From highways carved through thriving ‘ghettoes’ to walls segregating black and white areas, US city development has a long and divisive history


“8 Mile”, as the locals call it, is far from the much-touted economic “renaissance” taking place in Detroit’s centre. Tax delinquency and debt are still major issues, as they are in most places in the city. Crime and blight exist side by side with carefully trimmed hedgerows and mowed lawns, a patchwork that changes from block to block. In many ways it resembles every other blighted neighbourhood in the city – but with one significant difference. Hidden behind the oak-lined streets is an insidious piece of history that most Detroiters, let alone Americans, don’t even know exists: a half mile-long, 5ft tall concrete barrier that locals simply call “the wall”.


Baltimore’s ‘road to nowhere’.
Baltimore’s ‘road to nowhere’. © Johnny Miller/africanDRONE

To get an understanding of how infrastructure transforms communities, there’s no better place to start than the Federal Housing Authority “redlining” housing maps. Commissioned by the federal government in the 1930s, these maps were critical to decisions of where and what type of infrastructure, lending and housing each neighbourhood of each American city would be able to receive.

“The FHA promoted home ownership in new – and primarily suburban – neighbourhoods so long as they were white and not ethically or economically diverse,” writes Antero Pietila in Not in My Neighbourhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.

If your neighbourhood had the misfortune to be “redlined”, it was often doomed to a future of stillborn investment and decay. Specifically, it would be impossible to secure federally backed mortgages, a sort of scarlet letter branded across huge swaths of the city. Developers avoided these areas and concentrated investment into white areas, and services stagnated. The seeds of the future ghettos of America had been sown.

FHA maps were created for every major city in the US. Original assessment documents unearthed by researchers at the T-Races project reveal the cold, casually racist way in which data collectors consigned vast neighbourhoods to neglect and poverty:

This is a ‘melting pot’ area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is seriously doubted whether there is a single block in the area which does not contain detrimental racial elements … It is hazardous residential territory and is accorded a general medial red grade – Original FHA evaluator report for Boyle Heights, California


Nowhere is infrastructure so obviously divisive as with the vast interstate highway system. Ubiquitous, generally free and heavily used, it’s undeniably a vital part of the American experience. There are more than one million miles of federal aid highways in the US, which cost $105bn a year to maintain. If American highway spending were a country, it would have the world’s 63rd largest GDP, just behind Morocco. But while these roads unify and connect millions of the country’s citizens, they’ve also excluded and destroyed many black communities. 

West Baltimore is an exceptionally bleak area in an exceptionally poor, overwhelmingly black American city. The city recorded 343 homicides in 2017, the highest murder rate per capita in the country. It’s almost double that of Chicago, and 18 times higher than New York City. Racial divisions run deep here, a segregation of opportunity, class and even life expectancy.