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Interstate 35-W and the Murder of George Floyd
16 years ago, today, the 35-W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed. But the bigger story about 35-W is a tale that leads from racist urban planning to the death of George Floyd.
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Every time a major news story develops, our tendency is to look only to the immediate events, never to the long tentacles of intertwined causes that stretch back deep into history. So, when George Floyd was murdered three years ago, the story was rightly about systemic racism in policing.
But there was a much bigger hidden story, one that helped explain why he lived and died where he did—and how we understand the deeper, deliberate roots of racism, entrenched far below the surface of individual events. This edition examines one road, in one city, to shine a light on those long, ugly tentacles we too often ignore.
I remember exactly where I was, sixteen years ago today, when the bridge fell down.
It was just after 6pm. I looked up at the TV screen, saw a familiar image of my hometown, Minneapolis, but with one horrific adjustment. Where there had been a bridge—one I’d driven across hundreds of times—there was now a grotesque, tangled mess of concrete and rebar. One of America’s iconic yellow school buses dangling over the mangled precipice of what had, until moments earlier, been a sprawling span across the Mighty Mississippi.
Everything had buckled catastrophically, green struts poking out from the brown water, faded grey asphalt covered with cars, with some bewildered passengers lucky to be alive after plunging, along with the road, from far above.
Thirteen people died. 145 were injured, many seriously.
This tragedy made the name 35-W notorious, for a time. You might remember the news reports. It wasn’t an accident—accident is the wrong term for negligence and a failure of regulation—but a devastating reminder that there’s a reason the government exists, not just to build roads, but to check they’re safe, to engineer not just infrastructure, but society writ large, so we can all live safely within it.
Governments sometimes fail, as ours did, when that bridge fell down. Other times, governments succeed, but their goals are destructive by design, proving they can be ruthlessly effective at deliberately engineering injustice.
The full story of 35-W in Minneapolis is a story of both. But only one of those stories is largely unknown. We certainly didn’t learn about it in school.
The origin of the interstate is a cautionary tale of the haunting historical legacies of grotesquely effective urban planning that sought to kill two birds with one colossal stone: developing a core trunk of automotive infrastructure while bisecting a city to divide white from black and rich from poor. The march of progress waits for no man, it was said, and, in 1950s America, there would certainly be no waiting for a Black man.
I love Minnesota—and Minneapolis is one of the nicest cities in America. But its history, like with so many American cities, is partly defined by racist discrimination.
The American interstate system is a marvel of human ingenuity. Stretching 48,756 miles across the United States, its construction spanned much of the 20th century. The concept emerged during World War I, but because of the war, there wasn’t much funding. In 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided this hand-drawn map (below), indicating a sketch of how vast arteries could traverse the continent, facilitating rapid movement of goods and people across eye-popping distances.
The idea took off under the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. As a young soldier crisscrossing the United States during World War I, he was struck by the inefficiency of the state highway system. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good two-lane highways…the wisdom of broader ribbons across our land,” he later recalled.
Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which, in addition to the movement of goods and people, also envisaged the necessity of interstates for national defense. (However, the urban legend that the interstates mandated a straight, flat section every five miles for aircraft to land on it so tanks could be mobilized fast, is, alas, untrue). The interstates were declared complete in 1992.
Odd numbered interstates run north/south, starting on the west coast with I-5 and ending in the east coast with I-95; even numbers run east/west and start with I-10 in the southern United States, up to I-90 and I-94 in the northernmost bits. Interstate 35 is therefore a major north/south route that starts in Minnesota (not far from the Canadian border) and runs down to the Mexican border in Texas. You can take a 1,556 mile trip from Duluth, Minnesota to Laredo, Texas, all on one road.
The interstates were mostly built on sparsely populated land, but to be most useful, they needed to serve cities. That prompted urban planning decisions that boiled down to this: where should we bulldoze? Too often, the answer was to route the new highways through Black neighborhoods.
From the 1890s until well into the 20th century, communities around America adopted racial covenants, “clauses that were inserted into property deeds to prevent people who were not white from buying or occupying land.” Here’s a standard clause from the period, produced by the exceptional “Mapping Prejudice” project at the University of Minnesota.
As the project highlights:
“Racial covenants were the brainchild of the real estate industry, which worked at the beginning of the 20th century with city planners to reshape the urban landscape…One of its central tenets was that mixed-race residential areas were hazardous and should be eliminated.”
In fact, this ideology became so central to property sales in America, that in 1924, this text was enshrined in the code of ethics for the National Association of Real Estate Boards:
“A Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”
I’ve looked up the area where I grew up — in the inner suburbs outside Minneapolis — and many houses in the neighborhood had some version of this text inserted into the property deeds:
“No persons of any race other than of the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.” Apparently, they were willing to relax the rules so long as the non-white person was a servant.
Although such covenants were made unenforceable in 1948, and later outlawed in 1968, they profoundly reshaped many American towns and cities. An analysis by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that property values in houses that were subject to racial covenants remain about 15 percent higher today than those that never had covenants.
Other effects linger. In areas that had covenants, modern-day populations are significantly whiter. The ongoing racial segregation of many American cities can be traced to these discriminatory housing practices, often from more than a century ago.
“The Road Builders Found Them”
The racial covenants—along with practices like redlining—created concentrations of Black residents in certain areas of Minneapolis.
In 1938, the US Federal Housing Administration produced an underwriting manual with advice on how to avoid “adverse influences” such as “lower class occupancy and inharmonious racial groups.” The guidance recommended establishing neighborhoods with physical barriers to keep out Black people. But if there were none already in place, well then: “A high speed traffic artery…may prevent the expansion of inharmonious uses to a location on the other side of the street.” Government officials saw highways as barriers that could be used to keep out non-white residents.
New research from the “Human Toll 35W” project points out that there were a series of possible routes for a new highway system in Minneapolis, including many that would have primarily passed through industrial estates. Instead, they took a laser-like focus on neighborhoods where Black people had been able to settle, away from the racial covenants.
The below map, produced by the project, shows how 35-W in Minneapolis—along with Interstate 94—were targeted to the few areas of the city that had Black residents. As one observer put it: “very few Blacks lived in Minnesota, but the road builders found them.”
The letter labeled areas below have the highest concentration of Black residents; the red lines are where the interstates were built.
One area targeted by 35-W construction was known as the Old Southside community. It was a Black neighborhood with working and middle-class residents. A key hub of commerce was the intersection of 38th St. and Chicago Ave., which we’ll return to shortly.
According to Ernest Lee Lloyd, who conducted his doctoral research on the long-term impacts of the construction of 35-W, the Old Southside was a thriving community. There was Brownie’s Barbershop, or the Dreamland Bar, among many Black-owned businesses, from grocery stores and salons to newspapers, including the renowned Minneapolis Spokesman. His research shows there was strong upward social mobility in the area, with low crime and low unemployment. Residents noted that they never bothered to lock their doors. In such a tight-knit community, there was no need.
And yet, when planners considered where to place the interstate, the Barton Report of 1957 dismissed the existence of the thriving neighborhood. “The Planning Commission could not find any unified and strongly functioning groupings” in the area. So, 35-W went right through the Old Southside, forcing countless residents from their homes, and devaluing the surrounding area that was spared demolition.
The photo below, from the Minnesota Historical Society (and highlighted by the Human Toll project), shows the trench for 35-W cut through South Minneapolis.
When Black families lost their homes, they ended up forced to relocate to the east side of the interstate. In some instances, families who tried to move west were threatened with violence. The artery of 35-W became a de facto racial dividing line in the south part of the city, which, until then, was beginning to integrate in the Old Southside.
These disparities persist today. This recent map below shows 35-W. The darker shades to its east show higher proportions of Black residents.
George Floyd and the Legacy of 35-W
When George Floyd was two years old, his mother moved the family to the Cuney Homes housing development in Houston’s Third Ward. His life, from the very start, was shaped by the interstate. In Houston, it was I-45, not I-35, that bisected the area, reinforcing racial segregation. His early life was spent living less than a mile south of that physical embodiment of racial discrimination.
But Floyd’s life ended even closer to the interstate. On May 25, 2020, he was murdered at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, a prominent intersection in the Old Southside neighborhood.
Now renamed George Floyd Square, it lies just half a mile from I-35W, a road carved through the lives and livelihoods of Black residents of Minneapolis, not just on the rationale that they didn’t matter—but that the community didn’t even exist as a “functioning grouping” that warranted consideration.
Floyd’s death galvanized a global movement. But what remained hidden from view was that the trajectory of his life can be partly traced along corridors of injustice that were intentionally engineered to achieve their goal of racial subjugation.
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