History quantified: Examining the damage in Atlanta
The devastation, disconnection, and displacement of highways plowed through cities and neighborhoods is easy to see, but rarely do we quantify the costs in terms of lost wealth, land, residents, and businesses. The damage also could have been much worse, with many planned highways never built or completed. We examine current and historical data on the impact of one built and one unbuilt highway in Atlanta (and in Washington, DC here) to quantify both the damage and what could have been. 1
I-20 (built) and I-485 (unbuilt)
Note: Click either tab below to toggle between I-20 and I-485 data and animations
Mayor Ivan Allen is widely credited with popularizing “The City Too Busy to Hate” as a slogan for Atlanta. But in reality, that was as much about marketing the city to the rest of the country and the world as the aviation industry exploded and Atlanta’s economy was on the rise.
The city was a nexus of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s and progressed ahead of other southern cities through what could charitably be called a more pragmatic approach to integration, but Atlanta was also not radically different from the rest of the South. Black Americans, including GIs returning from WWII, were moving to the city in search of economic opportunity, and white Atlantans were making every effort to segregate a city in which the KKK was still very active.
Street names were routinely changed so that white residents would not have to share similar addresses with Black residents and streets were built around Black neighborhoods to create physical barriers. Even Mayor Ivan Allen, who defeated a staunch racist segregationist for his first term as mayor and is rightfully celebrated for his support of the civil rights movement, was central to an effort to put a physical wall across a southwest neighborhood to keep Black people from moving northward.
Progress was more mixed and uneven than the popular slogan suggested.
With the creation of the Interstate Highway System, Atlanta’s leaders (and perhaps more so the state) now had a powerful tool for removing certain people and building even more walls. The east-west Interstate 20 was used deliberately to create a boundary between white Atlantans on the north and Black Atlantans to the south. Even in the city “too busy to hate,” Black neighborhoods were targeted to make way for new interstates, primarily designed to carry white suburban commuters into the city, fueling the next several decades of incredible suburban expansion in nearly all directions.
As just one example, Sweet Auburn (Avenue) was one of the centers of Black culture and life in Atlanta, full of residents, businesses, culture, and nightlife, once called the richest African American street in the country. 7 Even before the creation of the interstate system, a north-south expressway through downtown was proposed to curve east and slice directly through Sweet Auburn to avoid cutting through the central business district just to the west.
While advocates were able to successfully convince planners to shift what ultimately became the downtown connector (I-75/85) several blocks to the east to save some notable buildings in the commercial core of Sweet Auburn, the neighborhood was still sliced in half and pierced with a massive interstate viaduct (and accompanying ramps) that weakened the neighborhood, impoverishing it over the intervening decades. Sweet Auburn has never been the same.
The many interstates (and massive interchanges) that followed separated white and Black communities in Atlanta and accelerated the flow of white Atlantans to the suburbs. (And in later years, many Black Atlantans as well.) Over the course of the 1960s, 60,000 whites left the city, and many interstates later, in the 1970s, they were joined by 100,000 more. Locals quipped that Atlanta was “The City Too Busy Moving to Hate.”
Today, crisscrossed by interstates that dispersed the metro area’s population and jobs, Atlanta is home to some of the worst traffic in the nation. The Tom Moreland Interchange—the complicated intersection of Interstates 285 and 85 and other roads on the north side, often called “Spaghetti Junction”—is consistently ranked as one of the top three worst truck bottlenecks in the nation. The state has created massive traffic problems by spending billions to disperse people, homes, and jobs. And today, they continue to try and solve the traffic congestion they’ve created by turning to the same “solution” that created the problems in the first place.
While some of the proposed highways were never built, the two examples we analyze from Atlanta above are instructive for what does and doesn’t get built, and why.
Interstate 20 largely followed an east/west line between predominantly white neighborhoods on the north and Black neighborhoods to the south. As Kevin Kruse wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20…was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor [William] Hartsfield, as ‘the boundary between the white and Negro communities’ on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected.”
And then consider Interstate 485, the unbuilt massive north- south highway, proposed to be built directly through some of the most prosperous and politically powerful white neighborhoods in the eastern side of the city near Piedmont Park, which was ultimately defeated and never built.