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Biden plan engenders debate over infrastructure and racism

The Southern State Parkway as seen from the

The Southern State Parkway as seen from the Eagle Avenue overpass. Credit: Johnny Milano

WASHINGTON — The history and design of some of New York’s oldest roadways — including Long Island’s Southern State Parkway — have emerged as talking points in the national debate over President Joe Biden’s $4 trillion infrastructure plan and the proposal’s aim to address racial disparities.

Part of Biden’s plan to upgrade the nation’s roadways, transportation systems and communication networks calls for funding to "redress historic inequities." Top Biden administration officials have pointed to highways throughout the country that were built decades ago through predominantly minority neighborhoods, often displacing people and businesses to form the modern-day national highway system.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has assumed a prominent role promoting the infrastructure package, recently told the online news outlet "The Grio" that "there is racism physically built into some of our highways."

The remark set off a debate on Twitter last month with conservatives mocking the claim. The Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth group, in a widely shared tweet, posted Buttigieg’s statement and wrote: "This is not parody."

What to know

  • Joe Biden’s $4 trillion infrastructure plan includes funding to “redress historic inequities”
  • Scholars have pointed to the late New York master planner Robert Moses, whose projects between the 1930s and 1960s often tore through predominantly Black and Puerto Rican communities
  • Moses has been said to have ordered low-clearance overpasses across the Southern State Parkway to prevent buses from New York City — shuttling predominantly minority passengers — from reaching Jones Beach

Historians and urban planners came to Buttigieg’s defense citing examples of decades old public works projects that displaced once thriving minority communities. Robert Moses, the late New York master planner, was soon a trending topic on Twitter, as several scholars pointed to some of the major projects shepherded by Moses between the 1930s and the 1960s that often tore through predominantly Black and Puerto Rican communities, or that were designed to benefit wealthy communities.

"Long before the interstate system was built, Robert Moses was responsible for major arterials and parkways — and he often chose routes which displaced [and] disrupted low-income communities, industrial corridors, and areas which the land acquisition costs would be relatively low," said Mitchell Moss, a professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University, in an interview with Newsday.

Moses, according to Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography "The Power Broker," ordered engineers to build low-clearance overpass bridges across the Southern State Parkway to prevent buses from New York City — shuttling predominantly minority passengers — from reaching Jones Beach.

Thomas J. Campanella, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, said that while Moses was attempting to replicate the scenic parkway system that was forming in Westchester County, the clearances of the Southern State were "substantially lower" than the other parkways, including the Saw Mill and Hutchinson River. In 2017, Campanella compared the clearance measurements of 20 New York parkways and found that the Southern State clearances were usually a foot or more shorter.

Campanella said Buttigieg’s claim was "essentially true," but said "classism" also played a role in how highways routes were mapped out.

"Many American highways, especially those running through dense urban areas, have racism built into them but — more accurately — classism," Campanella told Newsday. "Routing a road through a city requires taking property and paying the owners fair market value for that property. Only a fool would route an expressway through an upscale neighborhood or a vital commercial district, as the taking costs would be astronomical. You go where the land values are lowest. And those tend to be places where the poor live, often immigrants, often people of color."

Campanella, who serves as historian-in-residence for the New York City Parks Department, said there were many highway projects that "destroyed impoverished white or white-ethnic communities."

"The Gowanus Expressway destroyed New York City’s largest Scandinavian community, in Sunset Park," Campanella said. "The [Brooklyn Queens Expressway] blew out the Italian and Puerto-Rican neighborhoods of South Brooklyn, and much of working-class Jewish Williamsburg. The Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed a vibrant Jewish community in the Bronx."

Eric Avila, an urban cultural historian at UCLA who has written extensively about the intersection of race and infrastructure, said in an interview: "It was often the case that minority communities, particularly African American communities, were poor. These were communities that did not have political connections or political clout, they didn't really have a political voice, and so they became easy targets for highway planners."

White House officials contend the president’s infrastructure plan is "designed with equity in mind" and seeks to "redress historic inequities."

Biden’s infrastructure blueprint calls for a two-part approach — the $2.3 billion American Jobs Plan would focus on physical infrastructure needs such as upgrading roads, railways and airports and the $1.8 billion American Families Plan would focus on so-called human infrastructure, such as increasing access to education and elder care.

A White House memo outlining the American Jobs Plan contends "too often, past transportation investments divided communities," citing as examples Interstate 81 in Syracuse, where a 1.5 mile stretch of the highway cut through a predominantly Black neighborhood and the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans, Louisiana, which also upended a largely Black community.

Biden’s plan calls for $20 billion "for a new program that will reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments, and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access."

"We need to treat infrastructure as a series of investments for the long term health of a society," said Moss, when asked about the current state of discussions over infrastructure. "Some of it is moving people and goods, some of it is moving information, some of it is moving water, but underlying the theory of infrastructure is that it's a shared resource that everyone benefits from. So the reason we invest in infrastructure is because it's too expensive for one person to make, but the whole society benefits when we make it as a whole."

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