In late August 2014, the Colorado Department of Transportation quietly unveiled a plan to radically overhaul a stretch of Interstate 70 as it passes through Denver. The project would add four toll lanes and sink two miles of the highway through the neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea, whose grids of modest homes and mom-and-pop shops constitute some of the last majority-resident of color areas in a city that is fast becoming whiter and more affluent. The CDOT’s plan would condemn 56 homes and 17 businesses—a more extensive use of eminent domain than was required for the construction of the highway in the first place. It would also sever the neighborhoods during the decade of construction and open them to land-grabbing by developers.
Despite broad public opposition, the “Central 70 Project”—as it is now known, after several rebrandings—received approval from outgoing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on January 19, 2017, the last day of the Obama administration. Three weeks later, over 100 opponents of the project crowded the Swansea Recreation Center, preempting what was supposed to be an orderly presentation by the CDOT with yard signs, black anti-pollution masks, and a counter-presentation advocating for rerouting the freeway around the city. Nevertheless, CDOT director Shailen Bhatt insisted that his agency would push ahead unless the plan was stopped by a court order.
Bhatt’s response was dismissive—equivalent to that familiar schoolyard taunt, “So sue me.” And that’s exactly what the residents did. On a sunny morning in early July, some 60 protesters gathered outside the federal courthouse in downtown Denver wearing blue T-shirts that read, “Ditch the Ditch,” for a press conference announcing a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration.
Central 70 is only one of several urban freeway renovations taking place nationwide. Houston has fast-tracked a $4 billion downtown freeway expansion and burial; in Dallas, an overhaul of I-345 is under discussion. The projects are at a scale that hasn’t been seen since widespread protests pushed urban freeway construction out of fashion 50 years ago. Why have such projects returned, and why now?
The resurgence of urban highway expansion comes at a moment of demographic transition. After decades of exodus, affluent white residents are returning to city centers. The demographic is appealing to cities: Its members spend money and tend to be young and childless, so they don’t require costly social services like schools. But across the country their arrival triggers the displacement of low-income communities, especially people of color. The fight in Denver, the fastest-growing city in the country, is therefore not just about a single freeway or neighborhood; its outcome could set a precedent for other battles over the right to the city in this new era.
After World War II, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) enabled unprecedented rates of homeownership. Yet the agency systematically “redlined” neighborhoods with a majority of residents of color, excluding them from insured home loans, and favored insuring mortgages in white-exclusive suburban developments. Historian Kenneth Jackson writes that the ensuing suburbanization was as significant a demographic trend “as the movement of eastern and southern Europeans to Ellis Island.”