From Environmental Racism to Environmental Reparation: The Story of One American City

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Jennifer D. Roberts Department of Kinesiology, University of Maryland School of Public Health, College Park, MD, USA

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Picture a 2-mile-long, 200-foot-wide parkway bordered by rows of Maple and Elm trees with a bridleway down the middle that connects to a 350-acre park northward and a 56-acre park southward. Now imagine the benefits of walking, biking, or playing that individuals, families, and an entire community would receive from living near this parkway. At one point, this was a reality for a predominately Black American district in Buffalo, New York until it was ravaged and replaced with a six-lane intrusive highway. Decades later and endowed with a $55 million grant, the city and state commit to restoring the parkway and reconnecting the community devasted by environmentally racist planning. Will this reparation improve or remedy this generational loss and depredation? Only time can tell, but let’s start at the beginning of the story.

Active Living Oasis

Roughly 10 years after the unveiling of New York City’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead was courted by Buffalo, New York civic leaders to design a similar oasis. With its prosperity from iron and steel industries and its elevation from the Erie Canal opening, Buffalo had bloomed into one of the 10 largest American cities during the second half of the 19th century.1,2 So in 1868, on his way back to New York City, Olmsted stopped in the Queen City for a visit. During this late summer stopover, the city’s most forward-thinking and civic-minded leaders provided the Father of Landscape Architecture a tour to scout locations for “Buffalo’s Central Park.” Olmstead was so impressed that he declared Buffalo to be “the best planned city in the United States” and proposed the creation of a mixed-use park system instead of just one park.3 He wanted to create an “emerald necklace” enlaced throughout the city as “a park within a park.” In this way, Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, landscaped Buffalo’s Park System, which included 3 major parks and several picturesque parkways that encompassed the city, between 1868 and 1876.2 North of the city was The Park (Delaware Park), comprising a 250-acre meadowland, a 46-acre lake, and a 120-acre field of mature deciduous trees.2,4 Serving as the heart and crown jewel of the entire park system, The Park provided grounds for the Pan-American Exposition in 1901.5 The 2 other major parks were The Front (Front Park) to the west, a space for active recreation along the Niagara River and Lake Erie, and The Parade (Martin Luther King Jr. Park) to the south, originally designed with a 20-acre parade ground that functioned as a children’s playground. West of Main Street, the central arterial roadway of Buffalo and the “dividing line” between White (West Side) and Black (East Side) city residents, were Lincoln, Chapin, and Bidwell Parkways. By contrast, Humboldt Parkway, situated on the East Side, was a 2-mile-long, 200-foot-wide boulevard bordered by rows of Maple and Elm trees with a bridleway down the middle that was absolutely perfect for walking, biking, and playing (Figure 1). Humboldt Parkway linked The Park with The Parade and threaded through Buffalo’s Masten District, an area comprising 6 neighborhoods: Fillmore-Leroy; Cold Springs; Delavan-Grider; Hamlin Park; Trinidad Park; and Martin Luther King, Jr. In particular, Hamlin Park was bounded by Main Street (north), Ferry Street (south), Jefferson Avenue (west), and Humboldt Parkway (east). Designed with distinctive Olmstedian features, this neighborhood was characterized by its post-Victorian homes, such as American Foursquare or Colonial Revival, a lining of churches, synagogues, community centers, and a thriving business district that attracted many Black families who were in most instances restricted to living on Buffalo’s East Side.6 Effectuated by the Great Migration, an exodus of more than 6 million Black Americans from the rural South to northern, midwestern, and western cities beginning in approximately 1915 and ending in the 1970s, Buffalo became a magnet for many Black Americans seeking jobs and an opportunity for political and social uplift.7 Between 1915–1940 and 1940–1970, Buffalo’s Black population increased by over 150% and 100%, respectively.813 As such, Hamlin Park, with its featured Humboldt Parkway, became the first Black American middle-class community in Western New York.14 This community embraced their idyllic greenscape for fellowship and pastime, but most importantly, they found an oasis for healthy, dignified, and peaceful living in a society that had yet to fully recognize its persistence of racial and social injustices.

Figure 1
Figure 1

—Humboldt Parkway circa 1935. Available at: https://www.segregationbydesign.com/buffalo/humboldt-parkwaykensington-expressway

Citation: Journal of Physical Activity and Health 20, 11; 10.1123/jpah.2023-0338

Queen City’s Racist Roots

In 2022, Buffalo was ranked as the sixth most segregated city in the United States, a fact that came to light for many in the aftermath of the Tops supermarket massacre.15 The Queen City, however, was not always so racially and ethnically segmented. In the early 20th century and particularly during both world wars, Buffalo was a hub for steel jobs at Bethlehem-Lackawanna Steel, the world’s largest steelmaking operation of the time.16 Since job location is a primary determinant for place of residence, most of Buffalo’s working class lived in the central city between 1900 and 1940. Many laborers, which included Black Americans, as well as Polish, Italian, German, and Russian immigrants, often shared tenancy within the same dwellings on Buffalo’s lower East Side. In addition to location, the expense for renting domiciles together for laborers and their families was much more attainable. Prior to 1930, homeownership was a tremendous financial risk and out of reach for many people. Ultimately, this racially and ethnically diverse community worked together, lived together, and even engaged together leisurely. Historian Lillian Williams has noted that during this time some Black Americans learned German in order to spend more time with their German coworkers and neighbors.8 Nonetheless, a massive homeownership movement, created as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, was jumpstarted by the federal government after the 1930s Great Depression. For this movement to be achieved, the mortgage system warranted a redevelopment to assess and determine neighborhood stability and prosperity. These determinations often came in the form of intentional and legally racist housing and planning policies sanctioned by federal, state, and local governments. Practices and programs born out of these policies, including racially restrictive covenants, redlining, and blockbusting, institutionalized segregation in Buffalo and eventually led to the Queen City’s White Flight, a massive migration of White residents from the city to the suburbs.17,18 Exclusive suburban living for White Buffalo residents was subsidized through historically low mortgage interest rates and government funding to cover the costs of new sewer and water systems as well as highways for these developing areas.17 While the Queen City’s urban population continued to grow and transition by the inflow of Black Americans through the Great Migration and the outflow of White Americans through White Flight, the dependence on the automobile grew exponentially. Amidst the number of cars in New York State, increasing from 2,775,337 in 1940 to 5,067,012 in 1960, a near doubling, the annoyance and displeasure of clogging traffic volumes on quiet residential streets took precedence over the preservation of active living spaces, like Humboldt Parkway.19,20 As one of several Olmstead city sanctuaries, but the one located on the predominately Black East Side, Humboldt Parkway was selected as the site for a 6-lane intrusive highway in order to improve traffic flow within the city, support the growing number of road vehicles, and most importantly connect the city to the suburban rings (Figure 2). Beginning in 1957 and ending in 1971, Humboldt Parkway was bulldozed over and replaced with the Kensington Expressway (NY 33). The entire 70-mile west-east NY 33 route runs from Buffalo to Rochester, but the westernmost 10 miles of NY 33, Kensington Expressway, traverses through Buffalo and the neighboring suburb of Cheektowaga.

Figure 2
Figure 2

—Humboldt Parkway versus Kensington Expressway. Left image: Humboldt Parkway at the beginning of destruction with the cutting of trees. Right image: Kensington Expressway constructed and completed. Available at: https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2019/04/11/restoring-parkway-system-buffalo

Citation: Journal of Physical Activity and Health 20, 11; 10.1123/jpah.2023-0338

Restoration of Hope

A sequelae of events, from White Flight and suburbanization to nature’s destruction and highway construction, displaced thousands of residents, disenfranchised community businesses, and decimated Buffalo’s emerald necklace. City planners believed that the Kensington Expressway would accommodate the rising number of vehicles and drivers on the road, but in the end this transportation project, which created a multilane, noise and air polluting crater through the heart of the East Side, really was not necessary at all. By 1940, Buffalo’s population plateaued at 575,901 and then began to decline in 1960 (532,759) until reaching its lowest level in 2010 (261,310).9,11,21 With such a population gash, the Kensington Expressway not only brought about community, active living, and racialized depredation, but it also failed to deliver on its promise. However, all hope may not be lost. Since the 1970s, many Buffalo residents and other stakeholders, like the Restore Our Community Coalition, have voiced their dismay of the Kensington Expressway and worked to produce research, economic impact, environmental remediation, and restorative justice studies that reveal and illustrate the deleterious impacts of the highway.22 It was just a matter of time and opportunity to procure the political and financial support for restoration. Then, under President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program was established.23 This program provides technical assistance and funding for projects that aim to mend neighborhoods by removing, retrofitting, or mitigating transportation barriers. An “initiative to reconnect communities that are cut off from opportunity and burdened by past transportation infrastructure decisions” and to consider the needs of Buffalo along with similar municipalities.24 So on February 28, 2023, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced grant awards for 45 projects through the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program for an amount totaling $185 million.24 In this first round of grants, Buffalo was endowed with $55.6 million, the largest amount of all grantees, to build a new highway cap and tunnel over the Kensington Expressway that will reconnect several west–east roads, construct greenspace, support active and passive recreation, revitalize community cohesion, and facilitate the accessibility of services and amenities (Figure 3). The city once monikered as the City of Trees now has an opportunity to leverage the decades-long efforts of residents, businesses, and others who have invested their hearts and souls into bringing back the Humboldt Parkway. Only time will tell if this environmental reparation will improve or remedy the generational loss and devastation of placing “White men’s roads through Black men’s homes.”25,26 But with an endowment from the very government that committed this transgression, there is at least a sense of atonement and a restoration of hope.

Figure 3
Figure 3

—Humboldt Parkway Restoration. NYS DOT. (December 2022). Transportation Project Report. NYS Route 33, Kensington Expressway Project. (PIN): 5512.52. City of Buffalo Erie County. Appendix A—Concept Figures.

Citation: Journal of Physical Activity and Health 20, 11; 10.1123/jpah.2023-0338

Author Biography

Dr. Roberts is writing and preparing a book, for publication with Island Press, titled Buffalo’s Emerald Necklace: How Environmental Racism Devastated a Community and Destroyed an Olmsted Treasure.

References

Address author correspondence to jenrob@umd.edu, https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1850-4341

This is the story of environmental racism in one American city, but this is also a reality for many others.

Active living injustices cannot fully be addressed without rectifying many other societal injustices.

Buffalo, NY, once called the City of Trees, has an opportunity to receive reparative environmental justice.

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