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Detroit wins grant to remove interstate that wrecked a Black community

The federal government will provide $105 million under a program bolstered by the infrastructure law to help fill in Interstate 375 and turn it into a boulevard

The Detroit skyline is shown from the Detroit River. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Detroit’s Paradise Valley was a buzzing nightlife district, home to jazz clubs and hundreds of other Black-owned business. Then urban renewal plans launched after World War II and the digging of a highway through the area displaced more than 100,000 residents.

Today, almost nothing of Paradise Valley and the neighboring Black Bottom area remain.

For years, Detroit leaders worked on a plan to fill in the highway trench, turning Interstate 375 into a mile-long boulevard. On Thursday, the Biden administration announced it would give Michigan a helping hand in the form of a $105 million grant.

The award is the biggest step the administration has taken toward helping to remove an aging highway, fulfilling — in one community, at least — a goal the White House set when it announced infrastructure plans early last year.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) said the federal money will shorten the project’s timeline by two years. He said the effects of the highway being built were felt across the city and have echoed through three generations.

“They very intentionally wiped out that whole district and laid the freeway in a way that displaced thousands of people,” Duggan said. “What we’d like is to knit the community back together.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg joined Duggan and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) to announce the grant Thursday morning in Detroit.

“We have seen examples in many communities, including here, where an infrastructure decision serves to divide and we raise this issue not to wallow in it but to challenge ourselves to do something about it,” Buttigieg said. “And now we are putting our money where our mouth is.”

The grant is one of 26 awarded Thursday under a $1.5 billion program called Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, that was expanded under the infrastructure law. The program has typically been focused on helping to move freight and boost the economy, but the Detroit award shows how leaders at the Transportation Department are using funds to pursue priorities.

“It will contribute to new economic development, building of generational wealth, jobs and new businesses,” said Mitch Landrieu, the president’s infrastructure coordinator.

Buttigieg taps funds to undo transportation damage in neighborhoods

The highway opened in 1964, running between the banks of the Detroit River and Interstate 75. Officials now say it created a barrier between the city’s downtown and neighborhoods to the east, harming predominantly Black communities that were shut out of investment opportunities. Like many of the nation’s original interstates, the highway, its interchanges and bridges are reaching the end of their life span. Rather than replace them, the Michigan Department of Transportation decided to remove them.

The $270 million project will fill the trench that carries the highway, replacing it with a narrower boulevard at the same level as the surrounding streets. The plans call for a cycle track and new bridges across sections of highway that will remain.

Federal authorities signed off on the environmental review for the project in March, concluding that it would not have a significant effect.

Communities across the nation have sought help reconnecting neighborhoods divided by roads, prompting activists to form a group called the Freeway Fighters Network. Areas bulldozed by the construction of highways in the 20th century suffered the most direct harm, but the construction also contributed to racial disparities by locking in development patterns that favored predominantly White residents in booming suburban areas.

Buttigieg and other leaders at the Transportation Department are searching for ways to invest more equitably as they begin to spend funds from the $1 trillion infrastructure law.

Ben Crowther, who coordinates the Freeway Fighters Network, said I-375 in Detroit is one of three major highways-to-boulevards projects that are close to being shovel-ready. The other two are an elevated section of Interstate 81 in Syracuse, N.Y., and the McGrath Highway in Sommerville, Mass.

A woman called for a highway’s removal in a Black neighborhood. The White House singled it out in its infrastructure plan.

Crowther said the administration’s willingness to turn to the INFRA program to help Detroit was a sign that “reconnecting communities is not just a program for USDOT but has become a principal” — an idea department officials have adopted as a kind of mantra, he said.

Yet Crowther said removing the highway is a first step in rebuilding the community. Plans show a wide boulevard that he called almost “a highway in disguise,” adding that the city will have to determine how to redevelop in an equitable way the 30 acres that will be freed up for construction.

“There will be a few things that will need to happen if this project is going to be successful in repairing and reconnecting communities,” Crowther said.

Duggan said officials have been working closely with communities east of the highway, which include Lafayette Park, a development of apartment buildings and townhouses designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

“You’re going to have a development area in a downtown unlike any in America,” he said.

Lauren Hood, chair of the city planning commission, said the land will be valuable, but Detroit’s leaders will have to think beyond the role big developers could play while finding the best ways to restore the community.

For many Black residents with relatives who lived in the Black Bottom area, the harm caused by the highway’s construction is still present. The community will need to be organized, Hood said, but since its original residents were dispersed, she added, that’s a tall order.

“Those governing bodies aren’t going to decide to be just on their own accord — they’re going to need to be pushed,” she said. “They need somebody to hold them accountable.”