When the neighborhood she grew up in, Boston’s Chinatown, was destroyed, Mary Yee was in elementary school.
Beginning in the late 1950s, the state built two sprawling freeways through the historic neighborhood, Interstates 93 and 90, and demolished hundreds of row houses and storefronts where working-class immigrants lived and thrived.
For the first time, Congress is addressing the negative effects of freeways. The federal infrastructure bill that was passed in November includes $1 billion for a five-year pilot program to reconnect communities that have been displaced by highway construction.
Yee remembered playing with other kids in the ruins of their homes, which were often infested with rats. The devastation prompted a mass exodus of families, including Yee’s, who believed they had lost everything they had worked so hard to achieve.
“The freeways obliterated our sense of community and social connections,” said Yee, who went on to work as a labor and housing organizer in Philadelphia. “Chinatown has turned into a ghost town.”
Families were given relocation money, according to Yee, but it was less than what they had paid for their previous homes.
The Chinese enclave in Boston is in the 90th percentile for traffic exposure when compared to the rest of the United States, resulting in the worst air quality and the highest childhood asthma rate in the state. It also has “the fewest parking spaces and the highest population density,” according to Liu. The 1956 Interstate Highway Act fueled a freeway construction boom that divided and destroyed many Black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods across the country. As a result of the construction and traffic that continues to affect residents today, Chinatowns, which are often located near downtown financial districts, have suffered some of the worst health and environmental consequences.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg highlighted the legacy of infrastructural racism in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, which the Vine Street Expressway has bisected for half a century, in a tweet about the package last year. “Our work to protect Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders must include infrastructure that keeps communities safe—and whole,” he wrote.
Grant money from the program, according to Chinatown organizers, can help support a variety of infrastructure projects to help rebuild their neighborhoods.
The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp.’s planning and project manager, Yue Wu, is leading an effort to design and build a partial cap over the Vine Street Expressway, which would provide space for much-needed affordable housing, parks, and pedestrian walkways.
Because the expressway separates schools and homes on the north side from the city’s main commercial corridor on the south, Wu says accessibility is a major concern. As a result, parents and children must cross a highway every day to get to school and go grocery shopping, according to Wu.
In the 1970s, Yee was a leader in the Save Chinatown movement, which campaigned against the expressway’s initial construction plans, which would have destroyed a church and a school, as well as hundreds of homes. If the pilot program funds Philadelphia, she hopes it will go toward affordable housing, senior centers, and other services that low-income residents desperately need.
From Seattle to Chicago, major interstates and other urban renewal projects ripped apart thriving Chinese enclaves, razing businesses, cultural institutions, and homes and uprooting hundreds of families.
In urban Chinatowns, proximity to interstates also causes traffic accidents. From 2015 to 2019, the enclave in Oakland, California, bordering Interstate 980, was home to a cluster of the city’s most dangerous roads, resulting in 137 pedestrian collisions. The city’s Transportation Department recently launched a multilingual outreach program to improve traffic safety in the neighborhood, thanks to a half-million-dollar grant.
According to Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust, the city should implement mitigation strategies to mitigate public health threats to residents, such as high-quality filtration systems in apartment buildings and noise-reducing sound walls on freeways.
Because the organization is a land trust, its primary goal is to purchase properties and convert them into permanently affordable homes for low-income immigrants. Organizers are also working to preserve historic structures and create more green spaces.
She explained, “We’re trying to re-energize the neighborhood next to the highway so it feels like a community again.”