280 Urban Freeway

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Urban interstates like 280 have come under intense scrutiny for the impact they have had on urban communities. As early as the 1940s, freeways like 280 were seen as solutions to a perceived problem of urban slums with blighted housing. Thomas MacDonald, director of the Bureau of Public Roads concluded that “it is happy circumstance that living conditions for the family can be re-established [in the new suburbs] and permit the social and economic decay at the heart of cities to be converted to a public asses” (in Mohl 200:231). However, just as highways began to be embraced by the public, President Truman severed the link between highways and housing leaving most of those displaced by highway construction with few options for relocation. Rather, highways like most other major urban renewal development were most effective in how they removed mostly poor and minority communities from inner city neighborhoods. The claim that “urban renewal was negro removal” proved to be mostly true. The problem, however, is since poor urban communities had little voice, most Americans agreed with the Highway Research Board’s 1962 conclusion that interstate highways were a “’positive social good’ ‘eating out slums’ and ‘reclaiming blighted areas’ for more productive civic uses” (Mohl 2000:23) afforded by reclaimed real estate.

A movement arose in the 1960s to challenge the ill effects of highway construction and urban renewal. This push back claimed in no uncertain terms that the displacement of minority, especially African American, communities by new urban development was a strategy for undermining their rising political influence. In Montgomery, Alabama Rev. George W. Curry stated that the route planned for Interstate 85 “was racially motivated to uproot a neighborhood of Negro leaders” (Mohl 2000: 238). In Camden, NJ, the State Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division concluded that highway construction and urban renewal were purposive attempts to “eliminate the Negro and Puerto Rican ghetto areas” (Mohl 2000: 239).

Those removed by highways like 280 were often relocated to new public housing, which may have provided new housing with better utilities, but served to isolate poor minority further from urban centers creating with Arnold Hirsch calls the second ghetto, which underwrites one of the principle means by which modern American cities have been sorted out by race and class.

Interstate 280 in Orange shared many of these same characteristics. It was planned as a route connecting Newark to the larger intestate network, especially the NJ Turnpike and  Interstate 80. Its path pushed the highway through established neighborhoods in Newark, East Orange and Orange, before crossing the First Mountain and entering much more lightly developed areas to the west.

In Orange the route for 280 cut through two historic working class communities. Both African Americans, living in a neighborhood anchored on Oakwood Avenue, and Italian Americans, living immediately to the west in neighborhood surrounding Centre and Essex Streets, had lived in Orange since the turn of the 20t century. In the 1960s, after two or more generations built successful vibrant urban enclaves, the construction of 280 cut though both neighborhoods effectively destroying them. Over 200 homes, business, churches, and community centers were demolished in Orange to make way for 280. These included several family-owned businesses that had provide for families and communities for more than 50 years.

Most Italian families left Orange, many moving west to settle in the new suburbs. While some stayed in Orange, many African Americans also left, though they were not openly welcomed in the suburbs so many moved to East Orange and Newark. This process intensified the segregation of communities by race so that by 1980, the majority of population in Orange and the surrounding cities in the urban core were nonwhite, while the western and northern suburbs white a vast majority white. The racial segregation of the region has only intensified since then. (data tables?)

From the beginning, the construction of 280 in Orange promoted calls for public housing so that the displaced could be relocated. This calls was answered with an urban renewal public housing project in the Washington-Doddtown area in the city’s North Ward. Construction for this housing began in 1963 with apartments opened for use in the next few years. While this public housing provided a relocation option for displaced Orange residents, it moved them to the edge of the city far from the urban center, jobs and public transportation.  

Many form residents of the African American and Italian American community were candid in their feelings that the route for 280 was chosen as a path of least resistance since their relatively poor neighborhoods held less power than those living elsewhere. African Americans were especially adamant that what has been reported in other cities as a deliberate effort to undermine African American political gains also happened in Orange. Citing the demolition of key community centers such as the “colored” YMCA and YWCA, the Friendship House as well as the several black owned business, several former residents believe the construction of 280 was the main cause for their community’s subsequent decline.    

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