While volunteering as a pollstander in West Oak Lane on Philadelphia’s last Election Day, I got into a heated debate with Fran, a committeeperson. We wondered how much of Philadelphia’s poverty was caused by redlining and racism. We speculated how much more money went into building “desirable” vs. “hazardous” neighborhoods. We attempted to quantify the difference, to calculate how much the government might owe in reparations to segregated neighborhoods as reconciliation. And, finally, we imagined how these funds could be directed toward aggressive investment in public transportation as means of repair and reconciliation.
Redlining refers to the practice of drawing lines between neighborhoods on official maps, primarily based on racial discrimination; it was the norm in Philadelphia from the 1930s to the 1960s. Bank lenders and transportation planners alike used these maps to plot highways, streetlights, schools, parks … and mortgage allocation. Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods are not a result of people making “poor choices.” Unequal resource allocation happened on purpose. And because this practice was legally legitimized 100 years ago, today these layers of structural segregation are hard like cement.
Redlining is unique in that it geographically delineated precisely which neighborhoods would be excluded from wealth creation, underscoring why today certain neighborhoods are so stuck in poverty, violence and blight.
I thought about my conversation with Fran this week as I saw footage of the I-95 bridge collapse in Northeast Philadelphia on Sunday. Throughout America, and here in Philly, interstate highways bulldozed homes and businesses and broke up neighborhoods. City highways razed communities to make way for traffic. Many of our communities today remain poor because they were cut off, cut up, blocked, and then starved in isolation. Highways — and the interstate highways system in particular — not only reinforced the barriers between neighborhoods inside and outside the lines, they live on today as daily reminders of boundaries that should not be crossed.
Redlining is not the only cause of poverty. Federal, state, and local housing policies, private housing discrimination, migration patterns, and public education systems are also factors. But redlining is unique in that it geographically delineated precisely which neighborhoods would be excluded from wealth creation, underscoring why today certain neighborhoods are so stuck in poverty, violence and blight.
Until we return these neighborhoods to a level playing field, other poverty reduction tactics will struggle. Until we reimagine and reengineer the highways-as-walls that reinforce our separateness, poverty will remain fixed. As Deborah N. Archer argues in White Men’s Roads through Black Men’s Homes: Advancing Racial Equity through Highway Reconstruction, “The possibility of significant infrastructure development offers an opportunity to redress some of the significant harm caused by the interstate highway system, to strengthen impacted communities, and to advance racial equity.”
We must move beyond highways
The recent collapse of I-95 demonstrates so clearly that our highway structure is inadequate and ill-prepared to handle changing weather patterns and increasing population. We need to shift away from highway expansion. We need to transform sprawling geographic areas into dense, walkable, and transit-accessible communities. We need to remove barriers that divide our communities. And we need to build the most advanced, energy-efficient public transportation to connect them.
The longer we fail to invest in this shift, the more expensive it will become in the future and the more unlivable and punishing segregated neighborhoods will become. We cannot afford to wait.
The intersection of climate change and refugee migration will make investment in transportation more urgent and essential. Extreme heat — exacerbated by automobiles burning fossil fuels — will force the City to orchestrate citizens’ shift from automobiles to public transit. In addition, climate change will lead to a rapid influx of domestic and international housing refugees, most of whom will be poor. The confluence of citywide efforts to reduce poverty, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase preparedness for migrants create a perfect storm to make a convincing case for reimagining our transportation systems.
Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods are not a result of people making “poor choices.” Unequal resource allocation happened on purpose.
On the basis of poverty reduction alone, this era calls for bolder investments in transportation infrastructure to make schools, jobs, and services more accessible to all. In addition, energy-efficient technical requirements needed to prepare for climate change underscore the extent to which we need innovative planning and design systems.
The case for transportation reparations
The construction and maintenance of necessary transportation systems may present as too costly. Disruption to car-centric culture may on paper seem too high a behavioral hurdle to overcome.
There may be a case — by quantifying the financial damage caused by redlining — to create a formula that determines how much capital should be directed toward infrastructure in service of our poor. How much financial investment was denied to redlined geographic areas across Philadelphia? And at what financial cost to communities were highways constructed along the redlines that segregated them? These figures must be quantified, compounded, and stated as financial debts owed for the damage they caused. Public transportation systems are a logical investment vehicle and recipient for systemic level repair.
When I worked on Maria Quiñones Sánchez’s mayoral campaign, I learned that during the pandemic, Philadelphia for the first time dipped below 25 percent poverty rate. City-run programs were not the reason; stimulus payments from the federal government as part of the The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provided this temporary respite. Philadelphia’s financial means are far too small to fix the problems that hold poverty in place.
On the basis of poverty reduction alone, this era calls for bolder investments in transportation infrastructure to make schools, jobs, and services more accessible to all.
The federal government — which played a leading role in redlining through the implementation of the G.I. Bill, among other things — must play a role in fixing problems that perpetuate poverty. There are billions in federal and state dollars Philadelphia should be able to access to properly build out non-car centric modes of transportation such as railways. If planned properly, this could lead to a fortuitous reconciliation of economic and racial justice by connecting and reconnecting isolated communities.
Philadelphia is in many essential ways a progressive and revolutionary city yearning for bold solutions. But our culture also perpetuates what Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas coined as “The Philly Shrug” — the knee-jerk sentiment that nothing here ever changes. I saw on the campaign trail that we are entering an era where our revolutionary spirits supersede our apathy. Fran’s willingness to entertain my most far-reaching ideas renewed my spirit in believing they could be possible.
Amanda Steinberg is a political operative based in Philadelphia, most recently serving as Digital Director on Maria Quinones Sanchez’s mayoral campaign. She has a degree in Urban Studies from Columbia and got her start as Councilman Nutter’s high school intern in 1994.
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ON REPARATIONS AND TRANSPORTATION