Sunday, August 31, 2014

There Goes the Neighborhood, Part One: Highways

The Claiborne is a target for freeway removal activists, but is it really a cause for the neighborhood's decline? (Credit to Jessica Yoon)

What causes neighborhoods to decline? That's what this two part series will focus on. The first will focus on what are common argument that is flawed, the second will go to what I think is the true reason.

There are so many arguments on Internet forums and New Urbanist blogs that urban highways destroy neighborhoods. The evidence seems pretty clear: the Interstates cut across the urban areas putting homes that were in fairly secure neighborhoods to be right next to a freeway, causing them to become ramshackle and run-down.

But despite the seemingly-damning evidence that freeways destroy neighborhoods, that's just not true. All inner city neighborhoods were in decline after World War II (such as the New Orleans example listed below), with many of the old-line Eastern cities losing thousands of people. Soon we'll talk about "white flight" and suburbanization, but that's different from today's subject. The arrival of the freeway was never a cause for its decline.

One example of this was the freeway revolt that took place in Houston where Texas State Highway 225 never went further in than Houston's loop 610, and community opposition was eventually able to take it off the planning maps permanently.

Despite that, however, the neighborhood kept on a downward swing from the 1970s to the present day, which goes to show you: the freeway was never the problem.

Devil's advocate says, however, that Harrisburg was never allowed to prosper because of the fear of a freeway kept land values down. While I can't say that's actually the case there, I do remember "For Sale" signs cropping up on one nearby road (including a relatively nice house that had recently been built or renovated) because of a proposal that would make a through road instead of the essentially cul-de-sac'd road it was.

However, I could counter with the fact that there are plenty of neighborhoods, especially newer ones, that front highways directly and do fine. One difference is that the neighborhood was conducive to that sort of growth, and the frontage roads are clearly and awkwardly replacing normal streets and city blocks.

Built after highway

Built before highway

A good many (if not all) of these older 'hoods were likely on the downswing anyway (remember, everyone, suburbs existed prior to freeways) because since the railroad was introduced, the poor tend to live toward the center of the city. The rich living in the center of the city hasn't really happened since the pre-Industrialization area and it's a bit of a stretch to declare that this was a perfectly fine neighborhood before the freeway happened.

Speaking of which, one of the big "examples" of this is the Claiborne Freeway.

I'm not disputing that an elevated freeway a block away (with no sound barrier walls) would indeed suck, but let's get a few facts straight:
That's one that I dispute for two reasons:

1) New Orleans, as a city, started its decline years ago (arguably at the start of the Civil War, but either way accelerated past World War II). All the neighborhoods were in decline, not just the one that Claiborne Expressway cut through. The fact that the Claiborne is an old, ugly freeway makes it a convenient scapegoat for the neighborhood's decline.

2) The exact same thing happened in Austin to an extent. East Avenue, built as a flagship boulevard for the city, had the dubious honor of the placement of Interstate 35. Anti-freeway proponents would like to point to the poorer east side in their screeds, but there's a big difference. Long before the Interstate, deed restrictions were in place to keep African-Americans and Mexican-Americans east to the freeway. It's definitely sad that such wholesale discrimination would happen, but it exonerates Interstate 35, and an aside, that thing wasn't exclusive to Austin, it happened in the rest of Texas (and especially the Deep South). It turns out that the subdivision I live in now, which was built in the 1940s and 1950s specifically prevented African-Americans from living there. Of course, that sort of thing was overturned many years ago, but people kept living there, until gentrification forced them out.

Why is it so different? Because Austin became a better city, growing and developing with new industries, in other words, a healthy city. New Orleans, on the other hand, is a moribund Detroit of the South that has been in decline for decades.

I could go on about this but there are really two things about freeways.

Would it be hard to live next to one? Sure.

Does it destroy neighborhoods? No, at least not the leading factor.

Stay tuned for what I think really zaps neighborhoods...

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