Neighborhoods cleaved by Montgomery’s interstates
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Sixteen houses, a church and a funeral home once lined the sidewalk from Jefferson Davis Avenue up to Stone Street.
That block of South Holt Street, then a small part of a sprawling African-American community, now sits dark and empty beneath interstates 65 and 85.
“They sent out a letter saying they wanted to pave the highway and the next thing I knew, they were out there digging up a whole line of houses on the other side of the street,” said the Rev. C.B. Croskery, a Stone Street resident since 1955 who saw the neighborhood cleaved by concrete.
Walk that block of South Holt Street 60 years ago and you’d pass unpaved Glass Street on the left, wooden shotgun houses on either side and First Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on the corner. On the left was Chilton Street. Minto Street was four houses up on the right.
That block, those streets, and those homes are gone.
The original Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded, sits boarded up on the corner of Stone Street and nestled in the bend of the I-85/I-65 interchange that replaced those houses. The Carlton McClendon Furniture Co. behind the church is a bare lot. Croskery’s porch used to face a row of houses on the opposite side of the road. Now he’s neighbors with the interstate.
“I look at it as a loss. All those folks lost their homes. I feel like we lost something when the highway came through,” Croskery said. “I didn’t know I was going to hear it like I do hear it.”
The buzz of the daily commute is pervasive. Music teacher Skip Jackson has lived with it nearly his whole life.
Next to Jackson’s Carlisle Street home is the lot where his family’s rental house used to sit. From this vantage point, a second-grade Jackson watched state workers level houses and bulldoze dirt for the I-65 on-ramp that runs behind his current residence.
“I can remember the day they brought the big earthmovers out there,” Jackson said. “We knew it was coming. When the people who owned their homes started to move, we knew that was coming. Just like any neighborhood that’s poor, you don’t argue.
“All it did for us was kill our neighborhood.”
Busy roads; empty neighborhoods
Like many of the country’s interstates, the legacy of Montgomery’s superhighways is complicated.
Approximately 180,000 sets of rubber tires meet interstate road in Montgomery each day, according to the Alabama Department of Transportation, a daily flock of travelers that undoubtedly boosts the economy and contributes to the city regularly leading the state in hotel occupancy rate.
However, interstates 65 and 85 were primarily built through majority black communities, small inner-city towns born out of segregation and built by African-Americans shut out of other parts of Montgomery.
“They shopped in that strip of businesses along Holt Street that are no longer there: banks, funeral homes, insurance businesses, grocery stores, an ice house, a bakery, a complete, self-contained, working-class African-American neighborhood,” said Daniel Neil, former director of the Rosa Parks Museum.
The impact of interstate construction can be seen today in those empty swaths beneath the high-rises and the public housing communities built to aid the African-American housing shortage caused by dislocation and discriminatory lending practices.
Today the poorest neighborhoods are those next to the interstate, according to a city map of U.S. Census income data, but whether that is a result of the interstate — and whether the interstate itself was a purposeful tool of racial oppression — remains a debate among scholars and locals.
“The Highway Department, state of Alabama and city planners designed the interstate so it basically decimated many businesses and about 1,700 residences,” said historian Richard Bailey, who grew up in the Centennial Hill neighborhood that sits blocks from the north side of I-85. “Eighty percent of that 1,700 was black. Most of the black ones were poor. And that’s where the problem began.”
Approximately 75 percent of the families impacted by the construction of I-65 were black, according to Alabama State University archivist Howard Robinson, who studied the construction of interstates while researching his dissertation on Montgomery’s desegregation.
Along the three-mile corridor of I-85 from Ann Street to the interchange, Bailey used to throw newspapers in the three neighborhoods that became the hotbed of Montgomery interstate protests throughout the 1960s.
There I-85 barreled through an estimated 356 homes in Centennial Hill, Bel Air and The Bottoms, according to a 1960 Highway Department memo. All three were predominantly black neighborhoods, and 192 of the houses along that stretch — more than half of the residences affected — were designated as “poor condition. The state estimated an average payment of $3,300 per house, a price the poor and elderly felt didn’t cover the loss.
“Since these people were poor and black, housing was scarce in Montgomery. They were essentially left homeless,” Bailey said.
The 164 listed in “fair” to “good” condition housed the strength of Montgomery’s African-American middle class: doctors, lawyers, teachers, coaches. It’s the neighborhood where Nat King Cole grew up and where civil rights leaders like the Revs. Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr. lived.
At an April 1960 public hearing by the State Highway Department announcing I-85′s planned route, a “reasonably large” crowd gathered to question why their neighborhoods were chosen, according to archived minutes of the meeting.
Mrs. Willard Houston of 1423 Forest Ave. introduced herself as “one of those to be wiped off the map.”
Centennial Hill resident C.R. Williams said he was unaware of the state’s planned route through his neighborhood, saying he had been told a year earlier that the interstate would run north of Oak Park instead.
“We don’t get the same paper the white people get and while the (new) map has appeared in the white people’s paper, it has not appeared in our paper,” Williams said, according to meeting minutes. “Perhaps most of the white people don’t know it, the choicest property that the Negroes have in the city is being taken for this highway. Now the worst part of it is that there is not a place for us to relocate.”
Montgomery’s black neighborhoods weren’t the only ones to face the cuts of concrete. Across America, multilane roads stabbed through poor and minority neighborhoods after the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956.
In Miami, construction of Interstate 95 wiped out 10,000 homes and a black business district. Interstate 40 in Nashville destroyed 80 percent of black businesses in the city and 650 homes. In St. Paul, I-94 crushed the bustling black Rondo neighborhood and displaced nearly 3,000 families.
But Montgomery’s interstate construction came as the civil rights movement put the city under an international spotlight, and those who believe racial politics paved the way for neighborhood destruction also believe they started with the man who controlled Alabama’s road money.
The same year the federal highways bill passed, British magazine Picture Post referred to Montgomery as a “crisis centre” and quoted “spokesman of segregation” Sam Engelhardt, an Alabama senator from Shorter and a leader of the segregationist White Citizens Council.
As senator, Engelhardt infamously gerrymandered Tuskegee city limits into a 28-sided figure that removed 99 percent of African-Americans. In 1958, Engelhardt ran for lieutenant governor on the campaign slogan “segregation every day in every way.” In 1959, he was named director of the State Highway Department.
“Never before or after has that much federal cash flowed into the state of Alabama,” said Neil. “He essentially weaponized a public infrastructure project with the intention of destroying a civil rights incubator.”
After the 1960 public hearing in Montgomery, neighborhood residents led by the Rev. George Curry staged a national opposition campaign that helped delay construction of I-85 through their neighborhoods for six or seven years.
“It was interesting, because black people did not have local political influence, but they had national political influence so you saw many of the local folks appealing to national folks who then intervened in what was happening,” Robinson said.
Abernathy wrote a telegram to President John F. Kennedy about the interstate in 1961. The Washington, D.C., bureau of the NAACP wrote the secretary of commerce. Curry had submitted both a petition of 1,150 signatures and an alternate route proposal eight days after the meeting. He also contacted Engelhardt and eventually the federal Bureau of Public Roads (BPR).
“Rev. Curry alleges that the routing of this highway will uproot a Negro community, which has no place to relocate, and two Negro churches,” an archived BPR memo reads. “It is claimed that there is a nearby alternate route which would cost $30,000 less. Rev. Curry charges that the proposed routing of the highway is designed by state and local officials to purposely dislodge this Negro community where many of the leaders of the fight for desegregation in Montgomery reside. Rev. Curry said that in a recent conversation with a Mr. Sam Engelhardt, Alabama’s Highway Director, Mr. Engelhardt stated that it was his intention to get Rev. Abernathy’s church.”
Three routes had been proposed for the final stretch of I-85, Robinson said: north of Oak Park, through Oak Park or south of Oak Park. At the time of the I-85 path evaluation, the city had closed the park’s zoo and filled in the pools in defiance of a desegregation order, Robinson said.
Curry proposed routing I-85 down what is now the Eastern Bypass, along U.S. 80 and to a more southern interchange on I-65. That route was also suggested by the BPR’s Yellow Book, a 1955 interstate planning publication that proposed interstate routes for each city.
“The destruction of whole communities will occur if the present proposed freeway is adopted which perhaps would never again be brought together,” Curry wrote in his petition.
Despite federal scrutiny over allegations of racial targeting, the BPR eventually told Alabama to proceed with the route south of Oak Park, according to a 1964 memo. By 1967, all contracts were bid and by the 1970s, I-85 was completed, according to ALDOT records.
A 1968 Alabama Journal article describes “vandals” looting houses that were vacated in the path of I-85 and a “shortage of low-income dwellings in the city.” The city had begun building public housing projects such as Gibbs Village, but many were slowed by “red tape” and not completed when the poor and elderly were displaced from The Bottoms.
“One of the things that has not been emphasized is these were proud people,” Bailey said. “They didn’t have top-flight education or income but they were a proud people. And when these interstates came by, dreams were dashed. Lives were just ruined completely.”
Curry’s home at 1110 Tuscaloosa St. is now a chain link fence next to the interstate. The once-thriving black business district on High Street is a shell of its former self.
The path of the Selma to Montgomery march now runs beneath the I-65/I-85 interchange: east on Jeff Davis Avenue, up South Holt Street and past Stone Street.
Interstate 85 from long gone Glass Street eastward was named the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway, but as Bailey said, “I don’t know anybody who refers to Interstate 85 as the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway.”
Intent or neglect?
The societal impacts of the interstates are as concrete as the roads themselves. But it’s harder to determine economic impact or whether officials at the time intentionally routed the roads through black neighborhoods for oppressive purposes.
Although no documents exist to show the interstates’ paths tainted by racial bias, Bailey and Neil see it as a near-certainty based on the demographics of the paths chosen and Engelhardt’s well-documented segregationist views.
“I don’t think anybody with the Highway Department or city planning would acknowledge it was, in fact, a decision based primarily on race,” Bailey said. “But when we begin to take a look backward to see how the black community was decimated, it becomes difficult to conceive to anyone that race didn’t play a major role in the path that Interstate 85 took in Montgomery.”
The path also defies classification as “slum clearing” in areas such as Centennial Hill, where the vacancy rate (2.5 percent) was far less than that of Montgomery (5.7 percent), according to 1950 U.S. Census data.
University of California Irvine professor Joe DiMento has studied the motivations and effects of interstate construction nationwide, focusing on Los Angeles, Memphis and his hometown of Syracuse in his book “Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways.”
Interstate 81 unequivocally crushed black and Jewish neighborhoods in Syracuse, but ascertaining malicious racial intent is not as clear-cut, DiMento said.
“In Syracuse, my very in-depth analysis did not indicate racial motivation,” DiMento said. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. There is a very difficult challenge sorting out what was motivating decision-makers.”
Similarly, Robinson said, “I don’t see any evidence of specifically targeting black communities to remove black people from the downtown areas” in Montgomery.
“Nor do you see, like I-20 was supposed to be the demarcation between black and white Atlanta, I don’t see evidence of that,” Robinson said.
The official explanation from the Highway Department pointed to traffic analysis and planned growth of the city as key factors in determining I-85′s path, according to minutes from the meetings.
“The future desire line indicates a heavy traffic growth to the southeast and to the east in Montgomery,” Highway Department design engineer W.F. Land told the 650 crowding City Hall at the 1960 meeting. “This location that we have at this Interstate route 85 will fit in between these two projected traffic bands and relieve these congested city streets.”
The route south of Oak Park cost an estimated $400,000 more than the other options and destroyed more houses. Land called the amount “negligible” compared to the $8 million planned for the project.
ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris said his mother lived in an apartment next to what is now that I-85 corridor from 1959 to 1965 and “the reasons for interstate routing were more practical” than racial targeting.
“But I’ve heard the same stuff,” Harris said. “You had to avoid major infrastructure: Jackson Hospital and the Capitol. To the south of the alignment, you had Cloverdale. So the alignment kind of dictates itself.”
A split city
Montgomery today is a city that seemingly lacks a unified identity. Its split personality — cradle of the Confederacy, birthplace of the civil rights movement — is emblazoned on its seal and physically manifested by the highways.
Interstate 65 runs from the southernmost point of Lake Michigan to Mobile Bay, separating Montgomery’s “west side” minority communities from the rest of the city as it passes through Alabama’s capital. Intentionally or not, the interchange divides and impedes the growth of surrounding neighborhoods.
“You create these fragmentary corners of what was intact city grid,” Neil said. “There’s places like this in west Montgomery where there’s one road in under the highway and there’s a neighborhood back there. Those neighborhoods tend to experience much higher instances of poverty, crime and poor health outcomes than other places in the city grid. Those traps are exactly what they say they are.”
Ask locals what the center of town is, and you will get a variety of answers: the Cloverdale neighborhood, the shopping centers out east, downtown Montgomery.
But the same downtown that houses the state Legislature and more museums than bars is also one of the poorest districts in the city, enclosed to the south and west by the interstates and the poor, blighted neighborhoods they run through.
In some ways, the interstate is the center of town.
“The interstate ... it defines what downtown is. It provides a physical barrier from a development standpoint,” City Senior Development Manager Lois Cortell said.
No economic data exist to quantify the effect of the interstates on surrounding residences, but an environmental study by ASU professor Paul Erhunmwunsee examining the impact of the city’s interstates found that “the biggest impact on the inner city residents of Montgomery was the tearing down of the heart of the black community, the sense of place and the emotional attachment to one’s community was destroyed.”
“It was damaging and detrimental to the neighborhoods, because it killed black businesses and devalued our property. Without assets what can you do? And it cut our legacy. You have nothing to pass on,” said Skip Jackson’s wife, Valtoria, whose family was also displaced by highway construction.
The blight around the interstate would appear to be evidence of negative impact, but ASU’s Harold Robinson believes desegregation also contributed to the decline of black communities and black business districts.
“When you had this interstate construction, the black business districts never reappeared in other parts of town, and I think that’s partly because these businesses were frequented by black patrons in the neighborhood,” Robinson said. “You had a captive audience. But the captive audience had options to shop at many other places now.”
The difficulty of assigning economic blame can again be seen in other cities.
“The economic impact (of Interstate 81) was extremely negative. But was it? Or was it contemporaneous with a white flight out of the Rust Belt cities?” Dimento said.
The effects of integration were immediately seen in Montgomery where, by 1980, the number of city blocks with one race living on them fell from 88.2 percent (a national high) to 66 percent, according to Robinson’s research.
Similarly the opinions of the interstates vary among those who live around them.
Lorenzo Jenkins and Arthur Brown play dominoes blocks from the interchange every day. Jenkins, 67, has lived in the neighborhood since before construction started, calling it “a completely different neighborhood.”
The clubs, stores, and houses Jenkins remembers are no longer there, and he has a problem with the methods used to displace African-Americans. But looking back, he sees the interstate as “the best thing that could have happened to the hood.”
“It got rid of all these worn, dilapidated buildings, and it brought jobs,” Jenkins said. “This neighborhood went down prior to the interstate.”
Brown, 56, agreed saying, “you have access to everywhere you want to go now.”
Whether racially motivated or not, the effects of interstate construction can be objectively seen in the west side projects built to house displaced, low-income African-Americans and the low property values around the interstate.
“Certainly along the interstate it definitely hurts property values,” Cortell said. “It’s loud. It’s disruptive. There’s not as much sound attenuation as there is in other cities.”
At the city’s Planning and Development Office, one wall is taken up entirely by a satellite image of Montgomery. I-85 is seen on the right side of the frame miles away from downtown and creeping toward a city center filled with homes and trees.
“What’s particularly striking here is you can see the construction has gotten this far,” Cortell said. “We have it up here because it shows how much the city has changed, but it’s also a constant reminder of potential impact of public projects and how much the city changed when the interstate came through.”
Knowledge of that impact also has the city looking at ways to revitalize areas around the overpasses and connect them to downtown.
The city invested $1.3 million in South Holt Street before the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, Montgomery planning director Robert Smith said. Roads were paved, sewage was installed, and trees were planted.
Now for the first time since 1963, the city is conducting a comprehensive plan using community input to craft a citywide physical development plan.
Smith said the neighborhoods the interstate runs through can’t be forgotten this time.
“Before the interstate came through, that area was a vibrant area where people had all types of amenities which included commercial development and retail and nonretail development. People in that area didn’t have to leave or go very far. The construction of the interstate kind of broke that neighborhood up,” Smith said. “It’s those types of things that bring about continuity and pride and things that bring people together. Those are the things we’re looking for to assist in lifting that neighborhood up above where it is right now.”