Dec. 6 2018 09:52 AM

'Paving the Way' looks at the impact of I496 on Lansing's black community


    It’s not unusual to hear someone reminisce about the old neighborhood.

    But there’s something more than wistfulness in Kenneth Turner’s voice when he talks about the blocks where he played as a kid.

    Turner grew up on Lenawee Street, between Logan Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) and Rulison Street, just southwest of downtown Lansing.

    “I miss it so much. So much,” he said, looking over old photos last week. “I miss the camaraderie. You knew everybody all up and down the street. Saturday mornings, you’d come out and people would be barbecuing.”

    Quick trips to the corner store, meals at neighbors’ homes, the rush to get home when the streetlights came on — such memories are common to folks who grew up in the close-knit urban neighborhoods before malls and freeways.

    But Turner’s old neighborhood is different.

    It’s been a ditch for 50 years.

    Between 1963 and 1970, about 800 houses and businesses between Main Street (now Malcolm X) Street and St. Joseph Highway, a few blocks south of downtown, were wiped out at a stroke by the I496 freeway.

    The freeway cut through the heart of Lansing’s black community, from Friendship Church to the Tropicana Lounge, from Bob’s Shoe Repair to Dr. William Harrison’s office, from Kalush’s Grocery to Clinton Canady’s dental clinic.

    There’s nothing left even to mourn. These once-vibrant city blocks had no chance to gentrify or decay over time. You can’t go back to the old house and marvel at how small it looks now, or lament that your favorite restaurant is a cell phone store.

    Last week, Turner’s friend, Adolph Burton, started going through a cache of photos left behind by Burton’s father, Frederick Richardson, a photographer for General Motors who died last year. Burton grew up in the neighborhood too.

    The photos brought familiar faces and places to life.

    “Dr. Harrison delivered most of the black people in Lansing,” Burton said. “Dr. Canady pulled most of the teeth in the black community.”

    “Wright’s Store had a Polish sausage sandwich that was incredible,” Turner said. “Fred and Bill’s had the chicken wing place. Stone’s Pharmacy on St. Joe was five minutes from my house.”

    Why go through the old photos now?

    Because this story has not been fully told.

    “Paving the Way,” a major research project announced Friday by Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, will use a $39,400 grant from the National Parks Service to gather and preserve the history of a lost neighborhood.

    Turner and Burton had been researching the subject for years before joining forces with “Paving the Way.” They are filming interviews with eyewitnesses to the area’s life and its demise.

    Now the Historical Society of Greater Lansing is putting its full weight behind the project and the city is pitching in. A digital, interactive database of the lost neighborhood, house by house, is in the works. In a year or so, there will be an exhibit at the Michigan History Museum and traveling version that will go to schools and other places. A film documentary and other projects are also planned.

    The call is out for anyone with memories to share, photos to scan or anything else to contribute.

    “This is an effort to admit that they plowed right through an African-American community, forced them to move and it had real consequences,” Schor said after last week’s launch of the project at City Hall. “If we don’t talk about the history, we won’t learn from it.”

    Temptations

    If you didn’t know the name of a record you wanted, you went to Johnnie’s Record Shop, at 812 S. Logan, hummed the song to Johnnie and he’d come back with the wax.

    “That’s where everybody went to go buy records,” Kenneth Turner mused. “Any music you wanted, Johnnie had it.” Turner was a diehard Temptations fan. Period ads show that Johnnie’s carried everything from swing and big band to rock, soul and R&B, and it didn’t stop there.

    “You could buy socks there, women’s hosiery, hair care products — Afro-sheen, combs, picks — all at the record store,” Turner said. “Johnnie’s was the iconic neighborhood business.”

    Other record stores lasted long enough to die of old age (or the Internet). Johnnie’s died young — T-boned by an Oldsmobile.

    In the 1960s, Johnnie’s became the field office for the state highway commission. The building still stands next to the freeway, alone in a sea of concrete, now home to a paint company. From this unlikely command center, engineers tore a neighborhood in half to build I496, first known as the Oldsmobile Expressway.

    The freeway girdles Lansing from west to east, from Delta Township to MSU. From end to end, I496 is 11.9 miles long, including the 3.4-mile “Pine Tree Connector” from Kalamazoo Street near East Lansing to I-96.

    The project’s impact didn’t stop at razing homes and displacing families. Some 35 streets were bisected and dead-ended. The results are still dramatic — streets that once wove the city together end abruptly in berms and guardrails.

    Despite the momentum of the interstate system in the 1960s, not building the expressway was an option A proposed stretch of I496, starting at Trowbridge Road, would have sliced through the heart of MSU, but then-President John Hannah had connections in high places. (President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Hannah as the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1957.)

    Knowing the disruptive potential of the expressway, Hannah got on the phone to Washington, D.C., and stopped it. Ann Arbor avoided the fate of Lansing, Detroit and Grand Rapids by opting for a ring of bypasses.

    But such restraint was the exception, not the rule, during the 1960s highway boom. For Lansing and most other American cities, the prospect of quick travel across town, not to mention dozens of construction jobs, on the federal dime, was too good to resist. The federal government paid for 90 percent of the $42.6 million cost of I496.

    Self-sufficient

    Jeffrey Horner, a senior lecturer in urban studies and planning at Wayne State University, has studied the effects of freeways that cut through Detroit’s largely residential Black Bottom neighborhood and Paradise Valley, a mostly commercial district, east of the city’s central business hub downtown.

    “The I496 expressway, much like I375 in Detroit, went where it did because it was the most politically defenseless area, by far the most African-American district in the city,” Horner said.

    The pattern repeated itself around the country as the interstate highway system spread.

    In Tennessee, I40 was routed through the flourishing Jefferson Street corridor, home to about 80 percent of Nashville’s black-owned businesses. In Miami, I95 and I395 displaced about half the Overtown neighborhood, a thriving center of black life. In New Orleans, elevated Interstate 10 turned Claiborne Avenue, a bustling black district and center of Mardi Gras celebrations, into a deafening tunnel of automobile exhaust. Businesses and residents fled, leaving the street to decay and crime.

    These problems don’t stop when the freeway is finished. Freeways lower property values and keep marginal neighborhoods marginal, as anyone who ventures into the dead ends created by I496 in Lansing can attest. Noise, pollution and the permanent problem of getting around town when you live next to a freeway all have a disproportionate impact on poorer residents.

    Mixed legacy

    There is still vigorous debate about the freeway’s longer-term impact. Before I496 sliced through Lansing, redlining and other forms of discrimination kept many African- Americans concentrated in defined neighborhoods like the one in the path of the highway.

    As the freeway cut through the city, the black population dispersed into surrounding neighborhoods, especially the south and west sides, despite persistent discrimination. With the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act in 1968 and piecemeal local civil rights victories, the city’s racial mix gradually changed.

    In the 20 years after I496 was completed, the west side evolved into one of the city’s most diverse and thriving neighborhoods. Starting with meetings in her living room, Lansing resident Ann Kron formed the city’s first neighborhood association with a primary goal of fighting white flight, redlining and racism.

    “We have one of the most diverse cities anywhere and we’re proud of that,” Schor said after Friday’s project launch.

    But Horner thinks the breakup of a black community and resulting diaspora was a mixed blessing at best.

    “I’m not questioning that it’s a good thing for Lansing to be integrated, but the loss of black districts and dispersal of the African- American community was also a loss,” Horner said. “In Detroit, we not only lost people’s homes, but a lot of the black-owned businesses. I’m not so sure that this was necessarily a good thing.”

    Burton is among those who mourn the loss of the neighborhood carved up by I496, and not just because he lived there.

    “We were self-sufficient,” he said.

    “Everything you needed was in walking distance – grocery stores, convenience stores, sporting goods, hardware, Laundromats, pharmacies.”

    One person’s ghetto is, to another observer, a base for building economic self-sufficiency in an otherwise beleaguered community.

    “Whether it’s a black, Jewish or Hispanic community, when you disperse, you don’t have any wealth or power base,” Horner said.

    “Cities are complicated as hell. That’s what I tell my students.”

    “Paving the Way” will also look at the connection between the juggernaut of I496 and civil disturbances that tore through Lansing in 1966, centering on the near west side area affected by the freeway.

    “The freeway led to a lot of issues and ill will,” Schor said. “It was happening at the height of the Civil Rights movement and inspired the emergence of a new generation of leadership and activism that changed Lansing for the better.”

    Lately, Schor has been reading about the titanic struggle between New York’s über-planner Robert Moses and activist giant-killer Jane Jacobs, author of “The Life and Death of American Cities.” Jacobs tirelessly fought the projects and superhighways that wiped out whole neighborhoods, and won some major battles.

    “Moses provided the infrastructure to move people, to get to a city of 7 or 8 million people, but he also created massive concrete jungles, took out parks and houses,” Schor said.

    Black removal

    The damage done by grand social engineering projects of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the loss of black neighborhoods to urban renewal projects and freeways, has yet to be fully assessed.

    Horner said today’s urban planners have taken these hard lessons to heart.

    “Everyone is getting the importance of community now,” Horner said. “That whole thread is coming from the slowdown of suburban growth.”

    Many of Horner’s students loathe the isolation of the suburbs and want to live where they don’t need a car. They long for walkable, close-knit neighborhoods like Lansing’s lost I496 enclave.

    “It’s really changing fast, at least in Detroit,” Horner said. “Local community building is something that’s been lost, starting with the building of all these freeways.”

    As “Paving the Way” assembles a mosaic of a lost Lansing neighborhood, the result will be a cautionary case study as well as a proud reclamation of black history.

    Burton and Turner are only starting the interview project, but it’s already bearing fruit. Last week, they caught up with another former Lansing resident, Robert Joe Williams, who was director of the Capital City Anti-Poverty Program and lived on the 1600 block of West St. Joseph Highway in the 1960s.

    If the Williams interview is any indication, “Paving the Way” will bring out a lot of untold stories from the civil rights era and beyond. In the 1970s, Williams recalled, he and two business partners went to a bank for a loan to start a radio station, using a tower in Dimondale. The bank manager told them they looked like solid candidates for a loan. (All three owned their own homes and worked for the state of Michigan.)

    “Just don’t play any of that jungle music,” the bank manager told the men.

    “We went to another bank,” Williams said. To jog Williams’ memory about 496, Burton and Turner started talking about their old haunts. Williams beamed at the names — Matthew’s Restaurant, Johnnie’s Records, Friendship Church.

    “I remember all of those,” Williams said.

    “And vintage homes, beautiful homes.”

    Many of the houses lost to the freeway were very well built, in the style of the older existing west side houses, Burton said.

    “They had hardwood floors, spiral staircases — just beautiful,” Burton said “It was almost like kicking us out,” Williams said. “This was a common practice in a number of black communities.”

    Williams came to Lansing from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where “Black Wall Street,” a thriving African-American community, was similarly scarred by urban renewal projects, including an expressway loop, in the 1970s.

    “This wasn’t by accident,” Williams said.

    “Black removal is what it’s called.”

    Turner grew thoughtful. Sharing memories with Burton and Williams was sweet, but for all three of them, the walk down memory lane came to an uncomfortable dead end.

    “I asked my mom last week if the highway hadn’t come through, would she still be living on Lenawee Street,” Turner said. “She said, ‘No question, yes.’”