This article appears in the September/October 2021 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
John Lennon’s “Imagine” wafted over the approach to the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, spanning the capital’s Anacostia River, as a small crowd gathered on a warm September day for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. With the bridge’s undulating white arches perfectly staged against a blue sky, “iconic” was the word of the day from the speakers’ podium. In a few days, the replacement to a 70-year-old span would be open to all, and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser raved about the difference it would make for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting congressional delegate, had “squirreled away,” as she put it, the federal funds to build the nearly half-billion-dollar bridge, getting a major assist from Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader. The crossing links the city’s gentrifying Capitol Hill and Waterfront neighborhoods to the low-income, Black, and also gentrifying areas east of the river.
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It’s jarring, then, to leave the grand celebration for a midday subway ride to the far northeast corner of Washington to survey two very rusty, crumbling pedestrian bridges spanning D.C. Route 295. The freeway traffic is heavy but flowing in both directions, and a COVID-19 face mask does double duty against the heavy vehicle exhaust. Until recently, a third pedestrian bridge had spanned the freeway as well. Around noon on June 23, one day before the Surfside condo building collapse in Florida, a truck’s boom hit that bridge, sending it crashing onto the freeway at Lane Place NE, a pretty, tree-canopied street of detached homes near the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a national park. Fortunately, there were no deaths or life-threatening injuries.
Without the pedestrian bridges, there’s no safe way for residents of the Far Northeast Washington neighborhoods to get across this end of the north-south freeway that funnels Maryland-bound commuters home and summer tourists to the sights in downtown Washington. After the accident, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) announced that the bridge would likely not be replaced, since only 11 people used it daily, a number that turned out to be almost a decade old.
A high-profile African American Democratic mayor declining to rebuild a pedestrian bridge in an overwhelmingly African American neighborhood? This on the heels of a Federal Highway Administration offer of emergency funds and the Senate’s passage of the infrastructure bill, heavily promoted by President Biden and his transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, who had joined Bowser on a tour of the state-of-the-art bridge in May.
The racial dynamics of Washington, tightly woven into the daily lives of native and longtime residents, are largely invisible to outsiders.
The day before a mid-July city council hearing, a full two weeks after the accident, the mayor announced that the city would expedite the reconstruction of the bridge. “They live on an island, they’re trapped behind a highway,” Anthony Lorenzo Green, a nonpartisan elected representative for the local residents most affected by the collapse, told the city council. “The only way that you really can get over there is you drive over there, or, you know, roll the dice, apparently, to go over one of the pedestrian bridges.”
After decades of demanding real repairs, neighborhood residents now want more than a few bridge replacements. They want better connections to the rest of Northeast Washington for their isolated area and better links to the city center. They want protection from the displacement pressures that the Black communities abutting the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge and elsewhere in the District have faced. And they want D.C. Route 295 transformed from a freeway into an accessible, climate-ready boulevard that is a holistic fit for a residential area—rather than the functional equivalent of a border wall.
Today, one quest for racial justice focuses on the transportation sector, and has centered on highways that were built during the interstate highway system expansion in the 1950s and usually foisted on politically powerless Black neighborhoods. In the District, the federal government authorized the construction of the D.C. Route 295 freeway, cutting a Black neighborhood in two and displacing residents with the bad fortune to live in the freeway’s path. Some 70 years later, the consequences of that decision still wreak havoc with Black lives—only now, the principal decision-makers are African American.
So the debate around the bridge raises the deeper issue of long-existing transportation inequities rooted in race and class in Washington. The top echelons of the local political class are Black and have been for some decades, but there is deep distrust of many of those actors in less-affluent Black neighborhoods in the eastern section of the city. The collapse of the Lane Place Bridge magnifies a legacy of injury. The local residents can now imagine reuniting a community that systemic racism displaced. But can they make it happen?
ACCIDENTS SPUR MUNICIPAL LEADERS to confront long-avoided decisions. The 1989 Loma Prieto earthquake that damaged the Embarcadero Freeway enabled San Francisco officials to remove a road that the public wanted to keep open. The feared traffic nightmares did not materialize. Buffalo residents’ demands for traffic calming on the Scajaquada Expressway were finally met after a driver veered off the road and killed a toddler.
Anthony Foxx, Barack Obama’s second transportation secretary, was one of the first transportation leaders to agitate for federal strategies to reverse the purposeful destruction of African American neighborhoods during the mid-century’s interstate highway system construction and urban-renewal projects. His signature effort involved a competitive grant program that incentivized cities to reconnect underserved communities of color and piece back together neighborhoods that had been undone by highways now nearing the end of their useful lives.
The program was a predecessor to the revitalization push that culminated in the “Reconnecting Communities” plank in President Biden’s infrastructure program. The Biden plan initially proposed $20 billion to find ways of reversing the damage. What the plan had envisioned as a substantive five-year grant program, however, got whacked down in the Senate to $1 billion, which is often the starting price for a single highway removal project. (The price tag for a New York project to cover a portion of I-81 in Syracuse is $2 billion.)
The major challenge for reconnecting communities is how to persuade community residents and commuters to think differently about the ways they get to a destination with the least amount of invasive infrastructure. One project that’s been teed up for major alteration is Buffalo’s Kensington Expressway, which the Congress for the New Urbanism, a transportation and economic development policy group, has designated as one of the worst urban highways in the country (along with the nearby Scajaquada Expressway, also slated for reconfiguration).
The artery has a similar history to DC-295. In the 1960s, middle-class African Americans started moving into the Hamlin Park neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo; white flight ensued, and the new residents weren’t able to fight the construction that cut them off from Frederick Law Olmsted–designed parks. The project destroyed thousands of homes, cratered their value (still the city’s lowest), ruined local businesses, and cut the community off from the rest of the city.
The neighborhood now has embraced a plan by the New York State Department of Transportation to cover one mile of the expressway, divert the traffic underground, and replace the expressway with a boulevard, freeing up 14 acres of land that would revert to the neighborhood. The nearly $600 million project is estimated to provide $2.8 million in new property tax revenue over a 30-year period, and $76.7 million in household wealth. The project is now in an environmental impact review.
“[For] any highway removal project that’s been completed, the cost of removal has always been less than the cost of rebuilding the highway,” says Ben Crowther of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
Reframing the discussion based on destinations and different options would be instructive, according to Hal Morse, a project manager for the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council, which is overseeing the project. “It’s strange in this city that people perceive the freeway as the only way to get there,” he says. “[Commuters] never heard about different ways of moving around, they know one way to get there, and you’re going to take it away. Tell me about where you want to be and I can tell you about options to get there.”
THE RACIAL DYNAMICS OF WASHINGTON, tightly woven into the daily lives of native and longtime residents both Black and white, are largely invisible to outsiders. Over the past decade, Washington’s population has increased from about 602,000 to about 700,000, and most of the transplants have given no thought to how forces beyond the control of Black Washingtonians have shaped the ways neighborhoods have been structured over time.
The District’s Black communities were collateral damage in the mid-century in the frenzy to capitalize on free-flowing federal money to build interstates. Planners and engineers looked for areas that were cheap to build in, and this quest for cost savings steered these white power brokers to the redlined areas where African Americans had been hemmed in—frequently next to a dump or a factory or a utility plant—by whites. “The process of redlining devalued homes that belonged to homeowners of color [and] essentially propped up the routes that highways took,” says Crowther.
If African Americans had negligible political power in the United States during the 1950s, they had even less in the District of Columbia. A three-member board of commissioners controlled the decision-making in the city. (The president nominated two men, subject to Senate approval. The Army Corps of Engineers selected the third.) District residents did not elect their own mayor and city councilmembers until 1973.
Class is more of a powerful marker for African Americans than race in a city that has only had African American mayors.
Far Northeast Washington was a predominantly “up-and-coming white suburb” in the late 19th century. As racial housing covenants disappeared, Black residents began to move in and, by the 1950s, whites were speeding out, which just happened to coincide with the coming of the freeway. The highway that the federal government duly ordained began construction in 1954.
The construction of DC-295 (also known as the Kenilworth Avenue Freeway and the Anacostia Freeway) ripped up and spit out the emerging middle-class Black neighborhoods, creating islands of leafy isolation. To give Marylanders that straight shot into the city, 35 homes, stores, a nightclub, a community center, and a Presbyterian church that had just been rebuilt were demolished. The streetcars that had run in the area were replaced by buses. Since there were no intersections for pedestrians, the residents in the northern end of DC-295 got footbridges, which included the Lane Place pedestrian bridge, erected in 1956.
Throughout the 1950s, Black Washingtonians did not have the power or resources to fight on the multiple fronts of school segregation, freeway construction, and the massive razing of homes in city’s southwestern areas on the banks of the Potomac. While white policymakers celebrated “urban renewal,” African Americans, wise to the ways of white perfidy, called it “Negro removal.”
“Especially in the ’40s and ’50s, business decisions are being made painting African American neighborhoods as by definition ‘poor,’ a bad neighborhood, undesirable,” says Chris Myers Asch, a co-author of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. “A place like Deanwood [in Far Northeast Washington] has a history of being a middle-class community, but that’s not necessarily something that [white] policymakers would have appreciated. They don’t necessarily see that difference, whereas African Americans certainly do.”
In the 1960s, the plans to build a web of highways galvanized opposition by white and Black neighborhoods in northwestern Washington and adjacent Maryland suburbs, sparking the creation of the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis (ECTC).
It remains the first and one of the most successful cross-racial, cross-class anti-highway groups in American history. Its supporters’ clarion call was “No white man’s roads through black men’s homes.” Students and environmentalists joined the highway opponents. They called for rapid-transit solutions and took their fight to the courts and to the public. Their victories included saving Cleveland Park, a white upper-class neighborhood, and Shaw, a Black middle-class area, among others.
Georgetown University students led the occupation of construction staging sites for the Three Sisters Bridge project on the Potomac River islands of the same name. A frustrated Kentucky Democratic congressman, William Natcher, blocked Washington subway funding in response to the highway activism, a fight that finally ended in the early ’70s. Metro opened in 1976.
“[Highway expansion] didn’t happen because citizens basically put their foot down and said, ‘No, we’re not going to let it happen,’” says Myers Asch. “‘We can’t vote, but we’re going to file every lawsuit possible and we’re going to beat you in the end, because these are our neighborhoods that you are destroying.’
“A lot of these neighborhoods that are gentrifying [today] are desirable precisely because there are no ten-lane highways going through the middle of them,” Myers Asch adds.
Class is more of a powerful marker for African Americans than race in a city that has only had African American mayors, and while some city officials live in white or upper-middle-class African American neighborhoods, many Black Washingtonians still revere the late Marion Barry, a native son of Black and largely poor Ward 8. An ECTC leader who went on to become mayor in the ’80s and ’90s, he courted controversy, but steered new development to the long-ignored area and continued to live there. Recent leaders like Bowser, however, have been castigated for being too cozy with white developers (and attached to their campaign contributions), and too gung ho about their projects—glass-encased luxury condos and apartments, and amenities like the Wharf, an upscale riverside restaurant and entertainment complex on the Southwest Waterfront that has only a handful of places that people who live down the street can afford. Such project approvals have been favored over the supermarkets and other retail spaces that middle- and low-income people need in Far Northeast.
Bowser won her second term easily, but is not as popular in the Black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, the physical and psychological boundary between predominantly Black and white Washington. However, her fearlessness during the pandemic, renaming 16th Street where it abuts Lafayette Square and the White House as Black Lives Matter Plaza, and standing up to President Trump during the insurrection, put the wind at her back after the dark days of 2020. She has yet to declare her intentions for a possible third term.
City leaders insist that “affordable housing” for city residents who do not qualify for subsidies “is coming.” But many Washingtonians remain dubious about when that might be and who will actually get to live there. While the mayor has proposed to invest $400 million in fiscal 2022 to construct and invest in affordable housing, she rebuffed a proposal from a neighborhood group in a wealthy and white Northwest neighborhood to buy and convert an enormous former Marriott hotel property into a mixed-use affordable-housing development.
“It’s a Southern city, in a number of ways, and most clearly in the way our political system works,” says Ron Thompson, a policy officer with Greater Greater Washington, a regional public-policy group and a resident of Southeast Washington. “In most cities that were majority-Black in Southern states, we have these white overseers. The Black elected class has always kind of been responsive to that.”
AT THE JULY CITY COUNCIL HEARING, the District’s director of transportation, Everett Lott, “encouraged” residents to use a pedestrian bridge less than 1,000 feet north of the Lane Place Bridge. But for people with children in strollers and carrying grocery bags, for a senior on a cane, or a student recovering from a sports injury, all accustomed to using the closest option, 1,000 feet is a lot of steps.
The residents of the Far Northeast “island” neighborhoods of Kenilworth, Eastland Gardens, Mayfair, Parkside, River Terrace, and across the freeway, Deanwood, had complained about the crossings for years. The Lane Place Bridge was “janky,” one person tweeted after the crash. A city inspection earlier this year rated the bridge “poor” before the crash, surprising exactly no one. The loss of the bridge means walking several more blocks to the two remaining bridges. None of the bridges comply with Americans With Disabilities Act regulations. Streets off the freeway flood during rainstorms.
The attractive homes in this area, pockmarked here and there by neighborhood eyesores common to major cities, are hemmed in by acres of parkland and the Anacostia River on one side, and the freeway on the other. There are two Metro stops and a coming-soon streetcar hub and a new pedestrian bridge (both south of the two bridges still standing). But the few and inconvenient buses make the scarcity of supermarkets, hardware stores, drugstores, and other necessities of urban life a major inconvenience and a powerful insult. The commercial area near the pedestrian bridges is mostly devoted to American car culture: auto body shops, gas stations, and a Department of Motor Vehicles location.
It’s a hard place to navigate on foot, which makes a car a necessity—if you can afford one. The median household income in Ward 7, which is 91 percent Black and encompasses these neighborhoods, is $38,767 (for whites, it is $120,308), and 40 percent of residents do not own cars. There are plans for new food stores, but there are only two full-service supermarkets in Ward 7 and one in Ward 8 to the southeast for about 160,000 people, a situation that has persisted for decades.
Ward 7 has the third-highest rate of asthma among adults 18 and older and the highest level of particulate matter pollution (which includes vehicle exhaust and smokestack emissions) in the District. Eboni-Rose Thompson, a Ward 7 State Board of Education member, helped organize a walking tour of the pedestrian bridges for city councilmembers after the accident. One of the participating neighborhood commissioners had to bow out after a few minutes. The exhaust fumes had aggravated her asthma.
The bridge hearing and the walking tour may well have aided Ward 7’s cause. After the tour, Christina Henderson, an at-large city councilmember who at the time was eight months pregnant, said that “to spur economic development in that part of the District we have to consider a more drastic approach like burying 295 to bring more connectivity to the area.”
BURIED IN A 116-PAGE 2007 Kenilworth Avenue Corridor study is a clue that city planning officials once were thinking about ways to address the 1950s injustices. “Depressing Kenilworth Avenue and constructing a new crossing establishes a logical connection between the residential neighborhoods to the west and the transit station and potential development to the east,” it reads. Price tag in 2007: $72.5 million, roughly $85.5 million in 2021 dollars. The report was blunt about the area’s other problems: “inconsistent land [usage]” and “minimal” landscape maintenance. The study designated the rehabilitation or replacement of the three pedestrian bridges a “medium priority.” Nearly a quarter of a century later, the Lane Place Bridge removal took place by accident.
“People in Ward 7 and 8 always got to beg DDOT and the council for basic things within our community,” said Rebecca Morris, a neighborhood commissioner, at the July hearing. “This begging porn should not be a thing. Yet here we are, always begging for you guys just to do the basic minimum job for the things I know you’re supposed to do.” Residents want $250,000 allocated to a new study that looks at transforming the route into an avenue or boulevard.
But the current District planning process sends alarming signals that city leaders do not understand or appreciate the importance of confronting the major transportation inequities, or seizing the opportunities, that reimagining the Far Northeast presents. The city recently amended its 20-year Comprehensive Plan, which details legal guidance to the District’s zoning board for land use changes sought by developers and other organizations. While the document purports to “explicitly address [racial] equity,” the History section for Far Northeast/Southeast omits the construction of DC-295, the root cause of the decline of the Far Northeast neighborhoods. From the online “Enrolled Original” version of the plan:
Rapid development continued through the 1950s, as sewers, paved streets, and sidewalks were provided to most areas … Following the removal of restrictive housing covenants in the late 1940s, the racial composition of the community shifted. By 1960, a majority of the area’s residents were Black … Despite the loss of residents, many vibrant neighborhoods remain in Far Northeast and Southeast, and today, there are signs of reinvestment in nearly all parts of the community.
Whitewashing Washington’s history, a move worthy of 1984’s Winston Smith’s toil in the Ministry of Truth, was a bold stroke that did not go unnoticed. The District’s Council Office of Racial Equity report on the plan found, “It appears that racial equity was neither a guiding principle in the preparation of the Comprehensive Plan … process failures laid the groundwork for deficiencies in policy: proposals are ahistorical, solutions are not proportionate to racial inequities, and directives are concerningly weak or vague.”
The report described racial equity in Washington as the worst in the country, the Far Northeast is likely are looking with knowing smirks across the Anacostia to the resurrection of two ideas in the District’s Georgetown neighborhood. The wealthy Georgetown enclave is very much like a coddled child throwing tantrums after her siblings gobbled up the tasty goodies she refused to eat. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had proposed building a subway stop in Georgetown. Controversial from the start, the limitations of mid-century engineering technology ultimately halted any plans for a Metro station. But Georgetowners’ fears that Metrorail would bring African Americans into their shops and onto their doorsteps dampened any enthusiasm that might have existed in the neighborhood for the line. Today, as a rainbow coalition of drivers, shoppers, and restaurant-goers crowd the streets and sidewalks, Georgetown now seeks a Metro station as part of a multi-decade, multibillion-dollar realignment of an existing line.
Should that plan fail (and it’s nowhere near a done deal), Georgetown has brought back to life an idea that was the object of much derision when it first surfaced about five years ago: a gondola across the Potomac River to the Rosslyn, Virginia, Metro station. The District has already authorized $10 million to secure land that could serve as either a Metro station or a gondola stop.
While Georgetown vacuums up District dollars, Sherice Muhammad, a Ward 7 resident and former neighborhood commissioner, isn’t confident that her neighborhood can stave off losing its moderately priced homes. Any corridor improvements to DC-295 must address residents’ suspicions that the improvements will displace the families that live there now. “[Ward] 7 is the absolute last frontier; it’s the last place for the cranes to go,” she says. As the Black population starts to decline, according to Muhammad, more whites will feel more comfortable moving in and the infrastructure upgrades will follow or be accelerated to ensure that outcome.
SOLVING A PROBLEM LIKE DC-295, which is jammed with about 130,000 daily commuters, in a way that will improve life without displacing its current residents will require unprecedented local activism, political will, and funding. “Right now, [DC-295] is mismanaged chaos,” says Muhammad.
For now, a window to more humane and equitable DC-295 reconnections has opened—a bit. More than at any time since the Washington freeway revolts, the summer 2020 uprisings have advanced the interest in funding initiatives to reverse transportation inequities. It would take some significant federal dollars to revitalize DC-295, given the sums involved in places like Buffalo and Syracuse, but the new federal commitment to both infrastructure and racial equity has come at a propitious time—if the crucial legislation can be turned into law.
There is a nascent consensus that something more than a few new footbridges is necessary to transform the freeway into “a boulevard for the people,” as one councilmember has put it. Jonathan Bush, an urban planner who has studied the corridor, agrees that a “neighborhood boulevard with green amenities” and depressing the highway below street level or underground would provide numerous health and safety, transit, housing, and commercial benefits. A number of neighborhood groups elsewhere in Washington have also expressed interest in the idea, but to succeed, a push for a new DC-295 would need a diverse coalition like the 1960s’ ECTC. Environmental groups that have been involved in the reclamation of the Anacostia River as well as young homeowners could be natural allies, according to Bush.
Local organizations like the nonprofit Douglass Community Land Trust have responded to the loss of moderately priced housing stock in Washington by purchasing properties to ensure that they remain affordable in perpetuity. The group is actively working to identify new investments in Ward 7. “What the activist-militant side of me will say is that if you’re not intentionally planning to fight displacement, then you’re intentionally acting to displace people,” says Sheldon Clark, the land trust’s executive director. “I don’t believe that there is that maliciousness on the part of the city over consecutive administrations [to displace people]. But if we don’t do it any better, people are left to believe that it was intentional.”
The late-summer sun rays that illuminated the Frederick Douglass Bridge can wear out a pedestrian trudging up and down sidewalks in the heat, pollution, and the roaring traffic on DC-295. The remains of the pedestrian bridge have long since been cleared away from Lane Place NE. Construction crews have put the finishing touches on a day’s worth of new concrete curbs and curb cuts around sidewalks near the pedestrian bridge at Nash Street. But this closed-off span means walking several more blocks to the Douglas Street Bridge, climbing up the steep ramp to the patched walkway under the corroding chain-link arch, and down the next ramp to Deanwood Metro station.
As we stood on the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, DDOT chief Lott assured me that the department would assess the condition of the remaining pedestrian bridges. “If there are improvements that need to be made, then we’ll definitely have the work done,” he said. Far Northeast Washington may have to fire up the wayback machine to get District leaders to understand that the bruises of the white man’s road through the Black man’s home have yet to heal.
This article is part of our ongoing series on sustainable mobility, transportation, and climate.
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