Jan 5, 2022 - News

Atlanta hopes to heal neighborhoods torn apart by a highway

A bicyclists pedals on a street with a vacant building and raised interstate in the background
Interstate construction cut through neighborhoods like Sweet Auburn (above) Photo: Thomas Wheatley/Axios

Neighborhoods like Sweet Auburn, Summerhill, and others across Georgia that were split apart decades ago during the construction of the country’s interstate highway system could try to repair the damage under a program in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

History lesson: When transportation officials in Georgia and elsewhere in the country started laying out the interstate system in the 1940s and 50s, they charted parts of the route through predominantly Black neighborhoods.

  • The subsequent construction hamstrung businesses, and created a massive barrier, permanently altering the look, feel and energy of the communities.
  • Once considered one of the largest concentrations of Black-owned businesses in the country, Sweet Auburn was home to Atlanta’s first Black-owned radio station, daily newspaper, and office building, as well as a business, political, and cultural hub.

Details: The Reconnecting Communities Act makes available $1 billion to cities across the U.S. to fund “planning, design, demolition, and reconstruction of street grids, parks, or other infrastructure.” Projects to reconnect communities are also eligible for other federal funding.

  • At a roundtable at the Sweet Auburn Community Museum in December, Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, encouraged local groups like the Butler Street Community Development Corp. and Sweet Auburn Works to start preparing their wishlists. This past May, Williams advocated creating a larger pot of funding.

What they’re saying: Some groups want to cap interstate segments in Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead with parks, but burying or removing I-75/85 is almost unimaginable. That being said, along Sweet Auburn:

  • Managing the flood of cars roaring off the interstate, improving public spaces, and reducing heightened temperatures and increased pollution caused by the interstate are options, says LeJuano Varnell of Sweet Auburn Works, a community nonprofit.
  • So are programs to help start small Black-owned businesses and incentivize entrepreneurs and restaurants to create anchor businesses, Akila McConnell, a historian who leads tours in Sweet Auburn and Old Fourth Ward with her company Unexpected Atlanta, tells Axios.

Yes, but: A $1 billion program can only go so far. But the investment is a great first step, community and equity advocates say.

  • “There’s likely no amount of sugar you can add to turn this historic lemon into lemonade,” Varnell tells Axios. But the funding and innovative thinking could “right some of the historic wrongs that [the interstate] has created over the past 60-plus years.”

The highways, combined with so-called “urban renewal” programs, broke up communities of color and separated Black and white residents, says Harvey Newman, a professor emeritus at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

The construction of the north-south expressway displaced 7,000 residents, Newman tells Axios, around 75% of whom were renters. “When you add urban renewal, 55,000 total people were displaced, of whom 93 percent were African Americans."

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