Zillow’s Satellite View Shows the Ghosts of Neighborhoods Erased By America’s Highways

Tray Ling

The first image shows Milwaukee and I-794—you can still recognize the outline of whole blocks and a triangular intersection, though the individual property lines haven’t been preserved. Moving onto Cincinnati and Chicago, the destruction is shown in much clearer relief. Thousands of small lots spring up beneath I-71 and I-471 […]

The first image shows Milwaukee and I-794—you can still recognize the outline of whole blocks and a triangular intersection, though the individual property lines haven’t been preserved. Moving onto Cincinnati and Chicago, the destruction is shown in much clearer relief. Thousands of small lots spring up beneath I-71 and I-471 as you take a closer look. Just the same, I-90 and I-94 now sit on the spot where dozens of privately-owned plots used to be.

We reached out to Zillow to learn more about where it’s pulling this data from. According to a spokesperson, Zillow—and other similar websites, as well—receive this data digitally “through a feed” from county records of tax/plat maps. Though the company didn’t have immediate information on the exact databases it’s pulling from, the spokesperson said they would get back to us next week after digging into it some more.

This is a story that played out nationwide over half a century, and really, it’s a shame it’s fallen to a random source like Zillow to provide the most easily-accessible view of the past. Highways were a boon for this country, but the eminent domain that allowed their creation and the quality-of-life issues that they spawned have also had a devastating effect on innumerable urban neighborhoods—again, often working-class neighborhoods populated by minorities. The way our highway network feels like such a permanent, immutable aspect of modern society makes it easy to forget that it wasn’t always like this. 

Today, we’re living with the decisions that urban planners made decades ago, living in cities that they had a hand in shaping for better and for worse. But at least yesterday feels a little bit closer now.

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