Nobody in authority heeded Chinatown residents’ objections in the late 1980s before the shovels and earth movers began to claw a trench through the heart of Philadelphia for the Vine Street Expressway, splitting their community in two.
On Monday, Democratic U.S. Reps. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia and Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware said at a discussion in Chinatown that it’s long past time to right some wrongs as they discussed legislation they are sponsoring to reconnect urban neighborhoods around the nation shattered by highway construction — many of them home to brown, Black and low-income people.
The proposal, incorporated into the surface transportation bill that the House recently passed, would provide $3 billion in grants each year for five years to tear down these concrete walls or to alter them, such as by building caps over expressways that would provide a way to cross over and to develop parks or other community amenities on them.
“The highway is a symbol to communities of color like Chinatown, that our communities have to bear the challenges for the benefit of commuters,” said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. Among them, he said, are pollution from auto traffic.
“This highway and many like it across the country are inequitable,” Chin said.
Mobility justice is having a political moment in Washington and the nation at large as part of the ongoing confrontation of racism catalyzed by the 2020 police killing of George Floyd. The Biden administration has supported equity in transportation as a key element of its proposals for infrastructure spending.
Indeed, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted about the Vine Street Expressway in March, a rare event for the leader of a department that historically has spent much more on highways than transit. He later said in an interview that “there is racism physically built into some of our highways.”
Planning is underway for highway removal projects in several cities, including Detroit and New Orleans, where the elevated I-10 freeway blotted out Claiborne Avenue, an important boulevard in the city’s Black community.
In Rochester, N.Y., the Inner Loop expressway, built in the 1950s, is being replaced by an at-grade, walkable roadway, reconnecting a largely Black neighborhood to downtown.
“The issue has been out there forever,” said Evans, whose district includes Chinatown and Nicetown in North Philadelphia, blighted by the elevated portion of the Roosevelt Expressway.
“It’s the timing,” he said in an interview. “There’s more attention on the issue of policing after George Floyd, and there’s concern about income inequality. All of a sudden there’s an awareness.”
And, he said, President Joe Biden is behind doing something about the highway problem.
In his initial $2 trillion infrastructure plan, the president proposed up to $20 billion to help stitch back communities broken up by interstates.
It’s unclear whether the idea is part of the bipartisan agreement for a much more modest infrastructure package reached between the president and Republican senators; specific legislative language has not yet been drafted.
“Our goal is that this be in any infrastructure bill that is passed,” Blunt Rochester said earlier in the day at an event in Wilmington. “We want this signed by President Biden.”
She agreed with Evans that a lot of things are aligning politically.
“It’s also a time when people are crying and calling for climate action … [and] when we are just in the midst of a pandemic,” Blunt Rochester said. “It’s about people’s health and quality of life, and also about the economy and making people get their fair share.”
In Wilmington, community leaders and state lawmakers are working on proposals to cap part of I-95, which cuts through the city and divided neighborhoods on the west side, displacing hundreds of families and businesses.
Blunt Rochester, who was born in Philadelphia and has family roots in Nicetown/Tioga, said construction of the interstate finished in 1969, after a yearlong occupation of Wilmington by the Delaware National Guard. The city’s population has dropped since by about 25,000, she said.
The members of Congress were joined at the Crane Community Center in Chinatown by State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Phila.), City Councilmember Mark Squilla, PennDot Secretary Yassmin Gramian, city officials, and leaders of community development organizations.
“The power of privilege in the development of our highway system is palpable,” said Eleanor Sharpe, deputy director in the city’s Department of Development and Planning.
She noted that I-95 was capped during its construction for an extra $9 million to mitigate noise for residents of Society Hill, but officials rejected a less “destructive” alternative to the elevated Roosevelt Expressway in Nicetown to save money.