Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A case study in local infrastructure, racial inequality, and civic activism.
Without a doubt, the urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 1970s hit low-income neighborhoods of color hardest. All over the U.S., city officials targeted these kinds of communities as “blighted” risks to growing, suburbanizing cities. The effects of these projects still reverberate today.
Less visible in the history of urban renewal is how it extended to well-off neighborhoods, too. Residents of both types of areas fought for their communities—a form of civic engagement that influenced how cities are shaped today. But the same activist strategies that worked for privileged communities often failed for minority ones.
Courtlandt Place and the Third Ward
In 1970s Houston, for example, “actors in two different communities used similar rhetoric and actions to conceptualize their position against the city’s,” says Kyle Shelton, a postdoctoral research fellow in the history of infrastructure at Rice University’s Kinder Institute. Shelton recently published a paper in the Journal of Urban History about that era in Houston’s history and the brand of activism that emerged.
Take the wealthy, white Houston neighborhood of Courtlandt Place, established in the early 1900s. With large, stately homes, pristine sidewalks, and elegant gates on either end, the area was something of a proto-suburb—one within walking distance of Houston’s downtown core. But when postwar suburbanization hit the city, new communities outside the highway “loop” attracted younger, well-off families away from Courtlandt and similar neighborhoods nearby. As its surroundings commercialized, Courtlandt entered a gentle decline, which its aging residents did little to resist.
Then urban renewal swept through Houston. Aging Courtlandt Place seemed like a practical spot to run a spur off U.S. Route 59. Construction began, clipping off a handful of backyards and one of the community’s beloved old gates. That’s what took the threats to the neighborhood’s prestige and property values to a whole new level, and activated some of the younger residents to protect their turf.
“They staged protests, wrote letters, and attended countless public meetings,” writes Shelton. “They organized historic preservation campaigns, lobbied city officials, and paid for independent planning efforts.”
Most of all, Shelton says, the Courtlandt Place residents articulated their community as a place not in decay, but as one with a rich legacy, worth saving.
Meanwhile, residents of the Third Ward, a low-income, African-American and Latino neighborhood a couple miles east of Courtlandt Place, were engaging the city in a similar way. Known as the “Park Avenue of black Houston” in the early 20th century, the Third Ward of the 1960s had high crime, a trash problem, and buildings in disrepair. Officials believed that an expanded Interstate 45 would bring economic “progress” to the community, even as construction would claim nearly 200 homes and split the neighborhood in two.
Third Ward residents pushed back hard against the widened road. “[I]n meeting after meeting, Third Warders offered a vision of their neighborhood as tight-knit, vibrant, and historically important,” writes Shelton. “They accused officials of purposefully underfunding infrastructure in the Third Ward to produce problems that would justify further displacement.” They even campaigned for historical designation—the same kinds tactics that Courtlandt Place locals used, too.
The vision of the Third Ward that activists presented was not outright ignored by Houston planners. But the interstate was widened in the end. Residents were displaced, the community was severed, and long economic decline followed. On the other hand, residents of Courtlandt Place gained federal designation as a historic district, protecting their homes from commercial developers. Today it’s more or less back to being the desirable suburban-esque community of its past.
“There’s an undeniable link between race and class, and how that translates to decision-making,” Shelton says. Equipped with greater financial and social capital, the white, wealthy residents of Courtlandt were able to direct outcomes in a way that low-income minorities of the Third Ward were not.
Differing outcomes aside, both groups engaged in a particular mode of civic activism that Shelton sees as understated in the history of cities. He terms it “infrastructural citizenship,” defined by a set of actions and rhetoric that people use to advocate for their neighborhood’s physical characteristics, especially when a new form of infrastructure threatens them.
Shelton says that this kind of “infrastructural citizenship” could have only come about after the postwar era, when the twin forces of suburbanization and urban renewal were at play, and the gains of the Civil Rights era buttressed the power of civic action for minorities (even if it was ultimately constrained by other discriminatory social forces).
“Americans could really start to enter into civic conversation in a way that they couldn’t before,” says Shelton. “All those things were overlapping with big infrastructure decisions.”
As a term, “infrastructural citizenship” has a ring of academic wonkery. But its effects really count. Buildings, streets, rails, highways—these elements create the lasting form of any city, as well as the opportunities available to its residents. A city’s infrastructure is usually viewed as the top-down products of mayors, planners, and developers. But what exists in the built environment—and what doesn’t exist—can also be viewed through the lens of infrastructural citizenship. Shelton writes:
It acknowledges the possibility that a single highway could bring promise or dread depending upon the location of an off-ramp. A community of residents may have supported a road because it brought them into town more quickly. Another may have rejected it because it cut them off from a school or grocery store.
Looking around today, it’s easy to see how much infrastructural citizenship still matters, for better or worse. In Los Angeles, wealthy West Side citizens have resisted the expansion of Metro railways for years. In Washington, D.C., members of one church have rallied vigorously against the construction of nearby bike lanes. In both instances, citizens are invoking a certain vision of their neighborhood that they wish to preserve. The outcomes of their fights may ripple forward for decades to come.