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Washington Watch: Biden wants to ‘reconnect communities’ cut off by interstates — this infamous Baltimore highway shows what’s at stake

An earlier version of this report misspelled the name of Nneka N’namdi, founder of Fight Blight Bmore. The report has been corrected.

When Nick Mosby reflects on Baltimore’s infamous “Highway to Nowhere,” the local politician doesn’t just see a 1½-mile stretch of road.

“It’s a symbolic representation of how inequity in infrastructure looks — and how it was used to benefit some, but really steal from others, in a way that still plays out to this day,” said Mosby, a Democrat and president of Baltimore’s city council.

The sunken section of highway, once meant to help link I-70 to I-95, sliced through Black neighborhoods as it was built in the 1970s. The infrastructure project tore down more than 900 homes, with residents displaced and dozens of businesses put out of commission. But the road, which locals call the “Highway to Nowhere,” never connected to other segments of interstate, as that construction was scrapped due to opposition from activists in other parts of Baltimore.

Mosby, whose mother’s childhood home on Mulberry Street was among those knocked down, said the project’s lasting impacts have ranged from a loss of generational wealth to the affected neighborhoods lacking businesses, job openings, public transportation and more.

“That’s what something like an artery through a community — that’s cut out of a community — can do, and we’ve seen that not just here in Baltimore City, but we’ve seen that throughout the country,” Mosby told MarketWatch.

Other examples of highways that plowed through Black neighborhoods decades ago are found in Syracuse, N.Y., with a section of I-81, Miami with a stretch of I-95 and St. Paul, Minn., with part of I-94. Advocates who favor tearing down or redeveloping such highways have been encouraged this year, as Democratic-run Washington’s proposals for spending on infrastructure and social programs have included money for “reconnecting communities.”

Mosby said he’s hopeful as the U.S. lawmakers representing Maryland push for that type of spending. “Clearly, there’s a chasm between how that looks and how much that costs, and that’s what’s up for healthy discussion and debate, but I know that they’re committed to trying to get a deal done and support communities like West Baltimore,” he said.

The Franklin Square community where Mosby’s mother lived decades ago was tight-knit, home to teachers, shopkeepers and blue-collar workers who were proud of where they lived, according to the city council leader. Nowadays, blocks next to the Highway to Nowhere are dotted with boarded-up, abandoned row houses.

“It was about how white you could get your steps,” he said, referring to the cleanliness at that time of marble steps that led up to homes. “Many feel that the destruction from the Highway to Nowhere — that literally barreled through this community — was the start of a significant decline of these neighborhoods.”

Baltimore’s ‘Highway to Nowhere,’ a stub of roadway that advocates want redeveloped, is shown in red.

MarketWatch photo illustration/Google

The ideas for redevelopment include turning the highway into a “calmer, narrower boulevard,” as a 2018 report from the Urban Land Institute Baltimore put it.

“This would free up space for natural and recreational uses (or, depending upon market conditions, even new development),” said the report from the nonprofit organization. There could be athletic fields, community gardens, a retail center with a grocery store and “a gradual transformation of the chasm into a valley,” while maintaining a corridor in case the Red Line, a canceled mass transit project, ever returns, according to the report.

The devastating effect of highway construction on many minority urban neighborhoods that lacked power to stop it is detailed in books such as “The Folklore of the Freeway” or “The Power Broker,” as well as papers such as “White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes,” notes Audrey McFarlane, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who focuses on land use and economic development.

“Anywhere you go, that highway going through the city went through the Black community,” she said. Next on the list would be working-class white communities and other marginalized groups, she added, referring to groups that also would be “overly represented” when it comes to being displaced by such infrastructure.

McFarlane’s own first experience years ago with Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere still sticks with her. “When I first got on it from downtown, I accelerated up to highway speed,” she said. “The highway came to an end after about a mile — much to my shock. I’ll never forget that’s how I discovered it.”

The law professor warned that any redevelopment of the stub of roadway could have a “displacement effect, in and of itself,” as gentrification happens.

“What mechanisms — heavily subsidized and well-designed — can you adopt to forestall that as much as possible?” she said, stressing that it’s “important to understand that up front,” rather than as “a last-minute thought.”

A view on how to ‘repair the damage done’

Nneka N’namdi lives just a bit north of the Highway to Nowhere, in West Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood, where she’s the founder of an initiative called “Fight Blight Bmore” that takes aim at deteriorating or abandoned buildings. She sees a link between the highway and her initiative.

“There’s absolutely a connection, because the Highway to Nowhere is a very large example of blight,” she said.

Nneka N’namdi is the founder of an initiative called “Fight Blight Bmore.”

Fight Blight Bmore

People who aren’t familiar with the road’s construction should “imagine what it would be like to have elected officials decide that they are going to run a highway straight through their neighborhood, and as a result, they are going to have to move somewhere else,” she said in an interview. N’namdi emphasized that there has been a “multiplicity of displacements,” because families hit by the highway already had moved “away from the water to neighborhoods in West Baltimore,” and they’d also migrated north to avoid “racial terrorism” in the U.S. South, with that coming after the slave trade ripped their forebearers out of Africa.

N’namdi calls for any redevelopment effort to be led by residents or former residents who were displaced. Otherwise, she’s not that optimistic.

“I think that it can be fixed. There’s definitely a set of solutions that can be deployed to begin to repair the damage done,” she said. “I know that I don’t have faith that if it’s left to Washington, if it’s left to Annapolis, if it’s left to city hall, that the intent or the outcomes will be equitable — that the intent or the outcomes will actually repair the damage done.”

This view of Baltimore’s ‘Highway to Nowhere’ shows where it runs under Fulton Avenue.

MarketWatch/Victor Reklaitis

Washington’s offers, skeptics’ views

So what’s Washington offering?

President Joe Biden in the spring proposed spending $20 billion on reconnecting neighborhoods in his “American Jobs Plan,” but such public works would get just 5% of that amount, or $1 billion, in a bipartisan infrastructure bill that has passed the Senate and still needs the House’s OK.

However, one Democratic-run House committee’s proposals for the party’s social-spending package have included $4 billion for “reconnecting communities” and related projects, and that proposal remains in recent legislative text for the “Build Back Better” package, even as other programs have been axed during negotiations. That would lift spending on reconnecting neighborhoods to $5 billion, or 25% of Biden’s goal.

Biden last week put forth a $1.75 trillion framework for the social-spending package, which top Democrats are trying to advance in tandem with the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure
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bill. But the party has yet to reach agreement on the measures, and a deal between moderates and progressives is necessary given the slim Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. One key moderate Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said Monday that he wouldn’t support the social-spending bill without more details.

As the Biden administration began talking up spending on reconnecting neighborhoods in the spring, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said: “There is racism physically built into some of our highways, and that’s why the jobs plan has specifically committed to reconnect some of the communities that were divided.” Buttigieg was referring to how historians have found that highway builders often targeted communities of color, with some instances of not just tacit but overt racism.

Conservative groups such as the Republican Study Committee, which is made up of more than 150 House GOP lawmakers, have criticized or mocked this point of view.

“When you dig into it, you find things like billions of dollars to fix what they call racist roads and bridges, which is crazy. I don’t even know what that means,” that committee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, said during a Fox News interview last month as he discussed the Democratic Party’s spending plans. A spokesman for the congressman didn’t respond to requests for an interview.

Steven Malanga, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who is focused on urban economies and public policy, said projects that aim to reconnect neighborhoods should be approached with caution.

“It’s wrong to use 70-year-old accusations of of racial inequity to create a list of places we should tear down, especially since many of these communities that disappeared are gone,” Malanga said.

“We need to be very careful because the cost is extremely expensive, and doing this is very, very disruptive. We have to be clear about what the goals are, and we have to avoid catastrophes like the Big Dig,” he added, referring to Boston’s highway rerouting project that suffered from cost overruns and other problems.

Malanga said he isn’t opposed to all proposed projects that aim to reconnect communities. He notes the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal wrote approvingly about such an effort with I-84 in Hartford, Conn., and he said redeveloping Baltimore’s Highway to Nowhere might be a worthy project that isn’t very costly.

But another issue, Malanga said, is the money that Washington actually delivers might only “get you one big project, maybe two” — or possibly just fund “design consultations for projects around the country.”

In addition, the think-tank expert stressed that “working-class, ethnic neighborhoods,” meaning people who were Jewish, Italian, Polish or from other backgrounds, also were harmed by the highways built with federal money decades ago.

“To reduce it to saying it was about eliminating Black communities is, I think, reductive,” Malanga said, meaning it’s presenting the problem in an overly simplified form. “Clearly what happened is that older, lower-income communities became targets, because local officials began using this money as urban renewal, which was not really what it was intended for.”

N’namdi, the Fight Blight Bmore founder, pushed back on that view, saying many of the affected communities that weren’t Black “achieved whiteness as a social construct,” so the impact on their communities “wasn’t as traumatic.”

“People will say it’s an oversimplification, because they don’t necessarily recognize the full racial implications of those highways, of displacement of people, and of people’s complex experiences in America,” she said.

Now read: Here’s Biden’s Build Back Better framework — in two charts

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