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Biden's New Infrastructure Might Begin To Dismantle Racist Urban Planning

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tucked inside President Biden's $2 trillion plan to rebuild and improve America's infrastructure, which he announced this week, is the promise to address the racism baked into decades of urban planning in the U.S. Eric Avila is a professor of history and Chicano studies at UCLA. He has written about how systemic racism shaped America's urban development. He joins us now. Welcome.

ERIC AVILA: Thank you. Great to be here.

CHANG: So Biden's plan includes funding to dismantle highway projects that, when they were built, required tearing down neighborhoods or cleaving through communities of color. Can you just remind us of the time frame that these highway projects were underway and how these highways came about?

AVILA: So a lot of the highways that exist today date back to 1956. That was the year that Congress, under the Eisenhower administration, unanimously approved bipartisan legislation to build a national highway infrastructure. But this was the 1950s, and we think very differently about cities and communities today than we did back in the 1950s.

CHANG: And the construction of these highways, I mean, they often devastated these communities of color. We saw this in cities across the country. Can you talk a little bit about where you and I are? We're in L.A. What did L.A. look like before these freeways sprung up and then what did these freeways do to L.A. after?

AVILA: Well, the few communities of color that did exist in Los Angeles in the early 20th century, these were neighborhoods that were seen as expendable obstacles to progress, and they were either bypassed by many highways that were built or they were targeted directly for destruction because they were in the path of planned highway projects. A lot of that dated back to 1930s policy we know as redlining, which often targeted racially minority communities, especially with African Americans.

CHANG: And after these freeways carved into so many communities of color, what did that do to the communities?

AVILA: It destroyed many communities, and it destroyed the economic, social and cultural lifeblood of these communities. It also divided them, creating these huge barriers within communities or between communities. The best example I can think of in Los Angeles is the Boyle Heights neighborhood. You could imagine an army of bulldozers and wrecking balls invading Boyle Heights to clear neighborhoods to build these massive freeway interchanges that have a huge footprint upon what used to be racially and ethnically diverse working class, sustainable communities. But the freeways and their interchanges destroyed that. And that happened on a national pattern throughout the United States.

CHANG: Given how many communities of color have been devastated by the construction of freeways across America, I mean, how does the Biden plan intend to right these past wrongs?

AVILA: One way is to emphasize clean energy and addressing air pollution in communities of color, largely because of the presence of toxic infrastructure, like freeways. Another would be, I think, to remember the communities that were sacrificed to the interstate highway project. I mean, there's many examples of people gathering to remember neighborhoods that were lost to highway construction.

In St. Paul, The Rondo Days Festival is a means by which the residents of an old African American neighborhood that was bisected, essentially destroyed, by a freeway, they come together to remember the neighborhood that was lost. That's, I think, an important part of the history that we need to remember - what was lost in the effort to build a national highway infrastructure.

CHANG: How hopeful are you that the Biden plan will actually help remedy these wrongs we're talking about?

AVILA: I am heartened by the fact that we're even having this conversation and that we're, you know, finally, at a national level, beginning to recognize that these freeways are not innocent spaces. You know, they were built upon institutional and systemic bias. And I'm hopeful that, you know, some real changes are going to be made.

CHANG: Eric Avila is a historian at UCLA. Thank you very much for joining us today.

AVILA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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