Trillion-dollar infrastructure bill's impact on Milwaukee's 'Racist Roads'

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Posted at 5:21 AM, Feb 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-17 19:30:45-05

The $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill hopes to impact communities across the country, but for those marginalized neighborhoods who bore the brunt of infrastructure mistakes in the past, they’re not holding their breath.

“The Black community has come to expect, when people make promises about all the wonderful things to happen, we have a wait and see approach,” local historian, Reggie Jackson said. “People are excited about the infrastructure bill, and they should be because there is a lot of money behind it. But how will that actually play out in the lives of people in Milwaukee? Only time will tell.”

There still aren’t concrete plans in place for the infrastructure bill in Milwaukee. Leaders in the Department of Public Works and Department of City Development hope it will help bolster already successful projects; the Complete Streets Policy in 2018 has tried to address issues of health and equity through infrastructure.

Reducing Reckless Driving through Infrastructure Bill

“We’re looking at the bigger picture,” Commissioner Lafayette Crump said. “Not just how do you make sure that the roads are paved but also, are they safe? What are we doing from a traffic calming measure to make it more palatable to get from one place to another in the city? We’re also thinking about job creation and where jobs are located in the city and what does real estate look like in certain parts of the city?”

In essence, Crump hopes to make improvements to the infrastructure in Milwaukee to make it more pedestrian friendly. It’s something he hopes will curb the reckless driving problems ravaging the city.

“We are talking about making this a more walkable, bicycle and pedestrian friendly city,” Crump said. “Throughout the city, not just in a few choice neighborhoods. We’re not talking about putting spikes in the road or making every street in the city nothing but a pedestrian walkway.”

But Jackson has trepidation about the infrastructure bill because of the past he’s lived and experienced.

Fond du Lac freeway project

He grew up in the central city and has researched the city’s history. He has seen the mistakes that have led to Milwaukee being known as the most segregated city in America and the worst city for Black well-being.

“It’s exceptionally difficult for Black families to grow generational wealth because there are these barriers in place,” Jackson said. “Redlining, freeway road construction, urban renewal programs. All of these things make it hard for us and there are still things going on today.”

Jackson took the I-Team through the neighborhood around Johnsons Park. Fond du Lac Avenue splits right through its heart but it’s an unseen project that left permanent damage.

“When I come to this area, what I always look at is over there,” Jackson said. “Nothing there. It’s really said. Look around you. A couple houses on that block. Mattress on the side of the road. Block after block with no houses. There used to be homes and they’re all gone.”

Reggie on devolution of Johnson Park Neighborhood

In 1965, an aerial photo of the area around Johnsons Park shows a booming tight knit neighborhood. There are dozens of houses on each block. However, an infrastructure project in the late 60s and early 70s decimated the neighborhood.

The Park East Freeway Project is something Jackson says forever ruined the neighborhood. Through eminent domain, the city destroyed more than 1,500 homes to make way for a freeway connector that would go up Fond du Lac Avenue, connecting I-43 to Sherman Blvd. The project was halted after community outcry but Jackson says the damage was done.

“Before they could get them to stop, they had already torn down 1,500 homes for the Park West Freeway,” Jackson said. “They didn’t build a freeway but left those spaces blanks for year, after year after year.”

Aerial photographs from 1975 show just how devastating it was. The photo above has a sliding scale to show the same neighborhood near Johnsons Park just 12 years a part.

Jackson points to this as an example of systemic racism. While he says the neighborhood was pretty diverse in the 60s, the failed freeway project changed all of that. White residents were able to afford moving out of the neighborhood because of the access to loans. Black residents, due to historic issues caused by redlining, weren’t so lucky. They couldn't move out of the area so they were stuck to figure it out in the central city, after yet another infrastructure project destroyed the blossoming life of their neighborhood.

“This is the center of how I show people disinvestment,” Jackson said. “You invested in building a freeway but you never built it. You tore down homes and left that area vacant. Eventually, what ends up happening, the area continues to deteriorate over a number of years. You won’t see this in any white community in Metro Milwaukee. You won’t see block after block with next to nothing or nothing on it. That’s what you see here.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made waves by commenting on how infrastructure decisions can result in racist outcomes. Political pundits criticized how there can be so called “racist roads.”

“I’m still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a Black neighborhood, or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach New York was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices,” Buttigieg said at a press briefing in November.

As he stands in Johnsons Park where homes used to be, Jackson says this is an example of a racist road. It's why he says communities like this are hesitant to applaud something like the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Those who will have a say in the decision making process are aware of it as well.

“That’s a reasonable reaction,” Crump said. “To have skepticism about whether or not this is going to have a real impact. I would say that we’re experiencing a time period now, certainly over the last couple of years, I think we’ve gone through this periodic racial reckoning. But for a few years now, the Department of City Development has really started to think about, how do we use an equity framework to impact the choices that we make and the work that we do? We are putting racial equity at the forefront of those decisions, thinking about if this has a neutral impact on communities that may have been disproportionately impacted by decisions in the past.”

“It’s almost like we created 53206,” Congresswoman Gwen Moore said. “One of our poorest ZIP codes in the country by just bounding that community by that freeway and cutting it off from the commercial areas of Bronzeville and Martin Luther King Drive. You know, 1,700 houses were demolished and 1,000 businesses were destroyed and the Black community never recovered in terms of business development since that time.”

Moore voted in favor of the infrastructure bill. While it’s still not clear how this bill will impact Milwaukee, Moore feels it will be a great first step.

Infrastructure Bill Reversing Past Mistakes

“This can begin that revitalization again,” Moore said. “There is flexibility built in this money so that there can be some wraparound efforts to strengthen the businesses.”

She acknowledges the historical impacts infrastructure has had on people of color in Milwaukee and hopes this can positively impact the city going forward.

But it's like turning the Titanic.

"It's not just as simple as, okay, we did this thing we shouldn't have done," Crump said. "Let's reverse it. You got to look at where is it best to do some of those things? There will undoubtedly be some places, I think of Walnut Street as one example, where DPW is really committed to, how to re-envision that and make sure that it's not this overbuilt, drag racing street. That it's really an opportunity for people to walk safely and for people to bike safely and for people to still drive."

Each person has their own hope for where these federal dollars will go: traffic easement, pedestrian improvements, public transportation.

However, it’ll remain to be a wait and see approach for Jackson.

“The devil is in the details right?” Jackson said. “Until people see what the infrastructure bill will consist of in Milwaukee, I don’t think people in the Central City will be all that excited about it.”

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