Progress and the Eye of the Beholder: Reflections on Race, Class and Truth

Published on The Black, July 6, 2006

Two pieces in my local paper today served as clear reminders of the adage that there is more than one side to every story. So too, they confirmed the wisdom–however much maligned it may be by some–that truth is often contingent upon one’s perspective, rather than being something we can determine objectively.

First, consider an opinion piece, written by Butch Eley, the CEO of a Highway Maintenance company. Therein, Eley lauds the nation’s Interstate Highway program: an effort that celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, and which continues apace, as the perpetual construction projects around the country–which show no sign of ever reaching completion–clearly attest. To the column’s author, the interstate program has been an unqualified success, linking communities to one another, and helping families remain mobile, making relocation or visits to relatives quicker and easier than ever. Eley praises the 46,500 miles of “superhighways” dotting the continental U.S. as “an essential part of our lives and an unquestionable contribution to our quality of life” (1).

And while I would certainly agree with Eley that the nation’s interstates have contributed to economic growth, the costs paid for development and economic expansion have been considerably greater than he would have us believe. For now, I won’t even speak of the way interstates, built at the behest of the automobile lobby, destroyed mass transit–benefiting largely the haves at the expense of the have-nots. And I’ll put to the side the problems associated with over-reliance on cars, such as increased air pollution, energy costs, oil dependence, and residential sprawl, with its attendant long commutes and associated road rage. Instead, I’ll focus on another, underappreciated but significant matter: namely, that the construction of the nation’s interstates typically came at the direct expense of low- and moderate-income communities of color, whose neighborhoods, homes and businesses were often destroyed to make way for all that “progress.”

That Eley doesn’t think about that isn’t surprising: his company, after all, is based in Brentwood, Tennessee–a prototypical white flight suburb if ever there was one–far from the North Nashville community that was torn apart by Interstate 40 in the late 1960s.* Butch has probably never been there, or even if he has, he likely hasn’t been told of how the interstate helped choke the economic lifeblood out of this place so close to (and yet so far from) his own home.

Of course, North Nashville wasn’t the only place impacted by the highway program. As University of Alabama History Professor Raymond Mohl has noted, by the early 1960s, more than 37,000 urban housing units each year were being demolished to make way for interstate construction (2): this, on top of another 40,000 or so being knocked down as part of “urban renewal”–which typically meant the creation of parking lots, office parks and shopping centers in working class and low-income residential spaces. By the late ’60s, the annual toll would rise to nearly 70,000 houses or apartments destroyed every year for the interstate effort alone. Of residents displaced, approximately three-fourths were African Americans, and large shares of the remainder were Latino–especially Puerto Ricans in large Northern cities (3).

Less than ten percent of persons displaced by urban renewal and interstate construction had new single-resident or family housing to go to afterward, as cities rarely built new housing to take the place of that which had been destroyed. Instead, displaced families had to rely on crowded apartments, double up with relatives, or move into run-down public housing projects (4).

Indeed, displacement was no coincidence or mere unintended consequence of the highway program. To the contrary, it was foreseen and accepted as a legitimate cost of progress. In 1965, for example, a Congressional Committee acknowledged that the highway system was likely to displace a million people before it was finished (5). This displacement was not only expected, but indeed it was championed as a way to “clear out” black and brown ghettos. The American Road Builders Association–a lobby with obvious interests in the creation of tens of thousands of miles of interstates–praised the construction as a way to eliminate “slum and deteriorated areas,” thereby countering the “threat posed by slum housing to the public health, safety, morals and welfare of the nation” (6). One federal official even admitted in 1972 that the interstate program was seen as a good way to “get rid of the local niggertown” (7).

But there was a problem for those persons being cleared out: due to racial discrimination in suburban and outlying areas, persons of color displaced in this fashion had nowhere to turn for housing. Certainly the white builders, developers, and others who supported the destruction of so-called slums, weren’t thinking of challenging the blatant racism in lending or zoning that was keeping their suburban spaces all-white. In fact, at the same time black and brown housing was being destroyed, millions of white families were procuring government guaranteed and subsidized loans (through the FHA and VA loan programs), that were almost entirely off-limits to people of color. So, ironically, the government was reducing the housing stock for people of color at the same time it was deliberately expanding it for whites: and, in fact, since the interstate program made “white flight” easier and cheaper than ever before, it can even be said that white middle-class housing access was made possible because of the destruction of housing for African American and Latino communities (8).**

So rather than eliminate slums, the interstate program facilitated their worsening–causing black and brown neighborhoods to become even more cut off from the rest of their respective cities, as highways cut through the hearts of their communities, negatively effecting commerce in the place where it was needed most.

In New Orleans, for example–and take note of it, all those who thought Katrina’s displacement of black folks was unique, or who have chosen to blame the black community there for the condition of its neighborhoods–the I-10 sliced and diced through the main artery of two of the city’s largest black communities: the Treme and the Seventh Ward (9). The Treme–the oldest free black community in the United States–was (still is) bordered on one side by Claiborne Avenue, above which the I-10 would be constructed. The Claiborne corridor was home to as many as 200 black-owned businesses in its day, and included a wide median (known to locals as a “neutral ground”), lined with huge oak trees and plenty of space for recreation, community picnics, family gatherings and cultural events. Once completed, the I-10 had destroyed what was, for all intent and purposes, a public park 6,100 feet long and 100 feet wide, along with hundreds of businesses and homes (10). In the Seventh Ward, home to the city’s old-line Creole community, residents saw the same kind of devastation, also from the construction of the I-10 along Claiborne, including the virtual elimination of what was once the nation’s most prosperous black business district (11).

The destruction of urban residential space prompted citizen protests across the nation: in the South (Miami, Montgomery, Columbia, Birmingham, Charlotte, Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Atlanta, in addition to Nashville, previously mentioned), the North (South Bronx, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Camden, NJ), the Midwest (Kansas City, St. Paul, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Chicago), and the West (Los Angeles, Pasadena, and Seattle). In fact, opposition to many of the proposed interstate routes forced the government to pass new regulation in the late 60s, ostensibly ensuring relocation assistance or new housing construction to replace units destroyed: a promise that would go largely unfulfilled in each and every community affected (12).

Given the government’s steadfast refusal to offer relocation assistance in the face of intentional housing stock reduction–and indeed the head of Eisenhower’s Office of Economic Advisors admitted relocation help was rejected as being too costly (13)–it can truthfully be said that the interstate program operated as a mechanism of racial apartheid and oppression for millions of people: a none-too-minor factor quite typically overlooked by the likes of Butch Eley in their glowing paeans to white middle-class “progress.”

Which brings us to a second, and not unrelated story, also about housing availability or the lack thereof in low- and moderate income communities of color. In the local section of my paper today, one finds a story about the redevelopment of the Sam Levy homes, from a former low-rise public housing project, to a new mixed-income housing community, under the financial tutelage of the federal HOPE VI program (14). HOPE VI, according to the piece, has breathed new life into the Sam Levy community, providing attractive duplexes for residents in place of the previous maze of dilapidated row apartments. And by economically mixing the neighborhoods where they intervene–one third public housing, one-third subsidized voucher housing for persons with slightly higher incomes, and one-third market rate renters and owners–HOPE VI proposes to revitalize urban spaces, such as the East Nashville community where the Levy homes once sat.

Once again, as with the praise for the interstate system, there is some truth to the conventional wisdom on HOPE VI. Having seen the pastel, well-designed homes that have replaced the projects in Levy, I can certainly vouch for what an improvement the enterprise will be for those who will be living there. For those residents of Levy who are able to return, life will be immeasurably better: less crowding, likely less crime, and (no pun intended) likely more hope for their future and the future of their children.

But what of those who don’t make it back? What will happen to them? After all, HOPE VI developments almost always result in a net reduction of affordable housing: rebuilding as few as one-tenth the number of units as before. Then, since at least one-third of the units rebuilt will be put on the open market, ultimately lived in by those who could afford to live elsewhere–and another third will be for those who need small rent subsidies but would likely not have lived in public housing before–the end result is that as many as two-thirds of the former residents of a given housing project will be uprooted. Nationally, as few as eleven percent of displaced public housing residents have been slated for re-occupation in HOPE VI developments (15).

Although the HOPE VI program, administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) vows to provide housing vouchers to displaced residents who “choose” not to return to the new development (or, in most cases are priced out of the area, or screened out due to bad credit and other factors), the truth is that very few end up receiving vouchers. In fact, residents are nearly sixty percent more likely to simply be shuffled into another public housing project, than to receive a voucher allowing them to move up and out of concentrated poverty–the ostensible purpose of HOPE VI in the first place. Approximately one in five public housing residents displaced by HOPE VI lose all housing assistance, and are left to fend for themselves. With no tracking mechanism to keep up with families, how they’re doing, and what their needs may be, this means that tens of thousands of extremely poor persons are falling through the cracks, even as thousands more see their lives improved.

So while mixed-income housing remains a laudable theory (and indeed, I for one would love to see all neighborhoods be zoned for mixed use–including the affluent lily-white suburbs), the fact remains that so long as poor communities are asked to make room for more affluent buyers, while affluent communities aren’t expected to make room for the working class and poor, programs like HOPE VI will only intensify the nation’s affordable housing crisis. Thus far, HOPE VI has resulted in the demolition of over 70,000 public housing units in the nation–part of an overall reduction in public housing stock of nearly 200,000 units since the 1970s–leading to wait lists in some communities that are as long as eight years (16).

That such a situation should concern us all is obvious: after all, if affordable housing stock is reduced in a given community, demand for higher-cost market rate housing intensifies, driving up the price for everyone. Even the property owners who benefit in the short term from a run-up of their equity value may come to regret the destruction of lower-cost housing, since the overvaluation of property inevitably results in a housing bubble, likely at some point to burst. When prices rise to such an extent that they become unrealistic for middle-income homeowners and renters, even affluent owners may feel the pinch as values stagnate or even begin to slide a bit. In this way, affordable housing stabilizes prices over the long run, and to lose such units poses a significant threat–first to the poor and working class, but ultimately to most everyone: even those like the Mayor of Nashville and the developers, who praise such progress from behind the uncritical veil of their own short-term perspective.

That federal and local officials have opted to create mixed income communities by running off poor folks and importing the middle class, as opposed to spending the same monies to provide better job opportunities for the folks in those communities to begin with–thereby mixing up the local income picture from within–says a lot. It suggests that at some level, we have given up on the ability of poor people to take advantage of opportunity, once afforded to them. It suggests that we think the only hope is for poor people to be around middle class folks, as if middle class values (which aren’t, frankly, all they’re cracked up to be) will rub off. It suggests that we’ve accepted the conservative line that the problem with poor people is internal, rather than systemic: that somehow role models are more important than living-wage jobs and decent schools.

And so long as we accept that kind of thinking, the kinds of problems faced by the poor and working class in this country–especially but not only people of color–will remain, whether or not they receive the kinds of media attention reserved for signs of so-called progress.

*As a matter of full disclosure, I should point out that I once had a P.O. Box in Brentwood, shared with my mother who lives in the nearby town of Franklin, with my grandmother. I have in-laws who live in Brentwood now, and who I love dearly. Brentwood is a nice place to visit. I just wouldn’t want to live there. Also, as a matter of full disclosure, my paternal grandfather grew up in North Nashville, on Jefferson Street, in the heart of the city’s black community, and in the very area dissected by Interstate 40.

** Between 1950-1966, due to racially-restrictive underwriting criteria for FHA loans, 27 million of the 28 million persons who moved to the nation’s suburbs–where eight in ten new jobs were being created and located–were white (see, Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown, By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race. NY: Dutton, 1999: 95-96).


(1) Butch Eley, 2006. “Interstates: How far they’ve taken us, how far they’ve come,” The Tennessean, June 30: 13A.

(2) Raymond A. Mohl, 2002. “The Interstates and the Cities: Highways, Housing and the Freeway Revolt,” Research Report, Poverty and Race Research Action Council.

(3) Micaela di Leonardo, 1999. “‘Why Can’t They be Like Our Grandparents?’ and Other Racial Fairytales,” in Without Justice For All, Adolph Reed Jr., ed. Boulder: Westview Press: 42.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Mohl, 2002.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) George Lipsitz, 1998. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Temple University: 6-7; Jill Quadagno, 1994. The Color of Welfare. Oxford University Press; Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, 1995. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. NY: Routledge; Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, 1993. American Apartheid. Harvard University Press.

(9) Beverly Wright, 1997. “New Orleans Neighborhoods Under Siege,” in Just Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility. New Society Press: 121-144; also, Mohl, 2002.

(10) Wright, 1997.

(11) Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, 2005 (

(12) Mohl, 2002.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ailene Torres and Michaela Jackson, 2006. “Different Sam Levy Homes draw praise from officials,” The Tennessean. June 30: 1B.

(15) National Housing Law Project, 2002. False HOPE: A Critical Assessment of the HOPE VI Public Housing Redevelopment Program. June.

(16) Ibid.

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