A Highway That Doesn’t Exist Is Strangling a Black Neighborhood
Photo by Ed Freeman via Getty Images

A Highway That Doesn’t Exist Is Strangling a Black Neighborhood

In the summer of 2006, Dorothy Wiley and her husband, Charles, moved into a tidy three-bedroom house with peach siding and navy-blue trim in Shreveport, Louisiana.

They’d grown up in Shreveport but had been living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. After being trapped in the Superdome for a terror-filled week, Wiley was determined to make a fresh start, and she joined a tide of evacuees heading north to Shreveport, where she’d grown up. Resettling there with family, she heard about a national nonprofit building homes for Katrina evacuees in a neighborhood called Allendale, just west of downtown.

“We could pick where we wanted our home to be built,” Wiley says. “I said, I want my home to be built on the hill. I want to be the light on the hill.”

Soon they were joined by 47 other families that moved into new houses built on abandoned or tax-delinquent lots donated to the Fuller Center for Housing, named for its founder, Millard Fuller, the former president of Habitat for Humanity. They moved in and began to rebuild their lives in Allendale.

One day in 2012, Wiley was working outside her house when a man in a suit walked by. He told her his name was Roy Burrell and he represented Shreveport in the state legislature. “He said, ‘Hey, did you know they’re going to build a freeway through here?’” Wiley recalls. “I said, ‘A freeway? Why did they build these homes for us if they’re bringing a freeway through?’”

The freeway was the I-49 Inner-City Connector, a 3.5-mile stretch of roadway designed to link two existing segments of I-49 north and south of the city. It had appeared as a line on planning maps going back to the 1960s but had never been built; older members of the community had heard talk about it since the 1990s. Now it looked like it was really coming: A coalition of local officials and business leaders had revived the ICC, pitching the highway as a conduit to jobs and development for Shreveport, which had been losing population since the 1980s.

Shortly after Burrell told Wiley about the project, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development published maps of four proposed routes, all of which curved through the heart of Allendale.

“The area that it covers is a lot of blighted area. It could be revitalized,” says State Senator Greg Tarver, another ICC proponent. “It would eliminate a lot of blighted areas.” (Burrell did not respond to a request for comment.)

The promise that a freeway could fix a neighborhood has historic echoes: In the 1950s, city after city used the promise of blight elimination to guide highways through urban cores. But “blight” didn’t just refer to the physical landscape. One recent study found that neighborhoods that had been redlined in the 1930s — deemed “hazardous” by federal property appraisers because they had higher concentrations of Black and Hispanic people — were three times more likely to have an interstate routed through them than the best-rated neighborhoods, which were largely white.

Acknowledging the racism embedded in many of these roads has emerged as an official federal policy: In June, US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg launched the Reconnecting Communities program, which allocated $1 billion to reconnect neighborhoods divided by highways. “We can’t ignore the basic truth that some of the planners and politicians … built them directly through the heart of vibrant, populated, communities — sometimes in an effort to reinforce segregation,” he said. “Sometimes because the people there had less power to resist. And sometimes as part of a direct effort to replace or eliminate Black neighborhoods.”

Buttigieg and President Joe Biden have committed to repairing this harm, which is usually referred to in the past tense. But in Allendale, many residents see the Inner-City Connector as a contemporary variation on this pattern — a low-income Black neighborhood threatened with destruction to save drivers a few minutes of travel time. And they built a coalition of their own to resist.


A Neighborhood Revival, Interrupted

The Allendale that Rosie Chaffold moved to in the late 1960s was a majority-Black neighborhood full of families in tidy shotgun homes. There were doctors and dentists, half a dozen churches, a grocery store and an elementary school for her kids within walking distance of her home. “It was a gorgeous place when I came,” says Chaffold, now 89. “The folks in the neighborhood took a lot of pride in their houses and their surroundings.”

Things began to change in the 1980s. Younger people moved out, and when older residents died, their houses were rented out or left vacant. The crack cocaine epidemic arrived; crime increased. The breakdown was gradual, Chaffold says. “Not overnight, but little by little, until every day you could just see the change in the atmosphere. It just kept getting worse and worse and no one was doing anything about it.”

The population of Allendale plummeted, declining from just over 12,000 people in 1980 to just under 6,000 in 2000. Today, less than 5,000 residents remain. Chaffold thought about leaving, too, but there was nowhere she could afford to go, she says.

In the early 2000s, a faith-based nonprofit called Community Renewal opened two after-school centers called Friendship Houses in Allendale. “When we came here, it was the most dangerous place in the city,” says Kim Mitchell, an architect and city planner who now directs the Center for Community Renewal. “The police chief said, ‘Don’t put your people there — we don’t even respond to calls in that area.’”

They did anyway, reaching out to residents like Chaffold to see how they might help.

One day in 2001, Chaffold called the owner of a vacant lot on the corner of Buena Vista Street and Allen Avenue and asked him if she could use his property. Every morning for weeks, she worked at the lot, pulling weeds, building garden beds and planting seeds. She put up a sign with painted wood letters: Allendale Garden of Hope and Love.

“If there was a turning point for Allendale, it was the garden,” Mitchell says.

After Katrina, volunteers began arriving from across the country to build houses for hurricane evacuees — some went door-to-door and offered to help existing homeowners like Chaffold with basic repairs, fixing up porches and painting houses. Neighbors met for cookouts in Swepco Park, a hilly expanse named for the power plant across the street. Property values started to rise. Crime decreased. Slowly, Allendale started to feel like a community again.

“When we began to build in that community, I could see hope and opportunity for other residents who lived in that community,” says Lee Jeter, the executive director of the Fuller Center of Northwest Louisiana. “It was a total transformational effort. It was an effort that I felt like everybody in the city should have been behind.”

But around 2009, the idea of the Inner-City Connector re-emerged. It had never really gone away, but prior to then local leaders had focused their political energy on securing funding to build the sections of the highway extending north and south from the city, says Cedric Glover, who was mayor of Shreveport from 2006 to 2014 and now serves in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

Interstate 49 opened south of Shreveport in 1996. Fifteen years later, the northern section extending to the Arkansas state line was fully funded and ready to break ground — and the case for completing the link started to gain momentum. “At that point, the question became: What’s next?” Glover says. “That’s when those interests began to once again realign and beat that drum and attempt to try to push this project forward.”

As highway talk picked up, revitalization ground to a halt, Jeter says: No one wanted to invest in a neighborhood that would soon be demolished. The Fuller Center had acquired an additional 20 tax-delinquent properties from the City of Shreveport that they planned to build homes on. Soon, their funding dried up. “Some of our major funders in the community expressed their concern about us putting money in a community and building the houses that may eventually be torn down because of the interstate,” Jeter says. “They felt that would not be the best use of their resources.”

Glover recalls how he oversaw the construction of a mixed-income apartment complex called The Renaissance at Allendale, which replaced a public housing complex that had been demolished in 2006. The two-story garden-style complex, which opened in 2014, was intended to be the first phase of the site’s redevelopment, which would eventually include 120 affordable homes. But when Glover left office, that too was halted — located just north of the I-49 terminus, the site was now in the path of the proposed Inner-City Connector.


Firing Up a Freeway Revolt 

On a warm evening in October, Wiley stood behind a fold-out table, filling styrofoam containers with hamburgers and hot dogs and baked beans thick with pork. Allendale was celebrating the National Night Out, an annual event that aims to build community and improve relations between residents and law enforcement. Neighbors filtered through and sat at metal picnic tables as music pumped through a nearby loudspeaker. A dozen kids clambered through the jungle gym on the edge of a small park, built adjacent to one of Community Renewal’s Friendship Houses and in the path of the proposed highway.

Before Wiley, who is 68, moved back to Louisiana, she lived in Portland, Oregon, where she watched as gentrification swept through her majority-Black neighborhood. When the Inner-City Connector re-emerged, she wasn’t about to let the highway displace her yet again.

In 2012, with the help of Mitchell, Wiley started what she called “a learning-doing community,” inviting neighbors over to read about how highways had decimated Black neighborhoods decades ago, how sprawl had devalued downtowns, and how some neighborhoods had successfully resisted highway expansions. Opponents of the ICC started showing up to meetings of the Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments (NLCOG), the region’s metropolitan planning organization, to press for an alternative. At first, they called themselves Loop It — an appeal to divert the roadway around Allendale to an existing loop highway, and a statement of defiance aimed at the project’s proponents. Then they started calling themselves Allendale Strong.

“If we can’t stop it, at least they know they have a challenge,” Wiley says.

Across the US, a new wave of highway revolts has emerged in recent years, motivated by racial justice as well as concerns about climate change. In Portland, for example, high-school students staged protests outside the Oregon Department of Transportation for the better part of two years in an effort to halt the expansion of Interstate 5. In 2022, the nonprofit Congress for a New Urbanism launched a national freeway fighters network, which includes more than 80 local and grassroots campaigns fighting highway expansions.

In 2016, Allendale found a powerful ally in Charles Marohn, founder of the nonprofit Strong Towns, which advocates for financially sustainable development. Wiley invited Marohn, a civil engineer and critic of US road-building policy, to Shreveport to look at the proposal. “The idea that this project would have any audience at all in Washington, DC, is an abject rejection of all the values that they have said they stand for,” Marohn says. “The fact that it has not been killed yet is really a statement on how powerful these types of projects can be.”

Boosters of the project countered with an economic impact study, published by NLCOG in 2016, that concluded the highway represented an annual economic benefit of $802 million by saving commuters time (on average, 3.2 minutes every day), opening up new land for development and making it easier for people to find good jobs.

Marohn strongly disputes the figure. “This report is … fraud is a very strong word,” he says. “It’s fraudulent in the sense that it asserts a dollar benefit that doesn’t actually exist and everybody in the system knows that it doesn’t exist.” The shorter commutes that the ICC promises shouldn’t be considered directly equivalent to increased household incomes: Shave 3.2 minutes off your daily drive to work and your bank account is not credited with 3.2 minutes worth of wages, Marohn says. And he questioned the report’s estimate that increased speeds of 10% would boost labor productivity 2.9%, to the tune of $60 million annually. The claim is attributed to a 1999 study of 23 French cities; while the study’s authors concluded that speed can make labor markets more efficient, sprawl has the opposite effect.

Marohn was also struck by the small number of drivers the ICC was projected to attract. NLCOG estimated that only 235 cars would travel the entire 3.5-mile stretch of new highway daily; an additional 3,374 commuter vehicles would use a portion of the road, bringing its daily total to a projected 3,609 trips.

“It’s almost offensive the level of traffic that they’re serving here,” Marohn says. “The investment is so radically out of proportion to any potential benefit.”

In an email response, Kent Rogers, the executive director of NLCOG, defended the study, writing that the “evaluation of corridors has and continues the consideration of multiple community impacts including but not limited to residential structures, commercial structures, churches, parks, and community facilities.” He stressed that the ICC planning process included “extensive public outreach.”

Shawn Wilson, the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did a spokesperson for the department. Last September, Wilson told the Bossier Chamber of Commerce that some of the “winners” of President Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act “will be things like the Inner-City Connector,” which Wilson estimated would cost $865 million.

In November 2021, Glover wrote an open letter to President Biden, published in the Shreveport Times, calling the unbuilt highway an “interstate highway version of the Sword of Damocles that has been hung over the Allendale neighborhood for more than three decades” and imploring the US Department of Transportation to step in and kill the project.

“You’ve got a progressive superstar heading up the Department of Transportation, someone who would have the standing and capacity to step in the room and be able to say: This is not a part of our values, we’ve learned these lessons, this won’t go any further under this administration,” Glover says. “I’ve not gotten any indication to this point that that’s the case.”

The same month Glover published his letter, Wiley sent a letter to the Federal Highway Administration on behalf of the group alleging that NLCOG had violated the community’s rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by moving forward with the highway, disproportionately harming a majority Black community. In December 2021, a federal investigator was assigned to their case. In a statement, FHWA said it was committed to the Biden administration’s equity and environmental justice goals, and the Title VI complaints are in the early stages of the investigation process.

Federal transportation law, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, gives wide latitude to states like Louisiana to select their own highway projects. FHWA does ensure that federally funded road projects comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, but until the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development produces an environmental impact statement, or EIS, documenting the specific impacts of the proposed highway — including residences, businesses, and historic structures that would be displaced — FHWA has limited authority to intervene. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has been working to prepare a draft EIS since 2016, according to a website for the project.

A USDOT spokesperson also said that the department encourages states to improve their existing highway infrastructure. But selecting which projects to build is firmly in the hands of state transportation departments.


An Alternative Emerges

Local leaders remain split on the ICC. In September 2022, Wiley hosted a forum in Allendale for mayoral candidates, asking about their position on the ICC. The race ultimately pitted Greg Tarver, a Democrat and ICC supporter, against GOP candidate Tom Arceneaux, a former city councilman. “To the extent that the people of Allendale feel that they’re left out, the most important thing a mayor can do is spend time and listen,” said Arceneaux, who prevailed in the December run-off and was sworn in as mayor at the end of the year.

“The real damage of this project is not that it ever actually happens,” says Glover, who watched as four governors fought to get I-49 North funded. There is no such high-level champion for the Inner-City Connector today, he says. “Recognizing what those funding challenges are tells me it likely does not happen. But by just simply coming up with a record of decision and designating the corridor, means that, if you never end up pouring an ounce of concrete, you still killed Allendale. There will be no growth and no development, no opportunity to be able to bring people back to that neighborhood.”

In January, NLCOG announced it was considering a new alternative route for the ICC, which would swing north and then west, bypassing Allendale. Wiley celebrated when she heard the news. “It’s just like a deep breath of relief,” she says.

But the new proposed route requires an environmental and engineering study, which is likely to take months. And it stands to transfer the negative impacts of the highway to another part of the city: Already, Shreveport’s downtown development authority has questioned the new alignment, which runs adjacent to the McNeil Street Pumping Station, a National Historic Landmark.

As the battle over the Inner-City Connector continues, many of those who started Allendale Strong with Wiley have moved on, worn down by the long bureaucracy of highway projects. “That’s what it’s for, to burn us out,” she says.

Wiley, too, is tired. But she is a woman of faith and she believes that God has a purpose for her — and that her purpose is to fight this highway. Whenever she gets tired of being the light on the hill, she says, God sends someone to help her.

Last spring, she found inspiration when she traveled to Oklahoma City for a conference hosted by the Congress for a New Urbanism, which started a campaign to tear down urban highways more than two decades ago. She met other activists in cities across the country. “I was like, ‘All these people are fighting for the same thing? That’s a lot of people!’” she says. “Why isn’t our governmental body hearing us?”

Back at the National Night Out picnic, as Wiley assembled plates of food, she listened to her neighbors talk. Some were still fatalistic about the highway. “They gonna do what they gonna do,” said Rebecca Scott, a member of Allendale Strong and Wiley’s cousin.

This attitude animated Wiley. “You have a voice!” she told her neighbors. When they told her they didn’t know what to say, she responded: “Tell them to get out of your damn neighborhood!”


Megan Kimble is a journalist, author, and editor based in Austin, Texas.

Co-published with Bloomberg City Lab.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Megan Kimble is an Austin-based journalist, author, and editor. Formerly the executive editor at the Texas Observer, a statewide nonprofit news outlet, she has written about housing, transportation, and urban development for The New York Times, Texas Monthly, The Guardian, The Nation, and Bloomberg’s CityLab.

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