Urban Highway Dividers

Ideas and Issues
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December 20, 2020

Pearl River Remember way back when, back in 2018-19 in the “before” times, when Amazon was jacking up cities, large and small, to compete for their headquarters location? New York rejected the notion, Nashville captured a piece, and now with the surge in on-line ordering under the pandemic, cities, large and small, are seeing Amazon add staff and warehouses, even if not headquarters operations, if such a thing even exists for tech companies anymore. Atlanta was supposedly in the thick of the race according to experts, but there was one big, fat problem: traffic!

As the city boomed in recent years, the growth had expanded along the highways, ringing the city in bands. The interstate loops were intersected by few other highways that moved cars in and through the city. They didn’t have a mass transit system sufficient to overcome the clogged central highway arteries. And, as I was driving around the city recently with our team hitting the doors, and following Google maps from place to place, I was struck by the fact that “they,” meaning city officials under the thumb of real estate developers and state and federal highway builders, just can’t really run highways through the middle of cities any more as they often tried to do 50 and 60 years ago.

All of this was fresh on my mind after talking to Airic Hughes, a Little Rock native, and a PhD candidate in history who is writing his thesis on the development and impact of the Wilbur Mills Expressway or I-630 on the city. He had interviewed me some weeks back for his paper, and I brought him on Wade’s World to continue the conversation. For ACORN, the Mills Expressway is one of the classic examples of “what goes around, comes around,” since somewhere between many and most observers are now conceding fifty years later that ACORN was right and that the expressway did divide the city racially and economically. I know it hurts many of their mouths to have to say those words.

Hughes, as a budding historian, was not just pulling together the pieces on the planning of the highway to the city and state and the eventual federal bailout to complete the small run of road by then powerful Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. He was connecting the dots even farther back, especially underlining the racial divisions and history of the city. For Hughes, a small riot and lynching in 1927 and the events of the 1957 desegregation of schools, creating national embarrassments in both cases, were all straight lines to the flight to the west and the demand for the highway to create a racial and income wall through the heart of the city.

It’s hard to get away with such draconian construction projects any more. The days of Robert Moses and Wilbur Mills are long gone. Too much of the history is now obvious and hard to pave over.  Real estate developers though don’t really change, as we can see in Little Rock and Atlanta. There’s always another castle in the sky, mall for the mind, or a new and different up scale residential development just another couple of miles farther out, if the land is available and cheap enough for them to make their bucks, no matter what the traffic patterns might be or the direct impacts that might divide a city’s populations by income and race permanently. While they take their money and run, and the rest of us live with the consequences.