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Local lawmakers push for federal infrastructure plans to include Humboldt Parkway restoration

WBFO File Photo

When the Kensington Expressway was built starting in 1958, many residents and community leaders say it divided a community once connected through a parkway. Now influential state legislators are jumping behind plans to redesign Route 33. 

The Humboldt Parkway was a part of Fredrick Law Olmstead’s original design for roadways in Buffalo, connecting neighborhoods stretching from Humboldt Park, Hamlin, and Kensington in a natural way which preserved greenery. 

In the mid-1950s quick travel became the state’s vision for the future, and the State Department of Transportation dug down and put Route 33 Kensington Expressway smack dab in the middle of the parkway. Something New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples Stokes calls a mistake. 

“This community was destroyed as a result of the 33 having been put down in the middle of a neighborhood where people live, people's health has suffered, the economy has suffered. Commercial strips have been shut down in Jefferson and Fillmore, all because a decision was made to separate the community.”

Credit Restore Our Community Coalition
Humboldt Parkway in the late 1940s/early 1950s before Route 33 was constructed in the middle of it.

But now State Senate Transportation Committee Chair Tim Kennedy said they have the opportunity to right that wrong in Albany. 

“It was wrong then, and it's wrong now, it's an injustice in history that has to be rectified and remediated. And now is the time to do that,” said Kennedy, who represents the 63rd Senate District in Albany. “The only way we can do that is if the New York State Department of Transportation acts immediately, they act now. Which is why we're calling for this expedited EIS” 

“EIS” stands for environmental impact study, and is needed before any redesign goes forward. Stephanie Geter, who as head of Restore Our Communities Coalition (ROCC) has been advocating for restoration of Humboldt Parkway for 12 years, says she feels the project is as close as ever.

“This is a time in America where we all count, and we all matter,” Geter said when joined with elected officials. “This was one of the biggest, racially, socially injustice things that happened in our time. We can fix it.”

Some in the community, academia, and elected office have called the Kensington Expressway an example of using infrastructure to physically redline neighborhoods. In 2018, longtime resident Al Thompson, then 67, told WBFO he sees the purpose of the expressway only positive for suburban majority-whites.

“You would look down on to the expressway and you can see into the cars, from the bridges going across," he said. "It’s all white folks during the rush hours leaving town.”

The racial demographics of the neighborhoods around Humboldt and Kensington started to shift shortly before construction began on the 33 in the late-1950s, early 1960s. This was according to Henry J. Taylor, a founding director of the University at Buffalo’s Urban Studies Center, who also spoke with WBFO back in 2018. 

“They [NYS Dept. of Transportation] planned the design and construction of the 33, really before the African American population got there. So they had not yet started construction until the 1960s," he said.  "So whites knew that the highway was coming through and they started to sell their houses to blacks.”

State Senator Kennedy wants the design process to be finalized before any possible American Jobs Plan funding passes in Washington. He called this a two fold strategy, one so it pressures the federal government to allocate the money, secondly so the project can be shovel-ready as soon as possible.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
Ryan Zunner joined WBFO in the summer of 2018 as an intern, before working his way up to reporter the following summer.
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