By the 1940s, the Los Angeles neighborhood of West Adams was turning into a thriving, racially integrated community.
Black residents were moving in, thanks in part to an early legal victory against the covenants that had restricted homeownership to white families. One of the residents involved in the case was Hattie McDaniel, the “Gone with the Wind” actor known for throwing parties at her West Adams house that drew stars like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Clark Gable and Lena Horne. Eventually, the neighborhood came to be known as Sugar Hill, a tribute to the Harlem neighborhood of the same name.
But in the 1950s, the residents of Los Angeles’s Sugar Hill began to hear alarming news: City planners were thinking about building a highway through the neighborhood. Local civil rights leaders pleaded with officials to choose a different route, without success. Soon, the Santa Monica Freeway — what would become the westernmost stretch of Interstate 10 — would destroy the old Sugar Hill.
Similar stories occurred hundreds of times across the country in the 1950s and ’60s. Even as the nation’s new highway system was fueling the long post-World War II economic boom, it was doing so at the expense of downtown communities. Those neighborhoods were disproportionately Black, and many have never recovered. There was a saying at the time: “white men’s roads through Black men’s homes.”
As my colleague Nadja Popovich writes:
White Americans increasingly fled cities altogether, following newly built roads to the growing suburbs. But Black residents were largely barred from doing the same. Government policies denied them access to federally backed mortgages and private discrimination narrowed the options further.
In effect, that left many Black residents living along the highways’ paths.
Today, there is a movement to reverse the damage, as this Times multimedia reporting project — by Nadja, Josh Williams and Denise Lu — describes.
Rochester, N.Y., is removing a downtown highway built in the 1950s and trying to stitch a neighborhood back together. Syracuse, N.Y.; Detroit; and New Haven, Conn., have committed to replacing stretches of highway with walkable neighborhoods. Residents in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, New Orleans, New York, Oakland and Seattle are asking city officials to do the same.
To support these efforts, President Biden’s infrastructure proposal includes $20 billion that would help reconnect neighborhoods divided by highways. His transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, has called the issue a top priority for the department.
The future of the country’s highway system is about much more than those neighborhoods, too. It will also affect public health and climate change. And the debate is happening at a fascinating moment: Many of the midcentury highways are reaching the end of their life span, and attitudes toward transportation are shifting.
The automobile remains the dominant way that Americans move around, and that will not change anytime soon. Mass transit is not a realistic option in less populated places. But it is realistic in cities, and more city residents and planners are starting to question whether they want major highways running through their neighborhoods.
One telling statistic comes from Michael Sivak of Sivak Applied Research: After decades of uninterrupted increases, the number of miles driven each year by the average American peaked in 2004.
“As recently as a decade ago,” said Peter Norton, a University of Virginia historian, “every transportation problem was a problem to be solved with new roads.” That’s not always the case anymore.
On the same topic, Noah Smith of Bloomberg Opinion writes: “It’s difficult to overstate the damage that we did to our cities by putting giant highways right through the middle of neighborhoods. But San Francisco has shown that highways can be taken out and relocated. We can fix what we broke.”
THE LATEST NEWS
Other Big Stories
After Colonial Pipeline, how can the U.S. prevent the next ransomware attack?
Centralize defenses. The government should help protect companies that control critical infrastructure, Sean Joyce, a former F.B.I. official, argues in The Washington Post.
Improve “security hygiene.” Simpler steps, like multifactor authentication, can prevent many intrusions, The Verge’s Justine Calma explains.
The ghost of Exit 8: Rather than surrender his land, a Vermont farmer burned himself and his farm. His legend lives on.
Modern Love: A lifetime of a mother’s love in one cardboard box.
A Times classic: How New Yawkers tawk.
Lives Lived: Kay Tobin Lahusen and her longtime partner were at the forefront of the gay-rights movement, helping organize protests well before the Stonewall uprising. Lahusen died at 91.
ARTS AND IDEAS
The N.B.A. goes home
The N.B.A. playoffs have begun, and the games will be a big part of Memorial Day weekend for many people. Here are some major story lines:
Fans are back. Last year, the playoffs took place inside empty gyms at Walt Disney World. This year, vaccinated fans are packing arenas and bringing energy back to the games. (And a few are misbehaving.) It’s a sign that the country is “sloughing off, however tentatively, the raw pain of the last year,” Kurt Streeter writes in The Times.
New York is back. New York and Atlanta are basketball-mad cities whose teams have struggled for most of the 21st century. Now the Knicks and the Hawks — both with exciting young players — are tied at one game apiece in a first-round series. And the Knicks aren’t even New York’s best team: The star-filled Brooklyn Nets are.
Is LeBron back? The Los Angeles Lakers are the defending champions, but their stars — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — were hurt for much of this season. The team is the No. 7 seed (out of eight) in the Western Conference — a position from which no team has won a title.
Trust the process. The Philadelphia 76ers angered many fans by deliberately assembling a bad team for several seasons, which allowed them to draft top college players. The approach came to be known as “the process,” and now it’s paying off. Led by Joel Embiid — a dominant center with a sharp wit — the 76ers are the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The next stars. Away from the big coastal markets, young stars have thrived this season, and one or more could define these playoffs. They include Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies and Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was painful. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Lose one’s hair (four letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. The Morning will be off for the holiday on Monday. See you Tuesday. — David