The problem has never entirely gone away, but it became a little less acute 50 years ago this month, when the National Environmental Policy Act was enacted.
Communities bulldozed by construction undertaken in the name of progress before the act would have relished the chance to have a say in their fate, even if their outcry wouldn’t have changed the outcome.
That’s certainly true for my own relatives: The quiet residential community in South Florida where my grandparents owned a single-story wood frame house was shattered during the 1960s by construction of Interstate 95.
Work crews leveled about half their neighborhood in the Pompano Beach area for construction on the massive highway, the major north-south thoroughfare running from Maine to Florida.
It came as a surprise to no one that the multilane interstate, with its noise and exhaust, was built through the poorer and blacker parts of Pompano Beach. The construction lopped off part of my grandparents’ property, although their home was spared. My grandfather had supplemented the family income for decades to pay for the property, scratching out a living raising sugar cane, beans, avocado, poultry. They were fairly compensated for the land, according to relatives. But it’s not as if they had any choice in the matter.
And dozens of other homes and businesses — about half the properties in the neighborhood — were destroyed. Some Pompano businesses were spared the wrecking ball but eventually were forced to close after losing a substantial portion of their customer base.
Kenneth Thurston is now the mayor of the city of Lauderhill, Florida, just a few miles from Pompano. He’s also my uncle, my mother’s brother, raised by my grandparents in the same modest wood frame house where they raised all 13 of their children. He saw many homes just like theirs demolished. I asked him to recount for me how a huge swath of “black Pompano” — the predominantly African American part of town — came to be razed.
“It was a little bit more than 50 years ago. I remember coming home from college my first year, which was 1968, and seeing houses being torn down to make way for the new expressway,” he recalled.
“The properties were taken by eminent domain in order to build the highway.”
It’s hard to say if NEPA had been in place in the late 1960s whether it might have made a difference.
Still, having the law was critical, especially in the Jim Crow South, where during the era of redlining, black families were forced to build their homes in the least desirable parts of town.
These undesirable locations, coupled with the general disenfranchisement of black people, made it a given that, commonly, the mere fact that a community was predominantly black would have been enough to depress home values in the eyes of the government.
And if something is deemed to be without valuable, you have no problem knocking it down.
Rondo was a vibrant, mostly black community that sprang up during the Great Migration of African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South. It became an oasis of working and middle class families and one of the most dynamic black communities west of the Mississippi. That changed when officials routed the interstate right through the neighborhood.
“The freeway found us and wiped us out,” Marvin Anderson, a lifelong resident of the community, told me.
What made the destruction of Rondo so appalling is that there was another viable construction route for I-94, along an abandoned railroad track to the north of the community.
“Rondo is a cautionary tale. That’s going to happen again and again and again if those … regulations are watered down or eliminated from consideration,” Anderson said.
In Trump’s vision, the laws remain on the books but would be rendered far less effective. The position that the administration is using is that it plans to streamline the law through regulatory changes, since approval from Congress is needed before any fundamental changes to the statute itself can be made.
It could also reduce the types of projects that get reviewed, allowing for many more projects to proceed without information from the public or analysis of how the project will impact cultural sites, air or water.
Trump’s allies in big business, meanwhile, are elated at the prospect of defanging NEPA, which has long been opposed by developers and interests in the fossil fuel industry.
The Trump administration has done so at the cost of vulnerable poor people and communities of color, but in a broader sense, he’s done it at the cost of all of us.
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