The Race Barriers of American Cities

The United States has a long and insidious history of erecting structures to control the movements of African Americans in urban and suburban spaces.

2 minute read

December 9, 2020, 7:00 AM PST

By Camille Fink

Blank Wall

SCOTTCHAN / Shutterstock

Chat Travieso writes about the history of walls and other barriers—fences, barricades, buffer strips—that have been used to segregate communities in cities across the country. "Under pretexts of traffic control, crime prevention, and protection of property values, municipalities from Florida to New York to California continue, into the present century, to block streets along Black-white neighborhood borders — and in so doing to further harden racial divisions, facilitate police intimidation, and force Black residents to take circuitous routes to get to work and school and to fulfill other daily needs."

Travieso has been mapping and documenting these representations of racial inequality manifested in the built environment. He recounts the histories of these structures, many of which still exist in some form, and their long-term impacts:

In Melbourne, Florida, a half-mile concrete wall separating the predominantly white Sunwood Park from the majority African-American Booker T. Washington area continues to block a direct path to the elementary school. The developer of Sunwood Park built the wall in 1959 in opposition to the county’s plan to construct a public-housing project. But, as I was told in 2019 by a community member named Pauline Clark, "to this day, no school buses come around here."

Private developers, civic authorities, and white homeowners were all complicit in using these barriers to segregate and disenfranchise African Americans. While their removal is one response, some communities have chosen to acknowledge the barriers as relics of racism and to reclaim the past through plaques, murals, and historic designations, says Travieso.    

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