'They Even Took the Dirt’ documentary explores neighborhood torn down by I-496
When he was growing up, Ken Turner lived in three different homes along Lansing's Westside, a neighborhood that was then centered around St. Joseph and Main Streets. All three were demolished as part of the construction of Interstate 496, and he isn’t really able to picture them anymore. But driving down the freeway often brings the neighborhood to mind.
"Just riding through, you can just close your eyes for a second still imagine the houses on each side of the street, where now, one side of the street got houses," Turner told WKAR during an interview by the former Main Street School. "You know, it just resurrects a lot of memories."
Thousands of drivers pass through downtown Lansing along I-496 every day. The 12-mile east-west highway cuts across the city and makes for quick commutes through mid-Michigan.
But a thriving African-American neighborhood once stood in the corridor. "They Even Took the Dirt," a new documentary currently being screened in Lansing, shows what life was like in the neighborhood before I-496.
In the late 20th century, large numbers of African Americans left southern states and headed north during the Great Migration. Many settled on Lansing’s Westside.
In narration for the documentary, filmmaker Craig Derek Jones speaks about how the area’s residents formed a tight knit community.
"On a summer night in the St. Joseph Main Street neighborhood, the sounds of children playing games mixed with the pounding drop forge and music drifting from open windows of nearly every home," Jones narrates. "On a clear night with an east wind, you might even hear the lion roar at the Potter Park Zoo. Jazz, blues, rock, soul and gospel, the cacophony of sounds melded together, filling the streets."
But today, you’ll find a four-lane freeway that cuts the city in half, roaring with cars zooming through where the neighborhood used to be.
Construction began on I-496 in 1963 as part of the federal government’s plans for the National Highway System. It’s estimated more than 800 Lansing homes and businesses were destroyed to pave the way for the interstate. The road opened to vehicle traffic in 1970.
It’s now common knowledge that the U.S. Department of Transportation targeted majority Black neighborhoods for highway construction as part of its plans for urban renewal, and racist housing policies limited the amount residents were paid for their properties and where they could buy a new home.
Turner said the displacement left a permanent financial impact, with some residents forced to pick up new mortgages after paying off their homes in the neighborhood.
"For generations, it changed the financial outlook for that family," he said. "They relied on the income from their store, their beauty shop, their barber shop, whatever it was, and they're all gone. And where they moved to, they wouldn't have been able to sustain it.
"That really changed the whole fabric of this neighborhood," Turner explained.
The Historical Society of Greater Lansing has been working to preserve the community's distant memories. The organization received a grant from the National Park Service in 2018 to tell the story of what life looked like in the Main and St. Joseph Street corridor before the highway ripped it apart.
"People drive over that expressway every day over a lost neighborhood," said Bill Castanier, president of the historical society. "We wanted to tell [the story] in a way that people understood what it means to lose a house, what it means to lose kind of a neighborhood and a way of life.”
Castanier said one of his goals was to ensure Lansing’s African American community was closely involved in the work of researching the neighborhood.
"Historical societies across the nation tend to be generally white, old and boring. We didn't want to be any of those things," Castanier said. "And it turned out that we weren't with this documentary."
As part of its research, the group looked through archival documents and spoke with residents of the Westside neighborhood. Turner worked alongside Adolph Burton to film interviews with more than 100 people who lived along the I-496 corridor.
Burton was just a child when the government built the interstate, when the Westside was an densely-packed community, with most necessities just a short walk away.
"If I sat on my front porch, I could turn my head to the right and see the church we went to," Burton said. "If I could see just a little bit further... on the same side of the street was my grandparents house. Next to them was our grocery store... within 30 seconds literally, I could be my dentist's office. Now if I turn right and walk two blocks, I'd be in my elementary school... so it was really convenient to live there."
Burton said some media coverage has characterized the freeway construction as "getting the ghetto" removed from Lansing's Westside. He pushed back on those claims, noting he lived in a racially integrated neighborhood.
"The people who lost their homes and businesses, they weren't all Black," Burton said. "There were some white people who lived there, Hispanic people who lived there as well... We didn't have any issues... we all lived together. We all shopped at each other stores."
He added the testimonies were rewarding for both himself and other residents.
"It kind of worked both ways in the interviews, I was learning a lot from them, and them from me as well," Burton said. "So I think, in summation, people wanted to kind of get this off the chest, but had no medium to do it. So by the Historical Society, doing this got a chance for a lot of people to just say, 'Oh, are you kidding me?'"
The name of the film "They Even Took the Dirt, is a reference to an interview with Jet Davis. He’s one of the residents from the neighborhood who reflected on the ditch left after highway planners demolished the homes and began to make way for miles of concrete.
“I come home the summer of '68 and all I can think of was, they took the dirt away," he said.
Craig Derek Jones handled post-production narration and editing for the documentary, noting the challenges of telling a story that’s become obscure over the years.
"I didn't know this had happened until they brought me on board the documentary," Jones said. "And I lived here my whole life. Nobody ever talked about it."
Jones relied on the testimonies to tell the story. Coming from a professional filmmaking background, he said the editing was frustrating at first since it didn’t have the best sound and video quality.
“But then the more I got into it and the more I leaned into it, it was almost kind of charming that it was just people talking in their homes and it wasn't some sort of high end glassy production,” Jones said.
The historical society has been partnering with community organizations to screen the film to packed crowds. Jones said viewers often get emotional watching the film.
“It humbles me, all these people come that I didn't know coming up hugging me after the screening, and telling me how much they loved it and how it reminds them of their fathers and their mothers and their families,” he said.
In other places where urban renewal displaced Black families, transportation planners are considering how they can reconnect communities divided by federal highways. Turner said he isn’t sure what the state’s transportation department could do to make amends for the rift they created in Lansing they created with I-496.
"A lot of the people that [were] genuinely affected by it, which would have been our parents, most of them are passed on now," Turner said. "Anything that the government could have done, should have went to them, not to us."
I-496 is currently undergoing a major resurfacing project. “They Even Took the Dirt” serves as a reminder that the orange barrels, speeding vehicles and concrete there occupy a corridor that wasn’t always under construction — it was a complete neighborhood whose lifespan was cut short when the highway came to town.
Audio from the film was provided by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. The "It's a Hole in the Ground" segment was recorded by "Riddle Me That" and Adolph Burton.