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Houston's Highway History Teaches Planners What Not to Do

This is an adapted excerpt from “Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth About Urban Highways,” edited by Ryan Reft, Amanda K. Phillips de Lucas, and Rebecca C. Retzlaff. This chapter called Right in the Way: Generations of Highway Impacts in Houston was written by Kyle Shelton, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies.

For decades, residents of Clayton Homes and Kelly Village, two of Houston’s largest public housing developments, saw the shape of their neighborhoods shift due to highway building. With every road widening, communities changed. Landscapes shifted. Routes to work and school were blocked. Homes and community institutions were displaced. Although the residents absorbed these impacts for generations, at no point have these Houstonians had the chance to meaningfully shape the highway projects that affect them.

Kelly Village was at the heart of Houston’s mostly African American Fifth Ward, just north of Buffalo Bayou from the Second Ward and future site of Clayton Homes, when its 300 units were built in the 1930s. When the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) built the US 59/I -10 interchange in the 1960s through the middle of the Fifth Ward, the eastern running arm of I-10 removed large swaths of buildings from the South and East sides of Kelly Village. The intersecting highways decimated the Fifth Ward, bisecting the community and removing more than 900 homes and businesses in the footprint of the interchange alone.

When Clayton Homes was built in the 1950s, its 300 units sat along Buffalo Bayou, just a stone’s throw to the east of Houston’s central business district and nestled alongside the mostly Hispanic Second Ward. Not more than a decade after opening, the Texas Department of Highways (now TxDOT) built US Highway 59, now I-69, on land adjacent to the community to the west. A highway bridge went soaring over the edge of Clayton Homes. The new roadway obscured the view of the city and hid the development from view.

Today, both the Fifth and Second wards face grave environmental risks associated with the highways and attendant industries alongside them. Moreover, each of these housing developments, and the broader communities where they sit, are facing the impacts of yet another highway project. TxDOT’s $10-billion North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) would realign and widen three highways in the central business district and widen several sections of I-45 to the north and southeast of central Houston. If the project comes to fruition as planned, many of the same communities most directly affected by Houston’s highway development will again bear the brunt of the damage and disruption, including Clayton Homes and Kelly Village.

This story is repeated across the nation in highway-side communities, most of which are home to low-income and non-white residents. The highways set, in concrete, the course of decades of infrastructure development along with the same, ever-wider rights of way.

As was happening across the United States, the State of Texas built hundreds of miles of highways in Houston in the 1960s and 1970s. In each case, the state offered little opportunity for public engagement around the project plans. All of the construction aimed to capture the city’s burgeoning growth and tie its increasingly suburban population to the central city by easing commutes. Roadways divided dozens of neighborhoods into pieces, not just in the Fifth Ward and East End, where Clayton Homes and Kelly Village stand, but also in the historically African American Third Ward, the middle-class white neighborhood of Montrose, and the predominantly working-class, Latino neighborhood of Denver Harbor. Even if they took less of a physical toll overall, subsequent ring roads and spokes in the highway system sliced through predominantly white, first-generation suburban developments such as Memorial Bend. Over time, as these roads were expanded with widening and reconstruction projects, these same communities carried the burden of a region’s highway network.

Read entire article at NextCity