Road construction means orange barrels and annoying traffic for most. But for dozens of low-income residents of color along interstates 26 and 526, it means being forced to leave their homes. It means uprooting ways of life and an unknown fate, all in the name of growth, quantified later in a sterile press release from some faceless office.
Infrastructure projects have long been billed as a method of ensuring economic prosperity, even as communities of color disproportionately shouldered negative impacts. In the shadow of Jim Crow South Carolina, Interstate 26 and the Crosstown Expressway sliced through the Charleston peninsula, with postwar national highway policy encouraging the development of white-flight suburbs. Black families that thrived in the area where the Septima P. Clark Expressway now runs were paid a pittance and booted from their homes. Dead ends like Poinsett Street downtown stand as monuments to an insensitive policy with racist outcomes that divided and displaced communities across South Carolina and the U.S.
New policies have made it harder for neighborhood-shattering projects to get rammed through, but past ills still lurk as growth rears its head and infrastructure projects are planned across Charleston.
A project to widen Interstate 526 in North Charleston has the state highway department once again knocking on doors in the Highland Terrace, Liberty Park and Russeldale communities, already split by I-26 two generations ago. This time, about 100 more homes will be bought by the government and torn down — 94% of residents are Black, according to The Washington Post.
Historically, these projects advanced because Black communities represented “the point of least resistance” for regulators, one Liberty Park resident told the Post.
About seven miles south along I-26, residents of the majority-Black Rosemont community, already isolated by the interstate, could again be casualties of a sea wall project designed to protect the tourism district from storms.
While a $1 billion plan would wrap a sea wall around much of the peninsula, homes in Rosemont would get no such protection. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers solution? “Nonstructural measures” that include floodproofing, raising buildings or outright buying (and presumably demolishing) flood-prone homes.
“My family has lived on the peninsula for years, and it seems like they just keep trying to push people further up and out,” Rosemont resident Errin Hane told the City Paper’s Skyler Baldwin this week. “We don’t want to leave, but I don’t know what else we can do.”
In West Ashley, Charleston County continues to push the I-526 extension project onto Johns and James islands, which means even more development pressure near historically Black sea island communities.
Federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg admits, “There is racism physically built into some of our highways.” The trillion-dollar infrastructure and jobs plans before Congress this week includes some funding as a lifeline for impacted communities.
But that’s not enough if South Carolina keeps planning for mindless expansion projects with no end in sight.
It’s up to local residents to be that resistance if they have the means. Engage at public meetings. Communicate with your elected officials. Don’t let this keep happening.