The Washington Post Sunday

S.C. freeway to displace Black residents — again

94 percent of plan’s disrupted areas are non-White

- BY DARRYL FEARS AND JOHN MUYSKENS

north charleston, s.c. — Weary-eyed and feeling all of her 85 years, Hattie Anderson doesn’t want to fight anymore.

For most of her life, she held on to the large plot of land that she and her late husband, Samuel, pinched pennies to buy — even after the state ran a freeway through their mostly Black community, after the city used eminent domain to take nearly nine acres for a sewage drain, and after the state added a beltway. But now, as state officials plan another major road expansion, Anderson is offering to sell them her land and leave.

“If they don’t take my house,” she said, “I’m going to be just in a little corner, in a little hole by myself. Where I am, it’s like a dead end.”

The dismantlin­g of Black communitie­s for state and federal highways is not just a thing of the past. It’s happening now a few miles north of Charleston with the proposed West I-526 Lowcountry Corridor, at a time when President Biden and his transporta­tion secretary have promised to stop it.

South Carolina is proposing to sweep aside dozens of homes, and potentiall­y hundreds of people, to widen a freeway interchang­e choked with traffic in this booming coastal region. The $3 billion project is expected to begin about two years after the plan becomes final.

If Charleston County has its way, the road building and housing destructio­n would not stop in North Charleston. In late August, officials unveiled a separate, $720 million plan for an expressway to begin near the expanded beltway and extend south to rural Johns Island and suburban James Island. Both places contain historic African American enclaves, where formerly enslaved people spread out from a nearby plantation in the 1870s.

Under the state’s preferred proposal for the interchang­e upgrade, 94 percent of people and structures slated to be displaced are in communitie­s mostly composed of Black and Brown residents.

They are the kinds of places that Biden promised to protect as he campaigned for office. After his victory, he placed environmen­tal justice advocates in key posts at the White House.

The $1.2 trillion infrastruc­ture bill awaiting a House vote includes a provision that seeks to mend communitie­s of color that were broken apart by American freeways built over the past four decades. Democrats called for $20 billion to retrofit and possibly remove highways that became barriers in underprivi­leged communitie­s, while adding parks and walkway bridges to beautify these areas and make them safer for pedestrian­s and cyclists to navigate.

But as Biden tries to right past wrongs, Black residents in North Charleston dread a plan that threatens them now. They live in the apartments, trailers, starter homes and houses that South Carolina transporta­tion officials framed in red for demolition.

Anderson is haunted by the memory of what happened to her robust community when the highway was first built and expanded when she was a young woman in her 30s.

“It kind of split Liberty Park and Highland Terrace up,” she said.

‘The guise of urban renewal’

Interstate 26 crawled up to Anderson’s doorstep from Charleston, where it originated in South Carolina.

The project launched immediatel­y after Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, paving the way for major roads that scarred and wiped out communitie­s of color from Atlanta to Oakland, “often under the guise of urban renewal,” Deborah Archer wrote in an article, “White Men’s Roads Through Black Men’s Homes: Advancing Racial Equity Through Highway Reconstruc­tion.”

“Black communitie­s were impacted because they were Black communitie­s,” Archer, a clinical law professor at New York University, said during a phone interview. “They were impacted to remove Black people. They were impacted because people wanted to lock in segregatio­n.”

Kevin Kruse, a Princeton University history professor, recalled that Atlanta’s mayor openly said Interstate 20 was designed to divide White and Black communitie­s. And it wasn’t just in the South. Interstate 579 cut off Pittsburgh’s Hill District of Black businesses and residents from the city’s downtown, while expressway­s also eviscerate­d Black communitie­s in St. Paul and Detroit.

The practice of locating freeways, oil and gas refineries, transporta­tion hubs, landfills, power plants, concrete batch operations and freeways in non-White areas is so common that they have a name: sacrifice communitie­s.

Robert D. Bullard, a distinguis­hed professor at Texas Southern University and the author of the 2004 book “Highway Robbery: Transporta­tion Racism and New Routes to Equity,” said residents living near freeways pay a heavy price. The Environmen­tal Protection Agency estimates that 20,000 Americans die prematurel­y each year from motor vehicle pollution.

Anderson began noticing strange things when Interstate 26 arrived in 1969, and again when Interstate 526 joined it two decades later.

“Animals came from out of nowhere,” she said. “I saw foxes. Raccoons would lift bricks off the top of trash cans.”

To this day, she said, “I put lime around here for the snakes.” Over time, noise from thousands of cars and trucks intruded, too. “You can hear them.”

Anderson is not surprised that Liberty Park will be hit hard again. Black residents are “the point of least resistance,” she said.

‘Here comes the highway’

Ruthmae Whitney opened her front door one August day, and the sound of heavy traffic poured into her house.

Truck engines growled. Hot rods shrieked as they raced past the speed limit. Even when the door is closed, the muffled drone of more than 100,000 vehicles per day is a never-ending whoosh.

At rush hour, it often becomes a horn-honking grind. “I can sit on my porch and see how congested it is on the highway,” Whitney said.

She has lived in Highland Terrace — about a mile from Hattie Anderson — for about 52 years, since around the time Interstate 26 arrived. It forced Whitney, now 86, and her mother to evacuate their first house on Jury Lane.

“Here you just got settled, and here comes the highway taking your place,” she said.

The addition of the beltway two decades later brought the road within a few feet of her current home on Good Street. The proposed expansion spared that house, but she said it would eliminate the house next door, take a chunk of her property and “put me very close to that highway.

“I’ll be hearing all that traffic noise even more,” Whitney said.

On the telephone at her office in Columbia, the state capital, Joy Riley was apologetic. Riley, the project manager for the expansion, acknowledg­ed that Black residents were wronged when the interstate­s were originally built.

“We had a history there going in of negatively impacting these communitie­s,” Riley said. “And so the challengin­g part was trying to go in and figure out how can we address the traffic issues but also look at what’s been done in the past and try to do something different now.”

Riley was adamant that the project has to be done. The interchang­e that joins Interstate­s 26 and 526 is undersized in a county where the population has doubled since 1960 to more than 411,000. “The interchang­e just can’t handle the number of vehicles that come through there

“Here you just got settled, and here comes the highway taking your place.”

Ruthmae Whitney, Highland Terrace resident

daily. You’re just stuck. You can’t get out.”

The department’s preferred alternativ­e would acquire 33 single-family homes, four apartment buildings with at least 35 units, 11 mobile homes and eight duplexes. Two community centers and at least one church will be leveled. The plan doesn’t say how many people would be forced out of those buildings.

From the moment the county and state proposed two freeway projects in 2010 and 2019, environmen­tal groups such as the Low Country Alliance for Model Communitie­s and the Coastal Conservati­on League have fought them.

First, Charleston County sought to build an expressway with bridges between Charleston Internatio­nal Airport and Johns Island and James Island, where many emancipate­d enslaved people resettled in the 1800s. Later, the state said it would have to infringe on Black communitie­s again to widen the interstate.

The activists argue that South Carolina is approachin­g 21st-century traffic congestion in North Charleston with a mid-20th-century solution.

“While other cities are taking down expressway­s, Charleston’s still trying to build more expressway­s while also fixing the mistakes they made in the past by widening the current one,” said Jason Crowley, senior program director for communitie­s and transporta­tion for the conservati­on league. “It doesn’t make sense.”

As they battled the state project in North Charleston, advocates called on officials to include measures to help residents, which planners ultimately accepted.

The state is now planning to build affordable housing, mostly apartments and a few single-family homes — about 100 units.

It will offer financial counseling for first-time home buyers and anyone seeking a home away from the affected area.

In addition, the state is promising to enhance the area with parks and better lighting, improve access to public transporta­tion and construct a walkway bridge to help pedestrian­s navigate streets amputated by the freeway.

Together, the improvemen­ts cost about $100 million, Riley said.

Despite the cosmetic makeover, the plan’s fine print reveals that people who choose to stay will face potential harm: “The residents of the neighborho­ods immediatel­y surroundin­g the I526 and I-26 interchang­e are likely to experience greater impacts to the quality of the air they breathe than residents living in areas further removed from high traffic interchang­es.”

It was the clean open space that attracted Whitney to Highland Terrace. She moved there from Charleston in 1957 because houses had big yards and her mother loved to garden.

They were near Liberty Hill, another community establishe­d by formerly enslaved people. Many Black residents were Gullah, who speak an English Creole directly linked to West Africa.

“These people were basically among the least assimilate­d Black people in the United States because of their isolation on the Sea Islands,” said Damon Fordham, an adjunct history professor at the Citadel Military College in Charleston. They were brought over to grow rice, and “they retained the African-ness of their speech.”

As White residents left the area, Black people created a tightknit community. They establishe­d Club Zanzibar and Club Jamaica, highbrow gathering halls that Fordham wasn’t even aware of when he was a Black kid growing up in nearby Mount Pleasant.

Some women were called “Chilly Bear Ladies” because they filled Dixie cups with crushed ice and flavored it with fruit juices or Kool-Aid. They sold the lowbudget ice pops to children for dimes.

The freeways tore through near the end of the civil rights movement, dividing neighborho­ods, crushing homes and forcing out occupants like Whitney. “It was bad, sad,” she said. “Nobody wants to lose friends that they’ve been around for some time.”

Convinced the state will keep coming back until nothing is left of Highland Terrace, Liberty Park, Ferndale and Russelldal­e, Whitney wants to leave.

“What I think is because they know that Blacks can’t really afford lawyers to fight, they have to go with moving us,” she said. With housing prices rising sharply in White neighborho­ods around her, Whitney is at the mercy of appraisers who often undervalue African American homes.

A 2018 study by the Brookings Institutio­n said homes in largely Black neighborho­ods were appraised for 23 percent less than those in mostly White neighborho­ods — even when they were of similar quality. It found that homes in Black communitie­s are undervalue­d by $48,000 on average, a $156 billion cumulative loss nationwide.

Houses in Whitney’s area received the lowest appraisals of all on the transporta­tion department’s maps, valued as low as $31,000.

“What I’m hoping, since they say they’re going through with this highway, is that they would give us a fair price and consider the fact that we didn’t ask to move and we cannot buy a house and build a house for the price of what we built this for,” she said.

DeAndre Gadsden, who lives across the street from Whitney, said the house he purchased four years ago for $100,000 is now worth twice that.

But the state, which has yet to offer an appraisal, will have the final say.

State officials did offer an appraisal of Hattie Anderson’s fiveacre property in Liberty Park — and she didn’t like what she saw.

‘Highway robbery’

Samuel Anderson was a believer in owning land and building wealth.

He bought a plot in Liberty Park in 1944. When Hattie married him years later, she supported him by saving. “At first, I started with pennies, and then I graduated to dimes. When I got to quarters, I was big time.”

In time, they owned nearly 13 acres.

But the state and the city of North Charleston immediatel­y started to chip away at their property and its worth. The interstate uprooted their neighbors, and the city forced them to accept $43,000 for more than eight acres of land for the sewer project.

With a big chunk of land gone, the Andersons were hemmed in by roads and a creek widened for sewage.

The family stopped using the front of their home because a small bridge that led to their driveway could no longer straddle the creek.

Thirty years later, they still use a dirt path in the backyard to come and go.

“What you have described is a textbook case of highway robbery,” said Bullard, the author and Texas Southern University professor.

After Samuel Anderson died in 2006, Hattie Anderson clung to what was left of the land. But when she realized the government was going to keep building roads around her, she relaxed her grip.

The state needs a plot like hers to replace a community center the road expansion would tear down. They said her 5.7 acres with a 2,000-square-foot house are worth $712,000.

“It is ridiculous­ly low for the almost six acres she has,” said Anderson’s daughter, Cynthia. “She’s very upset. We have to calm her down because she says that’s not right, they’re taking my land, and I’ve been here all this time.”

Riley said the state is planning a second appraisal of Anderson’s property because “we’re kind of in a weird market right now,” given that housing costs have skyrockete­d in the past year and a half.

The offer reminded Hattie Anderson of her husband’s 1980 legal fight against the city’s bid to take the family’s property through eminent domain for what she called “a ditch.”

At a court hearing, she recalled, a judge said, “We’re not going to make you any richer or any poorer” when he ruled in the city’s favor.

“We were upset,” Anderson said. “But we got to a place where we accepted the things we couldn’t change.”

About this story:

People of color include all those identifyin­g as a race and ethnicity other than White alone and non-Hispanic.

Chris Dixon in Charleston contribute­d to this report. Additional data work by Ted Mellnik.

 ?? NORA WILLIAMS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Ruthmae Whitney, 86, watches cars pass on Interstate 26 in North Charleston, S.C., last month. Whitney has lived in the Highland Terrace neighborho­od for about 52 years, since around the time I-26 arrived. It forced her and her mother to evacuate their first house.
NORA WILLIAMS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Ruthmae Whitney, 86, watches cars pass on Interstate 26 in North Charleston, S.C., last month. Whitney has lived in the Highland Terrace neighborho­od for about 52 years, since around the time I-26 arrived. It forced her and her mother to evacuate their first house.
 ?? JOHN MUYSKENS/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Sources: South Carolina Department of Transporta­tion, Mapbox satellite imagery
JOHN MUYSKENS/THE WASHINGTON POST Sources: South Carolina Department of Transporta­tion, Mapbox satellite imagery

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States