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How highway displaced Lansing's largest Black neighborhood

Posted at 1:57 PM, Sep 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-09 16:57:22-04

LANSING, Mich. — Call it nostalgia, but there's nothing quite like your childhood neighborhood.

Siblings Diane Sulayman and Adolph Burton say the neighborhood they grew up in was a special one. The two paint a picture of a community bustling with neighbors who felt like family and businesses that felt like your best friend's house.

"That's the way the neighborhood was," said Sulayman. "Everybody knew what we were supposed to be doing, and they would tell your mama."

Remembering the neighborhood that was lost

Today Sulayman lives across the street from where her childhood neighborhood used to be, but when she looks out the window, she doesn't see a friend waving or a group of kids playing marbles. She sees a highway: Interstate 496.

"I brought my son over here, and I tried to explain to him that our home was right there," Burton said. "He said, ‘What are you talking about, dad? There's an expressway there?' Him being 29, 28 at that time, I couldn't make him understand, but he does now. There were homes all up and down here, so people don't know."

"There used to be homes all up and down here"

The 11 miles of concrete that make up I-496 pass through what was once Lansing's largest Black neighborhood.

The United States government built the interstate between 1966 and 1970, demolishing 600 homes and 200 businesses. And like many of the new highways built in that era, it was built along the path of least resistance, where residents didn't have the power to fight back.

Ralph Riddle Jr.'s family home was among those 600 displaced. He calls it "heartbreaking."

The community it destroyed was one of the few places in the city where Black people could buy a home in a city divided by racism and the practice of redlining.

Those who lived there describe it as a haven.

Everybody knew everybody, everybody loved everybody," said Bill Lett, the founder of Lett's Bridal.

Bill Castanier is the president of The Historical Society of Greater Lansing. He's spent the last two years working with a team of people to research the legacy of the neighborhood destroyed to make way for the highway.

"If you take a look at the proposed routes of expressways in this country, match them up with red-lined neighborhoods, they match pretty close to 100 percent," Castanier said.

Lansing families were cut a check that supposedly matched their homes' worth and told to leave their houses within 60 days, a difficult feat as, until 1968, many other neighborhoods had it written in black and white that people of color were not welcome.

"It was controlled by restrictive covenants that basically said in your deed that African Americans, and sometimes it would mention others, Hispanics, Jewish, mostly marginalized citizens, could not live in those neighborhoods," Castanier said. "Most of the deeds in the Lansing area have those in them."

Riddle was a young adult when his parents and close friends were forced to relocate. To him, a way of life was destroyed along with their homes.

Riddle was a young adult when his parents and close friends were forced to relocate. To him, a way of life was destroyed along with their homes.

"I coined the phrase years ago that I believe that federal project 'took the unity out of our community," he said. "If you didn’t like the price and didn’t go along with it, they just took your house and put you out. I saw people go through that."

There were three potential routes for I-496 and a few variables that likely led the government to choose the path they did. Among other things, General Motors wanted it there.

"I don't think they would have done the same thing in a white neighborhood," said Sulayman, "but I don't think it's just because of race."

"I think it was race and convenience," said Burton. "It made sense at the time."

With an interstate where their kitchen tables used to be, many Black families moved to predominately white neighborhoods.

"Some people were happy, and there were a lot of hard feelings. I think it worked both ways," Riddle said.

Bill Castanier is the president of The Historical Society of Greater Lansing.

Castanier has been working with many of these residents to bring their memories back to life in the form of a documentary and a window display at the Knapp's Center in downtown Lansing.

"We hope to catch people as they walk by," said Castanier. "They’ll wonder what a barrel is doing in a window of a former department store, and hopefully, they’ll walk these 10 windows and get a precise kind of idea of what an expressway did to a neighborhood."

It's been more than 50 years since the demolition of the neighborhood.

More than five decades since Diane's mother had neighbors that would watch what route her little girl took home from school.

More than five decades since a community shaped by racism and remembered for unity was lost to a highway.

"I do know one thing, though, and this has been my pledge," said Burton. "When they put that expressway through here, it changed a way of life. And you can't replace that with money."

The Historical Society's documentary on the lost neighborhood will be released this fall. Castanier, Burton, and their team conducted over 80 interviews with past neighborhood residents to put it together.

The Society's window display will be at Knapp's Center from Sept. 17 through October.

Sarah Grimmer at WSYM first reported this story.