The Big Dig and reparations for and from freeways

My apologies if this is rough. I am out of practice and WordPress is giving me nonsense today.

We had a great piece from Dr. Destiny Thomas on reparations for white supremacy in Curbed here. In addition to the reparative components has some suggestions for institutional land reforms that could alter land development. Highly recommended reading. Some of these are short-term implementations (like the freight tax. It’s a legislative change; find a way around Interstate Commerce Clause objections, go, dedicate the funds to surrounding communities) and some are medium to longer-term, like the community land trust formulation (land assembly takes a little time, but it’s hardly impossible. We do it for developers.)

I just want to provide an example and extension to some of Thomas’ ideas here. Whenever the movement to tear down statues to racists comes up, somebody from urbanism chimes in that freeways, too, are racist monuments of a sort. This fact is a good to remember and it gives us a chance to revisit Eric Avila’s lovely writing in Folklore of the Freeway and Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight. This is a good analogy on one hand, and a bad one on the other. We probably wouldn’t, for example, have to look too dreadfully hard to find racism in the rail development of any given city. So just because we want to root out and confront racism doesn’t mean we want to physically tear down every structure that racism touches. Why? Transit, just like freeways, provide essential mobility, and we want to keep it, even as we subject it to scrutiny to see if it works for Black residents properly or not.

Freeways are not a good, pro-social source of mobility in the city, and in the long-term, it’s strongly desirable that they go away. They are poisoning the air and crashes kill people. But right now, a lot of not-rich and not-white people use them every day to get between home and work. Transitioning from the existing infrastructure to a better future isn’t as simple as chirpy white urbanists want it to be when they pull out examples of freeway deconstruction to tell us that “of course we can get rid of freeways, it’s happened before.” We’ve gotten rid of specific links, not entire systems. And even the former takes thought and care. After the initial wrong of freeway development, Black and Latinx people have incorporated the freeways into their decision-making, as bad as freeways are, and helping people have viable options other than the freeways has to be part of a transition away from them.

Which, as I have noted, is one reason why people in the region are working pretty hard to try to boost transit, both construction and use.

That said, we do have some surprising examples for how to think about building Thomas’ thought into a post-freeway future. One example is the Big Dig or Central Artery Tunnel Project. The Big Dig became a poster child for wasteful infrastructure projects, and it merited the moniker. It was massively overbudget, but it was a huge project that included some significant transit projects under its umbrella.

Cut out that tunnel and you have a relatively lower cost land reclamation project and a bunch of transit projects. And that is the interesting part. Because the Big Dig made new urban land available for development in Boston. Pretty decently prime real estate, too, if I understand the Boston landscape well enough to say. Now, reclaiming urban land from freeways is a hell of a struggle; it’s got lead and plenty of other toxics that we have to think about when we redevelop because it’s not good to clean up one environment just to wreck another with toxic soil dumps. After that concern, however, we can imagine a lot of urban land reclaimed in high-price locations throughout Los Angeles.

That land could mean a lot of opportunities for land trusts and in some instances (with the 10 and the 101), for direct reparations payments to the Black families subjected to human rights violations at the hands of Caltrans during 1940s and 1950s, prior to the protections of the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Estate Acquisition Act. That was passed in 1970, too late to protect a lot of California families. We should be providing reparations at both the community level and the individual level, and there are people in my neighborhood alive who still remember the 10 being built through here. Surely at least some of these famililes can be found and their residential histories validated well enough to make reparation with part of the reclaimed value.

Given that many of these folks are seniors, the reparations could be made now and borrowed against future land reclamation because taking down and rebuilding in freeway locations is a really long-term endeavor.

Professor Julian Agyemon talks about “joined-up thinking” in environmental justice thinking–about making connections between different venues and mechanisms of injustice. To me, connecting long-term plans with help for past wrongs is part of that joining up.