Detroit wins $100 million to remove I-375 that devastated the black community
For years, Detroit leaders worked on a plan to fill the highway trench, turning Interstate 375 into a mile-long street. On Thursday, the Biden administration announced that it would give Michigan a helping hand in the form of a $105 million grant.
The award is the administration’s largest step toward helping remove an old highway, and achieving the goal — in one community, at least — the White House set when it announced the infrastructure plans early last year.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) said federal funds would shorten the project’s timeline by two years. He said traces of the highway being built were being felt throughout the city and reverberated through three generations.
“They deliberately wiped out that whole area and paved the highway in a way that displaced thousands of people,” Dogan said. “What we want is to reconnect the community together.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg joined Dugan and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) to announce the grant Thursday morning in Detroit.
“We’ve seen examples in many societies, including here, where the infrastructure decision is dividing and we’re bringing this issue not to burrow into it but to challenge ourselves to do something about it,” Buttigieg said. “Now we put our money where it belongs.”
The grant is one of 26 awarded Thursday under a $1.5 billion program called Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, which is expanded under the Infrastructure Act. The program has traditionally focused on helping move freight and boosting the economy, but the Detroit Prize shows how leaders in the Department of Transportation use the money to pursue priorities.
“It will contribute to new economic development, generational wealth building, and new jobs and businesses,” said Mitch Landrieu, President’s Infrastructure Coordinator.
Buttigieg is using the money to undo the damage done to transportation in neighborhoods
Opened in 1964, the highway runs between the banks of the Detroit River and Interstate 75. Officials now say it created a barrier between downtown and neighborhoods to the east, hurting predominantly black communities that were alienated from investment opportunities. Like many of the country’s original highways, the highway and its intersections and bridges are reaching the end of their life. Rather than replace them, the Michigan Department of Transportation decided to remove them.
The $270 million project will fill the trench that holds the highway, to be replaced by a narrower street at the same level as the surrounding streets. Plans call for a new bike path and bridges across sections of the highway that will remain.
Federal authorities signed off on the project’s environmental review in March, concluding that it would not have a significant impact.
Communities across the country sought to help reconnect divided neighborhoods with roads, leading activists to form a group called the Highway Fighters Network. Areas devastated by highway construction in the 20th century suffered the most direct damage, but construction also contributed to racial disparities by securing patterns of development that favored mostly white residents in prosperous suburban areas.
Buttigieg and other leaders at the Department of Transportation are looking for ways to invest more equitably when they start spending money from the trillion-dollar infrastructure law.
Ben Crowther, who coordinates the Freeway Fighters Network, said I-375 in Detroit is one of three major highway-to-boulevard projects that are about to be shovel-ready. The other two are an elevated section of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, New York, and McGrath Highway in Somerville, Mass.
A woman demanded the removal of a highway in a black neighborhood. The White House singled out it in its infrastructure plan.
Crowther said the administration’s desire to turn to INFRA to help Detroit was a sign that “reconnecting communities is not just a USDOT program but has become fundamental” — an idea that administration officials have embraced as a kind of mantra, he said.
However, Crowther said removing the highway is the first step in rebuilding the community. The plans show a wide avenue he roughly called a “disguised highway,” adding that the city would have to determine how to equitably redevelop the 30 acres that would be freed up for construction.
“There are going to be some things that have to happen if this project is going to succeed in repairing and reconnecting communities,” Crowther said.
Duggan said officials are working closely with communities east of the highway, which includes Lafayette Park, a development of apartment buildings and homes designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
“You will have a development district in the middle of a city like no other in America,” he said.
The land will be valuable, said Lauren Hood, chair of the city planning committee, but Detroit leaders will have to think beyond the role that major developers can play while finding the best ways to restore the community.
For many black residents who have relatives who live in the Black Bottom area, the damage from highway construction is still there. Hood said the community will need to get organized, but given the dispersal of its indigenous population, she added, this is a difficult task.
“Those governing bodies will not just decide to be on their own – they have to be pushed,” she said. “They need someone to hold them accountable.”