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Another Voice: News editorial glosses over racist history of Route 33

Another Voice: News editorial glosses over racist history of Route 33

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There’s an important petition up at change.org started by University of Arizona Assistant Professor Erika Gault, who grew up in Buffalo. It concerns Mayor Byron Brown’s reluctance to publicly say the name of mayoral candidate India Walton, and the recent replay in Buffalo of historically racist tropes concerning Black women.

I, too, would like to recognize the elision of proper names, albeit in a somewhat adjacent sphere: The Buffalo News editorial board’s opinion regarding the renewed energy around doing away with the Kensington Expressway (“Push to bury Route 33,” May 23).

All quotes are from the editorial. “The unconsidered placement and configuration of highways can exact a terrible price on those who live and work around them.” Actually, there is today no question about the disastrous consequences of urban expressways plowed through “minority neighborhoods” in the 1960s.

Moreover, why can’t The News say the name of this community? The 33 did, and does, “exact a terrible price” on Black Buffalo, namely the predominantly African American East Side. How is it that the words race, Black, or white never appear in the editorial?

Your concern over an ostensibly post-racial economic future of Buffalo is commendable. Yet our urban history is overtly racist. Where, for example, was the concern over the future of Black Buffalo in the planning of the 33? How then to square the future with the past? The late architect and planner Robert Coles made it clear to me that the 33 could have been brought out farther east, sparing Masten and the Fruit Belt. Coles would have known: He was at the time employed by the same developer and had studied their survey maps.

Seemingly the Humboldt Parkway was an all-too-convenient path of least resistance – nothing “unconsidered” in the placement of the 33. Nor was its development inadvertently “careless” and “indifferent” toward “minority communities.” Humboldt Parkway – the most glorious of the Olmsted Parkways – was simply expendable because the neighborhood was becoming predominantly Black. Black space didn’t matter back then. Does it matter now?

The “goal” of the 33 was to expediently connect white residential space to white economy (concerns you recapitulate in your editorial). Such economic and spatial “goals” are – out of necessity – anti-Black; harm to Black geographies is always their collateral damage. Can we not, 60 years later, just say it like it is? What’s “indifferent” is euphemistically glossing this history; the failure to at least name the community most affected by this disaster.

These “long-open wounds” won’t ever heal if white America can’t learn to truly assess its history and name anti-Blackness and racist urban planning for what it is and was. “Social justice,” as you call it, is all well and good. Yet it does not exist outside of race or free from Buffalo’s racist pasts; it won’t ever be attained unless we can speak openly about racial justice.

Matthew O’Malley is a social researcher and oral historian at Yale University.

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