How Communities Leverage the Power of “Infrastructural Citizenship”

Kyle Shelton | @kylekshelton | November 2, 2015

In the 1960s and 1970s, residents of Houston’s Courtlandt Place opposed of the 527 spur. Image via Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC).

In the 1960s and 1970s, residents of Houston’s Courtlandt Place opposed of the 527 spur. Image via Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC).

Highways and other major infrastructure are essential, yet often disruptive, elements of urban living. Large projects alter the daily patterns of residents whose neighborhoods they divide and can change the functioning and shape of the city. Moreover, the semi-permanence of the structures – they can persist in the urban landscape for decades – makes decisions about their placement and use especially significant.

Yet, despite the impacts and sheer necessity of the infrastructural networks that carry us, our waste, and all the other products that sustain us, these structures seem to stand in the background of our lives. They’re used, but unrecognized; debated, but not often at center stage.

If we did not directly experience the shock of its construction, the highway near our home is just a fact of life, an otherwise unspectacular part of the urban fabric. We may pay attention when expansions are proposed or when congestion slows our commute, but otherwise, the road is little more than a means to get us where we want to go.

The omission of infrastructural debates from our shared political consciousness belies the importance of these fights to determining the shape of our cities. In my recent article in the Journal of Urban History, I show that while many metropolitan residents perceive of infrastructural debates as a minor aspect of urban politics and life, these fights are in fact foundational. Since World War II contests around the planning, construction, and use of infrastructural networks have been among the more contentious and formative debates within our cities.

I track a set of these debates by looking at how residents from two disparate, central Houston neighborhoods – the white and wealthy Courtlandt Place and the predominately black, mostly lower-class Third Ward – responded to disruptive physical changes caused by highway building in the 1960s and 1970s. Using two very different neighborhoods from the same city as examples allows for a closer examination of how urbanites from a variety of circumstance responded to the physical changes taking place around them.

By transforming elements of the built environment from inert materials into arenas in which they could claim and assert political power, citizens crafted a shared set of actions that I view as expressions of “infrastructural citizenship.”

Both these Houston communities confronted highway construction and the physical transformation of their neighborhoods. For Courtlandt Place, it was the construction of the 527 Highway Spur and the transition from a once elite, single-family neighborhood to a community dotted with multi-family dwellings and commercialization. The Spur was a short, offshoot feeder ramp from U.S. 59 to streets leading directly into downtown. The aim of its construction was to remove drivers going to the southern part of downtown Houston from the main lanes of traffic continuing north.

In the Third Ward the disruptive project was the widening of Interstate 45 through the community. Initial construction of the roadway in the mid-1960s had already damaged a swath of the community. By the early 1970s the highway department aimed to widen the road to ease the commutes of suburbanites going to and from the quickly growing southeastern suburbs.

The scale and nature of the threats to the two communities were different. But the actions of residents were strikingly similar. To resist highway construction and its aftereffects, residents from both communities embraced rhetoric and actions that turned their homes and streets into political tools.

Residents in both communities viewed the projects with trepidation for a number of reasons. They feared that high-speed traffic on frontage roads and ramps would disrupt their daily patterns and make their streets less safe. They worried that the roads would speed displacement and neighborhood transformation. Finally, they protested the fact that they were rarely consulted in the planning and building of the roadways.

To address these concerns, residents used infrastructural debates around both roads. People from both communities staged protests, wrote letters, and attended countless public meetings. They organized historic preservation campaigns, lobbied city officials, and paid for independent planning efforts. They argued that their homes and local streets should be held in the same esteem as regional roadways and downtown redevelopments. With each action, the residents used infrastructural debates to assert their rights as citizens and worked to change the civic decision-making process.

In the end, the roadway through Courtlandt Place was not too damaging. It claimed a set of historic gates that were eventually rebuilt. Residents bought their street and maintained historic deed restrictions to prevent neighborhood transition and restrict pass-through traffic.

Workers rebuild gates in Courtlandt with the highway spur in the background. Image via Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC).

Workers rebuild gates in Courtlandt with the highway spur in the background. Image via Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC).

The results in the Third Ward were far more disruptive. The widening was passed as proposed and dozens of homes and businesses were removed over community objection.

It is undeniable that imbalances in the racial and economic power of the two sets of actors involved definitively shaped the outcomes of the fights. Houston in the 1970s still struggled with racism and rarely provided equitable treatment to all of its citizens. Despite those power differentials, citizens in both communities embraced the common language and action of infrastructural citizenship to attempt to protect their communities and to participate in the planning of the city’s future. Acknowledging this common approach is just as powerful as commenting on the racist structures that influenced it.

Each day in our cities, officials and residents jointly make choices about the future. Over the past 40 years the weight that citizens bring to these debates has increased greatly, aided by federal environmental laws, public meeting requirements, and a growing interest in how our built environment can be shaped to encourage new forms of urban living.

But even before such provisions provided citizens with added leverage, a diverse array of Americans daily asserted their own ideas for the future of our cities and their neighborhoods.

When we lay down infrastructure we establish paths forward – lines both physical and cognitive. How citizens negotiate the meaning and use of those networks, though, can alter those paths, and change the place and function of the physical networks that drive a city.

For structures literally set in concrete and steel, our infrastructures are constantly in flux. Debates about their meaning and use lend flexibility to seemingly inflexible structures. That a road can be defined and redefined through public debate; that a highway can serve different purposes for different people; and that those actors are willing to argue about it, bears out the power and prevalence of infrastructural citizenship in our cities’ history and future.

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