BLACK HISTORY MONTH: I-135, a highway to nowhere for some Wichitans
"I guess what I could equate it to is like the Berlin Wall," said Marvin Stone. "It's crazy. And, when you look at it now, it does not make sense."
It was a two-decade-long construction project meant to bring the future to Wichita. But one Wichita community says it brought only disaster for them. It's a story repeated in large cities across the country, yet one many Americans have never heard.
Thousands of Kansas drivers travel the lanes of Wichita's Interstate 135, also known as the Canal Route, every day. It runs right down through the middle of the city, in some ways dividing the feuding neighbors East and West Wichita. But how many of us think about what lies just off the sides of this highway as we're flying past? Or even, what used to fill this space before the Canal Route took shape?
"We had drug stores, theaters, uh, actually had hotels over there," said Marvin Stone. Ninety years old now, he remembers what Northeast Wichita was like before the interstate ripped through his neighborhood. "Grocery stores and even at one time we had a cab company over there."
For more than a century Northeast Wichita was the only place African Americans could live in the city. Surrounded by an industrial zone, stockyards, and railroads, it was perhaps the least desirable place in town to live. But first former slaves and, later, African Americans fleeing a segregated South made a new home here, a place where they worked to fulfill the American Dream of owning one's own home and maybe even starting a business.
"All of the support for a community was there," Stone said. "There were businesses that just lined both sides of the streets here."
"This is a historic neighborhood," said Melody McCray Miller, who grew up in Northeast Wichita riding her bike from the end of Black Wichita to the other. She loved the energy of the bustling community. "The neighborhood was teeming it was teeming, when I say teeming, it was busy. It was exciting. It was movement. There were people."
Until one day, it all changed.
"And then along came I-35 and that just tore up everything because it cut 9th Street off," Stone said.
Originally called I-35W, later renamed I-135, the Canal Route changed life forever for this community.
"I saw the change," McCray Miller said. "The difference between having a neighborhood that was connected and one community, where people were mixing and talking with each other, neighbors knew people that lived on the opposite side. To have that split in two was devastating,"
That physical separation rang a death knell for the businesses that had thrived here. Only a handful survived at all in new locations.
"Some were able to, you know, establish enterprises on 21st Street, which was becoming a thoroughfare where African American enterprises were located," said
Dr. Robert Weems, a historian at Wichita State University. "Some were able to relocate to 13th Street."
Weems studies business history and lead the Wichita Black Business History Project, documenting the changes I-135 brought to the community - from business that died due to vanishing access to the homes lost to eminent domain.
"I think the most insidious thing that happened as far as I-35W was this eminent domain and all that craziness. Since a lot of people didn't understand what was going on, a lot of property was lost," Stone said.
"And then people had a really difficult time in finding alternative homes that were commensurate with the homes that they lost," Weems said.
That's presuming they could find a home at all. Then, like now, there was a shortage of housing. And, while segregation wasn't the law in the 1960s and 1970s, realtors in Wichita worked hard to maintain separate and unequal in the city.
A federal report on desegregation in Wichita documented how they would refuse to show homes in White neighborhoods to African Americans and other minorities. In her book Dissent in Wichita, historian Dr. Gretchen Eick writes about how, if an African American family moved into a primarily White neighborhood, those same realtors would go to the neighbors and warn them to sell out fast, before their home values crashed.
And that was if an African American could get a home loan to begin with.
"Because the lending institutions were not lending money to the people who were being displaced," Stone said.
Businesses were lost, homes lost, and families were unable to replace either. It was a moment that changed an entire culture within the community.
"When you run a highway through, it's like severing an artery, you just slowly bleed to death," Stone said.
This is a history often forgotten, mostly unrecorded by the local newspapers at the time. KAKE News was able to find precisely one article from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s that mentioned an African American homeowner who'd lost their home to interstate construction.
The community's fight to keep the highway out of its backyard went unreported. The fight community leaders mounted was a losing one.
"We didn't really have anyone at the county, on the boards or anything like that. So there was no way to get anything going," Stone said.
Even attempts to make changes at the Statehouse to protect Northeast Wichita failed. Stone remembers it all clearly, more than half a century later.
"There was a protest, but there was no coverage. So it was like it never happened," he said. "But, no, there was no happiness about this."
"Pretty much universally, you know, my respondents said I-135 had a negative effect on the... not just the pre-existing African American business community, but the community in general," Weems said.
He says it's a story repeated time and again in cities across the country, highways that were meant to bring the future to town got to run straight through the poorest, and usually Blackest, of neighborhoods.
"This is a national phenomenon. The evidence suggests it was an intentional phenomenon," Weems said. "Another bit of research that I came across was in St. Paul, Minnesota. This scholar was saying that there weren't a lot of Black people in St. Paul. But the highway builders found them and ran, you know, the interstate highway through that community."
A phenomenon with long-lasting consequences. It stripped the community of what's called generational wealth - financial stability passed down from one generation to the next through the ownership of property.
"That was intentional," said McCray Miller, who grew up to become a teacher and a state legislator. "So, yes, that type of wealth was definitely lost. And I would say it's three generations."
The businesses and homes lost to the highway weren't the only losses, as Stone sees it. He says there was also a cultural shift from home ownership to a rental community.
"Children growing up in that kind of community, they don't really get to see people who own anything. And that is what really is troubling," he said. "We had doctors and attorneys with offices, as opposed to when they ran that thing through. It just killed everything."
There were efforts in the late 1970s to make up for the losses with urban renewal grants. But those efforts failed.
Stone doesn't hold out much hope of ever regaining the economic strength his community once held.
"It just, actually, it just kind of gutted everything," he said.
But McCray Miller is more optimistic as Habitat for Humanity and other groups help bring in new homes and federal opportunity zones invite investors to sink money into locally owned businesses once again.
And, on the day this story first aired, the Department of Transportation announced a $1 million Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program grant for the Wichita 21st Street Corridor Project. The Biden-Harris Administration says Reconnecting Communities is "a first-of-its-kind initiative to reconnect communities that are cut off from opportunity and burdened by past transportation infrastructure decisions."
The money is to pay for a study on how to reconnect the 21st Street Corridor. Currently, the area is divided by several street-level train crossings, leaving residents waiting sometimes more than 90 minutes to cross the tracks that, among other things, divide the historically Black Northeast Wichita from the historically Latino North End.
Other Reconnect programs across the country will concentrate on re-building some of the housing lost to highways and freeways. McCray Miller says she's seeing that happen already in the parts of Wichita she grew up in.
"I love coming down Indiana, in particular, because of the infill housing," McCray Miller said. "Because of looking at the neighbors and how the neighbors are out and about and doing the things that I remember as we were growing up."