighborhood on Sept. 11, 2021. A lifelong resident of the massive low-income housing project, Ms. Talley is skeptical about whether a planned redevelopment of the 200-acre area will actually benefit the people who live there. The plan calls for the modification of highway infrastructure to allow the area to be connected to the downtown.

Addressing aging roads and redressing harm

The moment catches America at a crossroads: Much of its highway infrastructure is approaching its engineered lifespan. Meanwhile, about 100 million more people now live in the U.S. than when these roads were first built. The need for updating and replacing existing infrastructure is not enough.

President Joe Biden’s original infrastructure bill included $20 billion to remove or modify highways to boost prospects for poorer Americans living in those areas. And even though Senate negotiations slashed that amount to $1 billion, and the bill’s fate is currently unclear in the House, about 30 U.S. cities are looking into ways to deconstruct.

As part of a Florida Department of Transportation campaign, Overtown, a historically Black neighborhood in Miami decimated by a highway overpass in the 1960s, is getting a redesigned intersection to improve access, provide park space, and connect the community to Biscayne Bay. In Atlanta, leaders are considering an idea called The Stitch that would reconnect downtown across the asphalt gorge known as the Connector. New Orleans is closer to removing the Claiborne Expressway that splits and overshadows the historic Treme neighborhood. Chattanooga’s experience in downsizing, and its community-based approach for urban planning means that Chattanooga has a leg up on the rest. Chattanooga is one of the first cities to address infrastructure issues that have been neglected in the past.

Eric Myers is the executive director at Chattanooga Design Studio. He has led community input sessions, which have included street fairs and town halls. He says that the goal is to restore a block structure, which is essential for neighborhood growth. He says the group is currently looking into how to modify structures in order to increase flow and accessibility. He also said that the extent of Riverside Parkway’s experience with Westside and its bicycle paths could be expanded to Westside will be crucial to an urban reunion effort. Planners believe this would be a benefit to a larger number of Chattanoogans.

The city has been seriously considering a Dr. Bullard punch list: Include impacted communities and convert land into mixed-income housing in order to prevent gentrification. Also, place a high value on local culture.

” “The question that we all are trying to answer, is how can we knit Westside back together into downtown so it’s socially and physically connected?” Mr. Myers.

Dorothy Talley is a Westside resident for over 30 years and counts herself among those skeptical. She finds it a little strange that the government which once tore up neighborhoods is going to make amends by opening Westside up for development that will eventually benefit the poor.

” “It feels like we’re being told a different story,” she said.

Some people are optimistic. Joseph Koller (a long-time Westside resident) says that the damage done by highways cannot be undone completely. He has seen how Riverside Parkway’s shift transformed the city almost overnight.

If those benefits could be extended to Westside residents, it would appear to him as a long overdue acknowledgement of the human impact highways have on the world.

” We may not be rich, but we’re still here. “We’re still breathing,” states Mr. Koller. “We’re human beings, too.”

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