Buttigieg’s remark on Philly’s Chinatown aims true

April 1, 2021

This column published as "Staying Whole" in April 2021 issue

I don’t suppose very many people consider infrastructure, or even the idea of infrastructure, in the course of discussions or debates or platforms on the issue of race and racism, or inequity. 

But they should.

Recently U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted the following: “When the Vine Street Expressway was first built, it tore through Philly’s Chinatown neighborhood. Our work to protect AAPIs (Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders) must include infrastructure that keeps communities safe—and whole.” This tweet was accompanied by a link to a sing-a-long vigil being held in the Chinatown neighborhood for the victims of the mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia that deliberately targeted Asian-Americans. In the background of this peaceful assembly, the Vine Street Expressway roared with traffic.

While Buttigieg was speaking directly to a specific minority that has, in the immediate present, experienced a horrific act of violence, what he was really doing was speaking against transportation infrastructure anywhere—in any part of our country—isolating, segregating, separating, or otherwise disadvantaging any group of people.

There is a long history of new transportation projects doing just that. Off the top of my head, given the fact that I live in suburban Chicago, is the conflation of the I-290 Dwight D. Eisenhower Expressway and the I-90/94 Dan Ryan Expressway. If you were to take the city of Chicago, from the lakefront to its outer urban and suburban limits and draw a large plus sign over it, the intersection of these two corridors would, by rough approximation, give you a determined idea of where predominantly white Chicago lies (to the north and east) and where predominantly Black, Latino, and other Persons of Color Chicago lies. And the Dan Ryan goes further by bisecting what has traditionally been lower-income, largely Black Chicago. 

I’m not saying this little illustration I’ve suggested is block-by-block “accurate,” but it is valid in describing deep racial divides in a large-scale city wrought by the installation of transportation infrastructure. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the I-290 and I-90-94 corridors in Chicago caused racial animus or segregation, but rather that as time passed and the cultural makeup of the city evolved, their location reinforced divides that already existed, and that avoiding such a circumstance is likely to be one focus (of many) of the federal government's position on funding and transportation support.

I am encouraged by Buttigieg’s stance here, and I look forward to seeing what he can do when he finally stops kicking the tires and takes his secretaryship out for a spin to see how it handles.

As for this month’s R&B, if I can toot my own horn a bit, my article on the Complete 540 Project in Raleigh, North Carolina gives you a different kind of illustration—that of a infrastructure project designed to improve mobility and strengthen a region, while pulling a community together. 

And be sure keep your eye out for our upcoming May/June issue, which as always will focus on bridges—and will feature an in-depth look at EMILY (short for EMergency Integrated LanYard), which is an autonomous boat that uses cameras and sonar technology to investigate bridge scour before determining if a human diver needs to get in the water, and which was named one of ASCE’s Infrastructure Gamechangers for 2021.

Have a good month and happy reading to you all!

About The Author: Budzynski is senior managing editor of Roads & Bridges.

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