On September 15, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it would spend $104.7 million not to build a road, but to tear down a “racist” road. Interstate 375, a one-mile sunken freeway with 15 bridges crossing it, forms one end of a rectangle around Detroit’s downtown. It will be lifted to a slower-speed boulevard, a third of which will be paid for with federal money.
I-375 has long been criticized as having displaced black homes and businesses in an area known as Black Bottom in the early 1960s. Originally a home to mostly Jewish immigrants, the area became home to many black residents during the 1920s and 1930s. But the Great Depression struck Detroit’s manufacturing industry and Black Bottom hard. Despite today’s fond portrait of the neighborhood, in the 1940s, Black Bottom was seriously dilapidated. Absentee landlords owned 90% of homes and took advantage of race-based housing shortages to charge excessive rent, causing multiple families to live in a single dwelling. The wood-framed houses built for an influx of immigrants in the 1850s were fire hazards way past their life expectancy. Few homes had running water or bathrooms, using a seat placed over the sewer instead. Rats roamed freely. The adjoining entertainment district called Paradise Valley was lively, but not without a hefty share of prostitution and crime.
To increase property values and incentivize investment in downtown Detroit, city leaders created the 1946 Detroit Plan, which involved bulldozing the Black Bottom community to build higher-density housing, parks, and I-375.
The flattening of Black Bottom — particularly for the highway — has been criticized as destroying “black wealth that could have been passed down from one generation to another, helping to sustain one generation after another.”
Detroit has not thrived since the Detroit Plan. Today, the average home value is only $52,700, compared to almost $230,000 nationwide. Only 55% of people work, and the median household income is $32,500, far lower than the $65,000 U.S. median.
But today, I-375 is not the key cause of Detroit’s problems, or of cyclical poverty more broadly. After all, the vast majority of demolished Black Bottom homes were slums owned by outside landlords, not black-owned properties to be passed down to the next generation. And even if the homes were locally owned, generational wealth is not how prosperity generally works in the United States. Only 3% of today’s millionaires received an inheritance at or above $1 million. The average inheritance in the United States is $55,000, and people aren’t receiving it until their 50s, well after they’ve already built a career, or failed to. The vast majority of wealth in America is self-made, not inherited.
Of course, no one deserves to be forcibly moved from his home without warning and nowhere to go. Property rights should be protected, or so at least conservatives believe. It’s liberals who today shrug at protecting property, despite billions in damage during the George Floyd riots heavily shouldered by minority-owned businesses.
Instead of focusing our ire on I-375, let’s re-evaluate how we lift people, especially minorities who are disproportionately poor, out of cyclical poverty. It’s not a road issue. Beautiful, non-racist roads and bridges will follow prosperity, i.e. taxes. But what builds prosperity?
The formula for financial success in America involves three steps: get at least a high school education, work full time, and marry before having children. Among Millennials who followed this sequence, 97% are not poor when they reach adulthood. This formula holds across race and class. The vast majority of black (96%) and Hispanic (97%) Millennials who followed this sequence are not poor in their mid-30s, similar to the 94% of Millennials who grew up in lower-income families.
Unfortunately, adherence to the formula is headed in the wrong direction. The rate of out-of-wedlock birth for black babies is now north of 70 percent, up from 24 percent in 1963. But we aren’t talking about that. We’re talking about roads.
I have no problem eliminating unnecessary interstates. Detroit’s population peaked at 1.85 million in 1950, around the time that construction began on I-375. It has since dwindled to 600,000. So by all means, turn I-375 into a boulevard; it’s hard to even consider it a waste of federal funds by today’s bloated comparisons.
But don’t pretend that any of this serves black communities. This investment is a messaging stunt, to paint past policies as racist rather than focus on what’s harming black families today. And that’s liberal policies. Detroit has been run exclusively by Democrat mayors for the past 60 years and just received the worst ranking for places to raise a family.
America’s urban communities have wasted enough time fawning over Democratic talking points while they deal with violent crime, failing schools, and low-paying jobs. Real leaders don’t lie about solutions. Poor communities need fathers. Employers. School choice. Cops. Only once we have those things, should we be chatting boulevards.