When Interstate 40 was built through North Nashville in 1968, it cut off this vibrant African American community from many of its businesses, especially ones along Jefferson St. And now the U.S. Department of Transportation wants to rectify that.
In October 1967, a group of neighborhood activists organized as the I-40 Steering Committee to file suit against the state over the route of the new highway. They claimed that the route was discriminatory because it cut the predominately minority neighborhood in half. The group argued that the highway would discourage citizens from walking or driving to the other side to patronize businesses on Jefferson St, forcing many of them to close, and cutting people off from North Nashville’s universities. On top of that, many residents of the neighborhood were forced to abandon their homes to make way for the new Interstate.
They were ultimately defeated, however. The court agreed with the state that the route was not discriminatory and that neighborhood residents had been given sufficient notice to express their concerns about the route.
The effect on the community was devastating, as the Tennessee State Museum wrote:
Many of the predictions by the Steering Committee came to pass. Within a year of construction, the majority of the businesses in the area had suffered financially. Many closed. The value of housing had dropped more than 30 percent. Many people feel that this community has never fully recovered from the traumatic effects of the highway.
But now, Nashville has been selected as a winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Every Place Counts Design Challenge for its proposal to restitch North Nashville back together and to reconnect the neighborhood with its vibrant past:
Nashville’s I-40 was built through several predominantly African American, middle class neighborhoods in the 1960s, displacing residents and dividing a thriving community. Nashville plans to utilize well-established community partnership networks, gather input from community residents and business owners, host design sessions, synthesize ideas, and pursue implementation funds through its two-day design session.
Metro Councilman Freddie O’Connell is hoping that this design session will involve Jefferson St in a major way, though he’s still seeking clarification on the details. “Huge opportunity for Nashville to begin repairing some of the damage done by I-40 to Jefferson St.,” he tweeted today.
The design session will happen in Nashville July 11–12 and will involve “elected officials, urban planners, designers, and a cross-section of local residents,” according to the Department of Transportation.
Other cities selected for the design challenge include Spokane, Wash., Philadelphia, Pa., and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn. All of the cities are trying to address problems created when Interstate highways split communities in two.