The impact of highway construction
Photos courtesy of Nina David December 09, 2022
UD's Nina David examines impact of I-95 construction in Wilmington
Today, it’s hard to imagine Interstate 95, which runs straight through the heart of Wilmington, in any other location. But in the 1950s, there were three possible routes for the major highway: a western route along Bancroft Parkway, an eastern route where I-495 runs today, and a central route that cuts straight through the city along the Adams-Jackson corridor.
After the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was passed, which meant that 90% of the cost of highway construction would be funded by the federal government, a highway in Delaware’s largest city went from being just an idea to a real possibility. In the spring of 1957, four public hearings were held on the location of the freeway. Much of the focus was on the western route, so it came as a surprise when, on June 21, 1957, the lame duck Wilmington City Council approved the Adams-Jackson corridor seemingly out of the blue.
“That particular decision was, I would say, from everything that we can see in the research, a pretty sudden decision,” said Nina David, associate professor in the University of Delaware's Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, who is conducting research on the construction of I-95 through Wilmington and its impact on the surrounding communities. “There was no public process on that particular alignment, and the impact of it was pretty huge, because it was 25 city blocks. That's a big swath of a very dense urban core in the city. There were 926 families that were displaced as a result, so it's a considerable amount of people that were moved out of that core section of the city. It had a considerable impact, but with very little public process.”
David’s research examines the Adams-Jackson corridor to document what was there before the highway, discern the policy decisions that led to I-95 being routed through the corridor and understand what might have been lost through the process, including the built environment (streets, buildings and landmarks), people (who lived and worked there), community (life and culture in the corridor and nearby neighborhoods), and institutions (churches and schools). The archival research includes content analyses of the plans, policy documents, reports and summaries of public hearings; analyses of newspaper articles published at the time; rephotography of the area; and interviews with residents from the corridor.
In all, 507 residential dwellings, 50 commercial structures, 48 garages, two churches, one public school, one private school and one theater were demolished — and 926 families displaced — to make way for the highway.
“We are conducting interviews with residents that we could track, of families, that lived in that space to get the stories of what the community was like prior to the 95 coming through, because right now, when you look at that space, it's difficult to imagine what it used to be like,” David said. “For a lot of people, the highway has been there for over 60 years, and that's within their lifetime. That generation of the folks who lived in that space, this is sort of the end of a generation, so we wanted to capture the stories before they are lost.”
David has been working on research for two years, and the project has received a lot of public attention. She and her students were invited to have a conversation with Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, Sen. Tom Carper and some members of the Delaware state legislature in the summer of 2021 to talk about the research. In partnership with the Delaware Historical Society, David hosted a virtual lecture and participated in a panel discussion regarding the research, of which hundreds of community members attended.
One of the biggest impacts of the construction of the highway was the division created between the east and west sides of the city. With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021, there is great interest all around to “cap” the highway to create better connections between the east and west sides, David said. Indeed, local transportation agencies, such as WILMAPCO and DelDot, are working on feasibility studies to do exactly that.
But capping the highway — taking a six-block stretch of the multilane highway and covering it with greenspace — can be hard to imagine. With support from a Partnerships for Arts and Culture Grant, David’s research team co-sponsored an event on Oct. 8 in which they closed off the 9th Street bridge in Wilmington to allow residents to gather over the highway and envision what a potential capping of I-95 could look like.
“If you watch shows like on HGTV, it's very difficult for people to go into a blank space and imagine how it could be different,” David said. “The same occurs in the urban built environment as well. It’s hard to envision what [a cap] would look like. To actually stand there, though, on top of the 9th Street bridge, look on either side at the 95 and imagine that you were not going to be able to see the 95 anymore — that's what we're talking about. So it was an event to come to experience what having that pedestrian space over the 95 could actually look and feel like.”
At the event, David facilitated public dialogue on the impact of highways on communities and collected data through an I-95 impact survey. The results of the survey will be passed on to policymakers in addition to being published in academic venues.