By Tamara Copeland, President
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
Bumper-to-bumper traffic. Metro breakdowns. Bus routes being cut. Transportation is high on the list of issues of concern to our region.
I must admit, however, that when regional leaders start to talk about transportation policy and locations of streetcars, bike paths, and new roadways, I sometimes glaze over. I’m far more concerned about access to health care, community stabilization, and educational and workforce opportunities. I said that one day and a very wise colleague reminded me that transportation policy has historically played a pivotal role in creating pockets of geographic isolation and poverty.
She was right. Her comment reminded me of what had happened in the 1950s in Richmond, Virginia, my home town. During the era of segregation, a very robust African-American community had developed in a section of town called Jackson Ward. It was a totally self-contained community. Sometimes called the Harlem of the South, many of the black stars of the ’30s,’40s, and ’50s, such as Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington routinely performed there. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the famed dance partner of Shirley Temple, called this area home.
Known also as the Wall Street of Black America, Jackson Ward was home to many black entrepreneurs. Maggie Walker, the first woman and the first African-American to charter a bank, lived here. My great aunt owned a successful florist business there and while in his 20s, my Dad opened a small snack bar below what was then a thriving ballroom. Jackson Ward was a robust, complete, African-American community in the days of separate-but-equal.
Then in the 1950s, state and local politicians decided that they needed a better north-south highway than the one that currently existed. They built the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike. Soon after it opened, it became a part of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system. You may remember that Eisenhower had wanted an interstate highway system ever since World War II. He had identified the lack of a connected highway system as one of the challenges to moving equipment and personnel across the country efficiently during the war. Now, he could change that. The newly built Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike became part of Interstate 95.
When planners were considering where that highway would be built, there was little discussion. It would go through Jackson Ward. Of course, no one said it like that, not the local leaders or state politicians or federal officials, but little attention was given to alternative routes that would have cut through the neighborhoods of the wealthy and powerful. The actions of local, state, and federal officials combined to dissect and destroy Jackson Ward. It has taken almost half a century for this neighborhood to return to a semblance of what it once was.
So when transportation conversations start, those of us who care about building complete communities need to focus our attention. No more glazing over. We need to consider how transportation planning fits into the larger equity issues that funders are addressing, like affordable housing, food deserts, and access to quality education. Let’s think about the current conversations about transit-oriented development, development that will likely be very high end units, not affordable by most. When we think about jobs, let’s think about how people are going to get to those jobs. Let’s think about the decision-making processes and whether they take more vulnerable communities into account.
And I hope you remember what happened to Jackson Ward in Richmond, Virginia. Transportation policy is not just about roads. It’s about people.