Tucked into US President Joe Biden’s expansive infrastructure bill is a plan to knock down “racist” roads that he says harm minority communities – but not everyone he’s trying to help agrees.
A fine layer of soot covers the straw-yellow paint of the wooden houses that line Interstate 81, a highway in downtown Syracuse, New York state, held up by rusted steel girders and dingy pillars of cement.
The road, from which car exhaust billows out to choke passers-by and the sound of lorry tyres can be heard day and night, cuts the surrounding neighbourhood in two.
A housing estate – Pioneer Homes – lies to the east at the bottom of a hill. To the west, there is more public housing along with the little yellow houses, primarily minority-owned, and a few businesses.
Civil rights activists call this mile of the interstate a “racist highway” because roads like this one divide minority neighbourhoods and pollute these communities. Urban planners want to tear it down – and now, President Joe Biden also has it in his sights.
Mr Biden has put his weight behind an expansive trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that, if passed, would become the biggest investment in America’s roads, bridges and byways in decades. An enormous political undertaking, the package would not only tackle repairs on old power lines and potholed roads, replace drinking-water pipes and expand broadband access, but also aims to address climate change and racial inequalities
It includes $1bn for “reconnecting communities”, which means tearing down urban highways that run through neighbourhoods like the one in Syracuse. But whether knocking down roads along which generations of Americans have lived is a route to racial progress is an open question – and there are plenty of sceptics.
The White House has argued that such “mega-roads”, which exist all over the US, have caused heartache and ruined communities, at first by destroying black-owned businesses and forcing people out of their homes when they were built, and later, through noise and air pollution created by the traffic.
“There is racism physically built into some of our highways,” Pete Buttigieg, the US transportation secretary, has said.
Experts say there is some truth to this assertion. When the US highway system was being built in the 1950s to 1970s, urban planners often designed them to cut through neighbourhoods where “property values were lowest, because those houses were the least expensive to purchase”, said Mark Rose, a history professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, and author of a book about interstate highways.