Paving The Way – The I-496 Project
Each day tens of thousands of vehicles zip across I-496, Lansing’s cross-town expressway. It’s convenient, safe and easy. Like most of us, the drivers don’t give a second thought about its history or the transformation the construction of I-496 had on the city and its people when it was completed in 1970. That could soon change.
The Historical Society of Greater Lansing (HSGL), in cooperation with the city of Lansing and using a National Parks Service Grant, is exploring the impact the 11.9-mile ribbon of concrete imposed on Lansing and its nearby suburbs.
During the next 18 months HSGL is telling some of that story by conducting scores of oral histories of residents; creating a web-based interactive map showing which houses were torn down and where the families moved; creating a digital portal with the Library of Michigan to host research materials; creating a scrapbook detailing the construction and its disruption; mounting a traveling exhibit that will visually tell the story; and producing a short documentary.
HSGL also will be working with the Capital Area District Library, the Library of Michigan, and the Archives of Michigan to preserve photographs, ephemera, and objects from that place and era, so they may be seen by residents and historians in another 50 years.
The research project and storytelling will detail the impact I-496 had on the desegregation of Lansing and the success the Westside neighborhood had fighting redlining and promoting open housing at a time when homes in nearby cities and suburbs were closed to minorities.
Just decades after the advent of the automobile, city planners promoted expressways as the key to renewing overcrowded cities. New York City’s indomitable city planner Robert Moses was one of the first to see expressways as one way of overcoming urban problems. Moses became the worker’s hero as he built parkways to take weary workers to the nearby beaches on weekends, but when he tried to build a cross town expressway through the heart of Manhattan he came face to face with the community organizer Jane Jacobs whose efforts helped block the expressway.
Moses thought he was doing the people’s bidding. The 1939 World’s Fair, which was held in New York City, featured Futurama, an exhibit by General Motors that promoted the open road. GM’s Futurama saw millions of visitor cueing up to watch a 16-minute dramatic presentation on what was called Magic Motorways. Over its year-long run more than 3 million visitors became acolytes for ribbons of highways leading to the future.
Although somewhat derailed World War II, the open road was stretching before us. In fact the war effort showed America how beneficial expressways could be when a stretch of highway between Detroit and the Willow Run Bomber Plant was built to supply people and the materials to build the B-25 bomber. After the war, President Eisenhower, often called the “father of the interstate system,” would promote their construction as a way to quickly evacuate cities to survive a nuclear war. But more important was the federal largesse that would pay 90 percent of the construction costs for modern expressways.
Lansing, like scores of other major cities across the United States, saw expressways as the road to success. The city’s 1958 Comprehensive Master Plan provided a glimpse at a cross-town expressway that would become I-496. The future had arrived. The Master Plan also predicted that Lansing’s burgeoning population would surpass 250,000 by 1980.
Construction on I-496 began in 1963, and the expressway would ultimately dead-end 35 streets, create a myriad of one-way streets needed for on and off ramps, and determine future development. In the path of the proposed expressway were more than 800 homes and businesses that needed to be acquired through eminent domain, ceding the property to the state.
I-496 would be built in eight years, becoming the first expressway to use berms in place of concrete walls. Construction problems were insignificant when compared to the major problem of relocating residents to other neighborhoods, which was further complicated by racial segregation. A vast majority of the families were African American and had lived in the St Joseph-Main Street corridor for decades. Many had relocated to Lansing to take jobs with Oldsmobile and other auto-related businesses. Around the neighborhood had grown up a network of churches, small businesses, and social clubs that catered to African Americans.
Despite its economic vitality, the area was considered disposable. A city-wide effort was organized to aid in relocation assistance, but since relocation was limited by real estate covenants, most residents were forced into apartments or small homes on the city’s Southside or on the near Westside. What isn’t often talked about is the destruction of social connections, friendships and relationships. By taking out the 700 block of each north/south cross street and creating dead-ends, neighborhoods were cut in half.
African Americans hastily moving into mostly all-white neighborhoods often resulted in white flight and discriminatory real estate practices. HSGL, through oral histories and records research, will shine a light on this time, but also will consider the efforts individuals, such as Westside-resident Ann Kron, undertook to fight segregation and discrimination. Kron helped found the Westside Neighborhood Association, the city’s first neighborhood group, which is still an active force in neighborhood politics.
One point that needs to be underscored is that the story of the impact of I-496 must be told through the eyes of those who lived there and through their original and unique voices. That’s why one of the most important features of the project is gathering those voices through audio and video interviews that can be archived for later use. An advisory committee of more than 30 community members has been selected by Mayor Andy Schor to assist in this endeavor and to provide oversight and consultation to the many volunteers who will be working on the project.
The team of Adolph Burton and Kenny Turner, lifetime residents of Lansing, have already conducted video interviews of more than a dozen residents who experienced the dislocation first hand. Greg Eaton, Bill Letts, Wella Tarwater, Olivia Letts, Walter Baecker and others take us back more than 50 years telling poignant stories about a once vibrant neighborhood.