For NYC-based architect Adam Paul Susaneck, urban renewal has always been a particularly nefarious example of double speak.
In America, the term refers to the mid-20th century policy in America to clean out “blighted areas” in major cities, making way for upper-class housing and automobile-based transportation projects. Meant to solve several problems in post-war urban life, including overcrowding and dipping land values, the program enabled cities to seize and clear entire neighborhoods. By the late 1950s, cities were displacing tens of thousands of families each year, with families of color displaced at rates far higher than their share of the population. In their place, highways, large scale infrastructure and high-rise apartment buildings rose up, all generating five to ten times the tax revenue than the “slums” they replaced.
Unless you’re an architecture student, historian or generally curious about how cities were planned in America, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard about urban renewal or redlining. To that end, Segregation by Design – Susaneck’s self-funded project that uses historic aerial photography to document the destruction of communities of color in roughly 180 downtowns due to redlining, urban renewal, and freeway construction – is built on the mission of showcasing that history in hopes it can serve as a stark lesson. Even though the policies have changed, their legacy is still alive and well. Just this week, Houston officials went ahead with plans to demolish apartments to widen the I-45 through the city.
The aim, Susaneck said, is to amplify the voices of those who lived through it using the network the project has developed through its social media presence, mostly on Instagram, which has approximately 68,000 followers. In January of 2021, Susaneck posted his first missive on the site alongside maps of Rochester, NY overlaying “redlining” maps with freeway routes before and after construction. Since then Susaneck has covered major cities like Atlanta, Washington, DC, Boston, Providence, Houston, Oakland and Philadelphia.
Susaneck started the project mid-pandemic in 2021 after being inspired by Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law. In Rothstein’s award-winning book, the former Fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund documents the evidence that governments not only ignored discriminatory practices in the residential sphere but promoted them. While Susaneck learned a lot from the book, he thought the lack of pictures was a missed opportunity.
“As an architect, I’m visually minded and what he’s describing was so visual, I just thought there could be a lot of value in providing that context and those images,” Susaneck told Paste. “I thought the skills I gained in school could be useful and the history was something I had been interested in for a long time.”
A fan of public transportation and more specifically trains from youth, Susaneck said he was also spurred to find out more as he found out that entire mass transit systems (see Houston) had been dismantled in favor of cheap housing and extended highways. Sharing the stories of forgotten neighborhoods, Susaneck said utilizing social media seemed like a natural way to disseminate the information while breaking it down into bite-sized posts. Susaneck said he was also inspired by a particular anecdote from The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee. In the book, McGhee describes “Drained Pool Politics’’ to illustrate one effect of urban renewal.
“In the 1930s during the New Deal, the federal government financed the building of grand, beaux-arts public swimming pools in cities across the nation. These pools were officially whites-only. Two decades later, when the Supreme Court ordered municipalities to racially integrate these pools, to avoid doing so many cities drained them and demolished them. Subsequently, there was a boom in the construction of backyard swimming pools in the single-family homes of racially-restricted suburbs across the nation.”
Everything Susaneck posts is diligently researched through policy analysis, in-depth interviews with American planners and designers and with community members in a number of case cities. Susaneck even developed specific spatial analysis methods for analyzing particular downtown areas. In particular, he relied on the American Panorama Project based at the University of Richmond in Virginia, historical census data survey maps and photos from the Library of Congress, which he then cleaned up and geo-rectified.
“By comparing the policies described in these maps with the changing aerial photos over the decades, it becomes clear how the policies were actualized on the ground,” Susaneck said. “Seeing it in photos open’s people eyes a bit since not everyone has the time or desire to read Color of Law. It’s also important that we continue to engage with this kind of stuff because the specific policies may not still be around but their legacy is.”
In Boston, Susaneck’s examination of the city’s West End and Storrow Drive revealed drastic change as “one of those neighborhoods where the hope of America’s ‘melting pot’ perhaps came the closest to fruition as it ever would” was entirely razed.
Up until his death in 2015, Leonard Nimoy liked to fondly recall his time growing up in the West End of Boston, playing on narrow streets alongside Black, Jewish and Italian families. But like many poorer neighborhoods in major cities in the late 1940s and early 1950s it was demolished for high rises and a new highway that would transport suburban workers in and out of Boston. West End residents who were assured they would have a place to move back to when the neighborhood was completed had to wait fifteen years only to find the only residential buildings that would be constructed were six luxury apartment towers far outside their means.
In Oakland, Susaneck used Home Owners Loan Corporation data and excerpts from original documents to specifically show how HOLC used maps of “residential security” (determined by rates of what they called “racial infiltration”) as a means to segregate the city.
“By revealing what was there before the freeway, people can begin to imagine what will be there after the freeway,” Susaneck said. “As state governments continue to mindlessly widen freeways, community groups in cities across the country have formed in opposition. This project aims to support these groups by creating easily digestible graphics to spread awareness.”
With Segregation by Design, Susaneck said he wants to keep a spotlight on the question of to what extent does the legacy of these policies continue to drive contemporary outcomes and the American perception of society as a whole?
Susuaneck said the project will eventually cover the roughly 180 municipalities which received federal funding from the 1956 Federal Highway Act, which created the interstate highway system. Over the last year, the project has received small grants from Columbia University’s Incubator Prize and the project has just over 80 patrons on Patreon.
To date, Susaneck has provided material, including maps and diagrams, to groups opposing the expansion of I-45N in Houston, Texas, I-5 in Downey, Calif. and I-5 in Portland, Ore.
Dana Forsythe is a freelance writer covering tech, comic books and culture. He lives in Massachusetts, enjoys photographing street art, collecting comics and can be followed via Twitter (@danafour).