Long before he was Charlotte mayor or U.S. transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx grew up on Crestdale Drive, just north of uptown Charlotte, in a house his grandparents bought in 1961.
Soon after they bought the property – and before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Interstates 77 and 85 were constructed, effectively blocking off Foxx’s Lincoln Heights neighborhood from the rest of the city. Corner stores disappeared, businesses didn’t invest and grocery and pharmacy stores wouldn’t take the risk in the area, Foxx said.
It wasn’t until his freshman year at Davidson that Foxx said he could finally get a pizza delivered to the house. “The people in my community were not invisible. It’s just that at a certain point in our history, they didn’t matter,” he said.
Foxx learned firsthand that as the interstate highway system was built, urban freeways tended to be routed through many low-income and minority neighborhoods – a phenomenon he said modern policymakers should work to amend to facilitate more economic opportunity.
“It became clear to me those freeways were there to carry people through the area, not necessarily to it,” said Foxx, speaking at the Charlotte Rotary’s weekly luncheon Tuesday in uptown Charlotte.
“Instead of connecting us to each other, highway decision-makers in a sense separated us,” he said.
Today, the legacy of those past decisions plays out in cities besides Charlotte, Foxx said, including Miami, Staten Island, N.Y., Baltimore and Los Angeles, to name a few. Last year, the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., issued an apology for the racially motivated routing of a highway through neighborhoods.
In places such as those, new freeways sliced into residential areas, causing property values to plummet and residents to flee the neighborhood after selling their homes way below market value, losing their main source of wealth.
“Today, if you live near a freeway, the chances are very high that you’re poor,” Foxx said.
Society as a whole pays the price, he said. Today, areas exist where the infrastructure that’s supposed to connect people instead blocks them off from potential employment, schools, retail and more – making it more difficult to move into the middle class.
And the impact of those past transportation decisions doesn’t just play out in highways. Today, 49 percent of low-income neighborhoods have sidewalks, Foxx said, compared with 90 percent of high-income neighborhoods, for example.
So, Foxx advocates that policymakers learn from those past mistakes and not repeat them. Changes to the nation’s transportation system are difficult to achieve at this point, but are necessary since infrastructure is aging and crumbling.
After all, “transportation connects people to opportunity,” Foxx said, so we should encourage projects that do both.