You know Anthony Foxx well; he was mayor of Charlotte from 2009 to 2013 and went on to become the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, a job in which he works with a $70 billion plus budget and more than 55,000 employees. He’s no slouch.
He was in town Tuesday as the guest of honor at the Rotary Club’s luncheon, where he discussed transportation and the power it holds over a society as a whole, particularly Charlotte.
A 2014 study done by Harvard and UC-Berkeley showed that social mobility is harder for children living in poverty in Charlotte than any other of the 50 largest cities in America. This essentially means that the gaps between the poor, middle-class and wealthy are growing exponentially and that they have nothing to do with whether someone is black or white or living in a suburban environment versus a rural one.
What does transportation have to do with this?
Transportation systems play a key role in our ability to connect with each other and create opportunity, and in the ’50s, when President Dwight Eisenhower launched the Federal Highway System, that was the goal.
What started as eight miles in Kansas grew to 40,000 connected miles that brought America together like never before in order to get people from rural areas and suburban communities into the urban core as fast as possible. As Thomas MacDonald, chief of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, phrased it, it was to get farmers out of the mud.
But it came with a price. To get people from Point A to Point B and out of the mud as quickly as possible, the highways needed to cut straight through peoples’ backyards. Despite the highway revolts that followed, the decision had been made — it would be “healthy” for cities, said Robert Moses, a city planner at the time.
McDonald agreed with this, going so far as to suggest to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that displacing and destroying low-income communities would, at the end of the day, serve a more legitimate purpose of converting them into assets.
The idea stuck with cities all over America, especially Charlotte. Foxx’s own childhood neighborhood was a closely linked system of interwoven streets before two highways were built around the neighborhood that “destroyed the connected tissue.”
“Neighbors were separated from neighbors, the corner store was gone because the corner was gone,” he said. “A more convenient high-speed thoroughfare had been created, but the way of life in that particular community had changed forever.”
Not only did the highways create a physical barrier, but “economic and psychological” ones as well, as the neighborhood became isolated and undesirable. Businesses no longer invested in the area and grocery stores and pharmacies were scarce, as they didn’t want to take the risk. Until he was a freshman at Davidson, Foxx couldn’t get a pizza delivered to him.
It was clear that “the freeways were there to carry people through the area. Not to it.”
But the point he continued to drive home was that a “built environment is the product of intentional choices and decision making.”
It was all on purpose, something he didn’t realize the severity of until he took office, where he saw that at some point in history, people in bad neighborhoods moved past just being invisible. They “didn’t matter.”
Case in point: Brooklyn.
In the late 1880s, Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood was formed in Second Ward. The area has been described as the heartbeat of the thriving African American community; when the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong came to town, Brooklyn was where they played and stayed.
Brooklyn hasn’t existed for years. As Foxx puts it, the area was “systematically eliminated.”
In 1912, the Observer put on paper what everybody had already heard: that Brooklyn and its land in such close proximity to the center of the city was too valuable to be left in the hands of the African American community. One headline went so far as to say that a “Far-sighted man believes that eventually this section, because of its proximity to the center of the city, must sooner or later be utilized by the white population.”
When the ’30s rolled around, Brooklyn was redlined by federal policies that made borrowing money next to impossible, which lead to a decline in the quality of housing, as nobody had the money to fix their problems.
In 1947, the Planning Commission labelled the neighborhood as an industrial zone.
And finally, an urban renewal program brought Independence Boulevard and 277 to life, “cut[ting] a gash through the heart of the community.” Brooklyn had been wiped off the map, and two-thirds of the families displaced were poor. A majority of that fraction were African American families. Those that stayed close to the freeway were largely poor, a statistic that has repeated itself through history.
“People that were displaced paid a hefty price,” Foxx noted. “But so is everyone else [today] because we’re all so separated from each other.”
And that separation means a lower chance of giving those in neighborhoods affected by lack of service transportation a fair shot at the American Dream.
So how are we fixing it? We continue to bring things like (and expand) the Light Rail to Charlotte.
“It is imperative that we acknowledge these challenges,” Foxx said.
The government puts about $60 billion into service transportation every year. 90% of that goes directly to the states through a set formula and 98% of all service transportation expenditures are made at the state and local level — by the same government that created the problems and have an “equally powerful ability to solve them.”
To solve them, “We have to ask what kind of connection we want to have, what kind of fabric we want to weave and understand that the fabric we already wove wasn’t inclusive,” Foxx said.
Just because it wasn’t inclusive before doesn’t mean that it can’t be moving forward.
“So how do we connect people to opportunity? First, transportation connects people to opportunity and can invigorate opportunity within communities. It can do both,” he continued. “To any extent possible, we should support transportation projects that do both.”
One of the “greatest examples” of transportation projects that do both is in our own backyards.
The Blue Line was opened in 2007 and occupied a part of the city that wasn’t a great one: the South Boulevard corridor.
But in nine years, what once was an underserved area has become one populated by new housing, neighborhood services and restaurants and has generated almost $2 billion alone.
“Now we have an extension going north, but without east and west connectivity, we’d be repeating the same mistakes in history of not connecting people with each other. We have to make sure that future projects connect and empower us.”