Tear Down the Expressway

Last PageTake our downtown back.

By Cherivs Isom


Most Birmingham residents have no memory of a time before the interstate system fractured our city.  It was a time when the street grid connected the downtown to its urban communities. I would walk from my home in Norwood near Carraway Hospital to Phillips High School in downtown Birmingham without passing through a vacant no-man’s land, underneath a noisy, dirty and dangerous bridge system.  People could walk to work.  No one does that anymore.

It was the interstate system that ushered in the deep decline our city has suffered since the ’60s.  There is no question the planners set the path through the African American communities of Titusville and Smithfield and along the boundaries between black and white communities in order to maintain the racial balance created years before by racial zoning.  (See “The Most Segregated City in America,” Charles E. Connerly, 2005.)

The condemnation of properties for the interstate displaced many of our black citizens who began to settle in formerly all-white neighborhoods, and white flight began in earnest. It was the interstate system that facilitated white flight. For the first time, people could live a long distance from their work.

And so it was with many cities in America.  But now, some cities are fighting back. They want their street grids reconnected.They want their communities reconnected to their downtowns. There is a movement afoot in cities across America in response to this elemental need for connectivity, for rebuilding community.

Our own history professor, Raymond A. Mohl of UAB, perhaps the foremost expert regarding the interstate highway system in America, has written about this movement in an article titled “The Expressway Teardown Movement in America: Rethinking Postwar Highway Policy in the Post-Interstate Era,” published 2012 in the Journal of Planning History.

ALDOT has presented us with a plan for a re-configured I-20/59 across our downtown which will have no on or off-ramps and will serve no one except for those 18-wheelers and other traffic going through the heart of the city to some other place and leaving with us their air pollution and noise.  It will be a conduit, a pipeline, to serve others.

ALDOT says it will cost too much to move it. They propose, during the construction stage, to route all through traffic around I-459.

OK. There’s the solution—tear down the expressway. Install a boulevard in place of the elevated I-20/59 through downtown, and reconnect the street grids to serve local traffic.

The question is now before us—do we want to join this progressive tear-down movement and take back our town—or will we allow ALDOT to implement its plan to re-configure I-20/59, thereby insuring that our city will forever be fractured, at an incalculable cost to our city in lost opportunities?

Please let Mayor Bell know what you think.

4 Responses to “Tear Down the Expressway”

  1. Brenda Harrell says:

    Please do not support ALDOT’s plan for Interstate 20/59 through downtown Birmingham. Tearing down the interstate, re-routing through traffic to Interstate 459, and making a street level boulevard would be a much better solution for Birmingham.

  2. steve miller says:

    I think all Birmingham residents would agree with Cherivs Isom. The question now before us is how to organize and make enough of a ruckus to force ALDOT to tear it down.

  3. Tom Creger says:

    Thanks, Chervis; well said!

  4. David Beorn says:

    The only idea more stupid than ALDOT’s plan is yours for tearing it down – you think THAT will bring people back to Birmingham? Better to remove the obstacles to living and working/having a business in the city, and the people who want to be here will come. You will drive people away with so may rules and regulations. Don’t forget abut the unintended consequences – you may be well meaning, but I think you are misguided.

    As for ALDOT, have they got any evidence that their plan will work? I can’t imagine where they ca up with such a hair-brained idea.

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