I used to defend Indiana’s slow progress by pointing out that allowing other states to innovate and then seeing what worked and what didn’t was prudent. What happened in State X after it did thus-and-so, and what can we learn about the best way to handle thus-and-so?
Unfortunately, that justification too often mistakes stubborn resistance to change for prudence.
That bureaucratic refusal to consider past error was especially annoying in the initial effort to get the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to rethink its automatic approach to repairing the Interstate highways that divide the city’s downtown.
As I have previously written, it was inarguable that at the 50-year mark (which we hit a few years back),those interstates required extensive repairs. A group of downtown residents, businesses, architects and landscape architects formed a group they called “ReThink I69/70” and urged INDOT to “rethink” the design of those highways and to mitigate, where possible, the problems they’d created when they were first rammed through the city’s Black and historic neighborhoods.
The racism reflected in the siting of the nation’s Interstate system has been widely documented, and the Biden Administration is confronting the damage.
The interstate system — largely built between the 1950s and 1970s — helped move Americans in large numbers and at high speeds, but its creation required a lot of destruction. History.com reports that “more than 475,000 households and more than a million people were displaced nationwide” due to federal highway construction. “Hulking highways cut through neighborhoods, darkened and disrupted the pedestrian landscape, worsened air quality, and torpedoed property values.”
That damage was largely inflicted in Black and Latino neighborhoods. That wasn’t an accident. At Yale Law Journal, Sarah Schindler writes that the “placement of highways so as to intentionally displace poor black neighborhoods” was commonplace in places like New York, Miami, Omaha, Oakland, and many other American cities. “Although this work was undertaken in order to make places more accessible to cars,” she adds, “it was also done with an eye towards eliminating alleged slums and blight in city centers.”
Knocking down poor neighborhoods to make room for commuter highways was inherently racist, the Los Angeles Times adds: “Highway builders often defended taking property in Black neighborhoods by arguing the land was cheapest there — a fact that relied on government-backed mortgage redlining policies that discouraged investment in Black areas.” Sometimes the harmful intent was more overt, Reuters reports. In Montgomery, Alabama, the state routed Interstate 85 “through a neighborhood where many Black civil rights leaders lived, rather than choosing an alternate route on vacant land.”
The need to address structural problems in our aging roadways gave Indianapolis a rare opportunity to address the problems created by those initial decisions. The ReThink group argued that thoughtful revamping could improve traffic flow and restore community connectivity and walkability. It could also spur economic development that would significantly add to the city’s tax base–nothing to sneeze at, given our fiscal constraints. It is rare that a city gets such an opportunity.
The initial response of INDOT was to ignore and dismiss the alternatives promoted by the ReThink coalition. It took considerable time and effort to get the agency just to back off its initial plans to add lanes to the current configurations, consuming more real estate and increasing the divisions between neighborhoods. By the time the coalition had generated enough attention and support for redesign, the northeast section of Indiana’s Inner Loop was already being reconstructed–in place, but thankfully, without the additional lanes and concrete walls.
The remaining work, however, may benefit from the persistence of the ReThink coalition and the Biden Administration’s emphasis on the need to address the mistakes (and animus) of the past
Today Mayor Joe Hogsett, Congressman André Carson, Rethink Coalition, and the Indy Chamber announced a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). The award will fund a planning study around the southeast leg of the I-65/I-70 Downtown Inner Loop near the Fletcher Place and Fountain Square neighborhoods, examining how to create more livable, reconnected communities around the interstate while maintaining interstate commerce and regional travel.
“This federally funded study will help guide our community as it looks at ways we can reunite neighborhoods divided by the original interstate program,” said Mayor Joe Hogsett. “Thanks to USDOT, INDOT, and our community partners, this announcement begins a process that could have lasting benefit for generations of Indianapolis residents.”
There’s a broader lesson here. Citizens who are sufficiently aroused can move lawmakers and bureaucrats.
Chinese citizens forced changes to their government’s COVID rules. Iranians are protesting their government’s “morality police.” Israeli citizens are opposing Netanyahu.
Margaret Mead said it best : Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.