Tommy Fletcher moved to Spokane in the 1940s from Jim Crow Arkansas, at a time when individual and institutional racism had put very strict boundaries around housing options for African-Americans here.
Red-lining was in full effect. Housing covenants in many neighborhoods created explicitly all-white zones. Black residents would sometimes find themselves the objects of subtle or blatant bigotry from their white neighbors – ugly petitions, hateful signs, undisguised contempt.
“It was quite difficult, I have to tell you like it is,” Fletcher said in an oral history interview in 2014 for Spokane Historical, a public history website. “We couldn’t buy a house in South Hill because of color.”
Fletcher, who died in 2018, moved to East Central, as did many members of Spokane’s relatively small Black community. Though it was one of the most impoverished parts of town, the neighborhood flourished in many ways. Businesses thrived along the busy throughway of East Sprague and elsewhere, and residents talked of strong social connections and a peaceful, amiable atmosphere.
Then came the freeway – the symbol of growth and progress, though not for everyone. The construction of Interstate 90 in the late 1950s and ’60s had a devastating effect on East Central. Hundreds of people sold homes to the state or lost them to condemnations – paid a market rate that wouldn’t help them much in other neighborhoods. Liberty Park, once a jewel in the crown of the city’s park system, was broken up. Business-supporting traffic was siphoned away from East Sprague.
The freeway divided the neighborhood in ways that affect it still.
If infrastructure broke apart East Central in the past, however, local leaders are hoping that new infrastructure projects can help stitch it back together. As work on the half-done North-South freeway progresses toward East Central – where it will connect to I-90 and where residents are wary of bearing the brunt of another project promising progress – plans to help reconnect the neighborhood and spur housing development are under discussion.
That may include the Washington Department of Transportation returning some land for low-income housing or other neighborhood purposes, and constructing a bike/pedestrian bridge connecting south East Central to the business district on East Sprague – though both ideas are nowhere approaching finality.
Meanwhile, the city’s Fifth Avenue Initiative is laying the groundwork for the kind of street, business and quality-of-life improvements that have been carried out in other neighborhoods.
“We’ve done it on South Perry, Market Street, North Monroe,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who represents the portion of East Central south of the freeway. “If we continue down this path of making our neighborhoods whole and vibrant, this would be the logical next step.”
A couple of weeks back, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that “there is racism physically built into some of our highways,” sparking a short-lived right-wing dustup among those who declared such a thing impossible.
But the history of the interstate freeway system, built following the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, could not be a clearer example of the ways in which racial hierarchies were reinforced and deepened. The freeways brought great change, much of it positive. But the neighborhoods that bore the consequences of the change were frequently occupied by poor Americans and people of color.
In cities across the country, the freeways were routed through “blighted” neighborhoods and away from wealthy and middle-class areas. The result of this, again and again, was to destroy and divide neighborhoods largely occupied by people of color, and to reinforce existing social divisions, as many researchers and journalists have demonstrated. In some instances, city leaders were explicit in their intent to clear out “slums” with interstate projects whose generational effects on Black neighborhoods are felt to this day.
In 2015, writing in the journal New Visions for Public, one review of the literature summed up: “A growing body of research has addressed the racial effects of the landmark federal (freeway) initiative, with many academics alleging that the system’s construction constituted, at least in some cities, a civil rights violation that served to formalize Jim Crow-era discriminatory patterns and some of the original racial boundaries imposed in some urban spaces.”
When Spokane officials were considering where to route the freeway, they considered three routes, according to Spokane Historical – “one winding over the South Hill, one travelling through the relative flat lands north of the Spokane River, and the last cutting through the East Central neighborhood.”
The latter options quickly became the favorite.
“It’s not hard to understand why,” according to the Spokane Historical oral history, which was conducted by the Spokane Regional Health District’s Neighborhoods Matter Project and Frank Oesterheld.
“From the beginning, national planners understood that the construction of a system of interstate highways would cause major disruptions; the only question was which areas should bear the burden. To many, the answer was obvious. Studies indicate that ‘the victims of highway building tended to be overwhelmingly poor and black’ partly because these neighborhoods occupied the cheapest land and were usually sheltered by the weakest political representation.”
The results were devastating for East Central. The freeway split the neighborhood, cutting off those on the south side of the interstate from the East Sprague business district on the north. That district suffered a loss of traffic; many businesses closed. More than a thousand homes were razed to make way for the project, and though homeowners were reimbursed, they were often forced to abandon the neighborhood. Liberty Park – a jewel of the city park system in the days before Riverfront Park even existed – was decimated.
“The freeway truly impacted the community,” longtime resident Jerome Green told Spokane Historical. “It dispersed families. It was a total division between the north part of Spokane and the south part of Spokane.”
On the horizon
Betsy Wilkerson, who grew up in East Central and now sits on the City Council, said she has joked with her aide about inviting Buttigieg to visit Spokane if he’s looking for further examples of the way highway construction can have a racist impact.
“We think we are such a great example of how highway development significantly impacted low-income communities,” she said.
Wilkerson is dedicated to advocating for her home neighborhood, and she’s optimistic that city plans for Fifth Avenue might be a catalyst to help improve it.
The city plan envisions that stretch of East Central, which is home to Fresh Soul, a restaurant and job-training program, and the future Carl Maxey Center, returning to its former prominence as a central business district for the neighborhood. The initiative also proposes building on some of the recent investments and community partnerships in the neighborhood.
Wilkerson is also eager to hear from WSDOT about some possibilities woven into the North Spokane Corridor project. One of these involves possible unused land that WSDOT acquired years ago but may no longer need as the freeway plans evolve. The agency bought land and more than 200 homes in preparation for the highway.
One of the priorities for Wilkerson and Kinnear is to find ways to increase development and add housing to the neighborhood, and they hope that some of the no-longer-needed land can be used in such an effort.
Mike Gribner, regional administrator for WSDOT, said that it’s premature to say for certain what land might be available for what purpose – but he anticipates that some land the agency acquired years ago will not be needed in the final freeway work.
The agency has been in discussions with city leaders and others about possible uses for the land, including housing or public spaces like parks, but there are a lot of questions remaining, such as “how would we get it into the city’s hands, for example, or organizations that support low-income housing?”
“My view is we will end up getting there, but we are not yet there,” Gribner said.
The plan for a new skywalk-type of structure is similarly in the very early stages. WSDOT is considering applying for the grant to fund such a project, which would be used to extend the Children of the Sun Trail that parallels the freeway.
However the plans unfold, though, Gribner said his agency is pursuing the freeway plan with an attention to neighborhood considerations – a focus on “place-making” all along the route, guided by an Eastern Washington University team – that will include paying attention to the past divisions wrought by I-90.
“In East Central, part of the conversation is leaning toward how do we fix some of this bifurcation,” he said.
If the agency is able to do that, it will be writing a happier chapter in the story of the relationship between East Central and the freeway that runs through it.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509) 459-5431.