‘A voice at the table’: In Africatown, patience wears thin over I-10 project

When Alabama pursued widening Mobile’s Bay Bridge Road in 1993, the Africatown community feared the project would mean losing property, businesses, and a historic chimney.

For the most part, those fears have turned into reality.

The chimney was salvaged, but no retail businesses of Africatown’s past remain. Eateries, a grocery store, post office, and gas stations that longtime residents talk about, are all gone. And the residents and community activists of this small and almost entirely Black community blame some of Africatown’s decay on the state-led projects of the late 1980s and 90s – Bay Bridge Road’s widening, construction of Interstate 165, and the opening of the Cochrane-Africatown USA Bridge.

Three decades later, the ghosts of the road projects past loom large over distrust about the latest Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project. The concerns, expressed by Africatown activists, focus on the potential for more large trucks traveling through the heart of Africatown as motorists divert from a new toll bridge over the Mobile River south of downtown Mobile.

Africatown, where the widened Bay Bridge Road – renamed Africatown Boulevard a few years ago – is the epicenter of one of the few toll-free routes from Mobile and Baldwin counties.

Activists also fear the project could produce more pollution for a community that has already been living in the shadow of industries built along its borders.

Unlike the past projects, Africatown has emerged recently as more than a historic curiosity.

City and county taxpayers are forking over millions to kickstart what they predict will be transformational tourism following the May 2019 discovery of a hull of the Clotilda. The ship, with 110 enslaved Africans aboard, represented the final international slave excursion into the United States when it arrived north of Mobile in 1860. Its survivors settled in Africatown following the Civil War, and much of their traditions and heritage are expected to be retold through museums, storytellers, and tours.

Efforts, led by the Mobile County Commission, are now underway to preserve and restore some of the older homes in the community as part of a restoration project occurring alongside the tourism activity that will be highlighted with a new Africatown Heritage House museum opening in early 2022.

While the community is trying to rebuild internally and, at the same time, building itself out as a tourist attraction “we are putting all of this traffic through (the community),” said Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood, who has spearheaded projects to stabilize Africatown housing. “It will require a good bit of creativity and investment to do those things simultaneously.”

‘Passage of time’

The concerns from Africatown activists and public officials could become the latest major obstacle for pro-bridge officials who spent much of 2019 embroiled with anti-tax conservatives and others over toll opposition. The toll opposition led to the collapse of a $2.1 billion public-private investment project embraced by ALDOT but viewed as a political hot potato because it included tolling the existing I-10 at the Wallace Tunnel.

The latest I-10 project is backed by political leaders in Mobile and Baldwin counties and does not involve tolling the Wallace Tunnel. The new project is a three-phase approach that calls for a new bridge over the Mobile River and, eventually, a brand new Bayway connecting Mobile and Baldwin counties. The new bridge would be tolled with assessments levied on all vehicles including semi-tractor trailers.

ALDOT has provided two updates this summer into the project, but little has been said about Africatown. A “Coastal Conversation” update on the overall project occurring on Tuesday did include a brief update on Africatown concerns, and a recognition that the state “wants to compliment the plans underway” in the community and “not prohibit those plans coming to fruition,” according to Missi Shumer, a consultant on the project for ALDOT.

Shumer also said that a steering committee, consisting of Africatown community leaders, will be formed and will work with ALDOT.

An ALDOT representative told AL.com on Thursday that the steering committee will be formed soon.

Africatown Heritage House groundbreaking

Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood attends a groundbreaking ceremony for the future Africatown Heritage House on Thursday, February 18, 2021, at the Robert L. Hope Recreation Center in Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Patience is running thin and Ludgood and others are wondering when the committee will be formed so discussions can begin over how Bay Bridge Road will be reconfigured, so it creates fewer traffic headaches.

Average daily traffic along Bay Bridge Road is around 17,000 vehicles, but it’s the typ
e of vehicles that is most concerning to Africatown advocates: Semi-trucks frequently travel between I-165 and the nearby heavy industry, or they traverse over the Cochrane-Africatown Bridge to avoid the Wallace Tunnel. Trucks hauling hazardous materials are not allowed through the tunnel, which means they are often diverted through downtown Mobile and into Africatown.

Ludgood said she is unaware of the committee’s status but added that “it’s important to have that voice at the table. There will be some tough issues particularly if Africatown Boulevard is one the free (non-toll) routes and what that will mean. Bringing the people most impacted by it to the table is the best thing they can do right now, and to do it quickly.”

She added, “The passage of time feeds the distrust.”

Tony Harris, spokesman with ALDOT, said while the committee’s formation is not imminent, it’s coming soon.

He said the group will be valued and will be set up like other steering committees that are formed around the state in which community outreach is needed during a major road project.

“It’s a way for us to hear directly from the community through individuals who represent community groups and residents,” said Harris. “That type of input is valuable to us. It helps us to be sure we are being a good neighbor and sometimes it helps us deliver a project.”

‘Traffic is a challenge’

Ideas are already circulating on how to circumvent Bay Bridge Road and link the historic Old Plateau Cemetery – the burial ground for many of the survivors of the Clotilda slave ship – and a future Welcome Center facility that will be constructed in the coming years with the heart of the community that includes Union Missionary Baptist Church. A few blocks from the church will be the future Africatown Heritage House.

One idea is a pedestrian bridge, although it’s not included in ALDOT’s plans. A design concept is included in a project recently completed by the Savannah College of Art and Design, according to David Clark, president & CEO with Visit Mobile. The schematics of the proposed pedestrian bridge have not been released, but Clark said it would cross over Bay Bridge Road from the future location of the Welcome Center.

“Someone has to step up and create a safe place over there,” Clark said. “Traffic is a challenge. It’s too fast.”

Slowing traffic is also a concern for the Clotilda Descendants Association, which is focusing on ways to restore Africatown into a community and an international tourist site that can draw on the same level as the lynching memorial in Montgomery, where hundreds of thousands of visitors go to each year.

“There has got to be an organized plan to slow traffic down on that road,” said Darron Patterson, president of the association. “We have crosswalks, and there are ideas for (more) crosswalks across the road so pedestrians can get from one side to the other safely. But how do you slow the traffic down? You have people trying to get home in the evening. It’s brutal.”

Jeremy Ellis, a sixth-generation descendent of Pollee and Rose Allen – both Clotilda survivors – said he would like the city of Mobile and the steering committee team revisit the 2016 “Africatown Neighborhood Plan” that recommends wider sidewalks along Bay Bridge Road with stronger separations from traffic and a bike path. The design within the 2016 plan includes landscaped medians with trees.

“I think because all of Africatown is a historical site, that we need to treat it with white gloves, meaning we need to make certain we involve the right people and we are addressing the issues of Africatown and understanding the impacts of where we are headed in the next 10-15 years,” said Ellis. “If we’re trying to make Africatown, as a world-class tourism place to visit, then that needs to be taken into account when building a toll bridge. You don’t want to see these trucks going through the Africatown community.”

Patterson added, “It’s incumbent on ALDOT to get serious on how we will slow traffic down on Africatown Boulevard.”

Bike paths and ideas

Cochrane-Africatown Bridge

Cochrane-Africatown Bridge, Mobile (AL.com file)

ALDOT pitched some ideas, which are listed under an “Environmental Justice” section on the I-10 project’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) released in 2019.

Among the ideas:

-Provide crosswalks at all of the signalized intersections along Bay Bridge Road.

-Create a “shared use path” used by bicyclists and pedestrians from the I-165 ramp at Bay Bridge Road to U.S. 90 on the east side of the Mobile River and work with municipalities to provide future extensions from downtown Mobile to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park.

– Develop and “access management plan” to help facilitate access to and from destinations along U.S. 90/U.S. 98
Causeway. Strategies could include installing traffic signals, medians with U-turns, mid-block signals and other techniques.

-Install landscaping and historical/interpretive signage along the shared use path.

-Resurface Paper Mill Road from Bay Bridge Road to U.S. 43 and install streetscaping.

Other mitigation measures are also mentioned, such as conducting a speed study to determine if changing the speed limit along Bay Bridge Road should be examined. ALDOT will also work with the steering committee to evaluate and implement traffic calming measures aimed at reducing speed, according to the EIS document.

The mitigation measures also recommended in the EIS include ALDOT partnering with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to discuss installing air quality monitors.

Ludgood said whatever ALDOT decides to do, it should focus more on the residential area and not be industry specific.

“I think in order to do this well, we have to be people focused,” she said. “Sometimes, I think we are (concerned about advancing) industry forward when we are planning without regard on the impact on people.”

Environmental Justice

The I-10 project’s dynamics on Africatown also come as there is an increasing watchful eye on future planning and zoning for the area through Mobile’s Unified Development Code or UDC.

Mobile is undergoing its most significant reform of its zoning codes since the 1960s, and an “Africatown Overlay District” is part of those plans.

The Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition (MEJAC) have argued that zoning changes pitched by the city are not strong enough to protect the residential areas from heavy industry. Africatown has long been surrounded by smog-producing paper plants, and other facilities like chemical plants and railroad yards, that attract the large trucks which travel along Africatown Boulevard/Bay Bridge Road.

MEJAC officials are skeptical about the toll project’s impact on Africatown at a time when tourism talks are ramping up.

Ramsey Sprague, president MEJAC and president of the Mobile NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice committee, said the priorities for ALDOT is to slow the traffic through the community, which he claims can be as fast as interstate or highway during rush hours.

“People have one way out of their street in some cases and they are blocked on Africatown Boulevard when the traffic is flying by at 80 mph,” said Sprague. “It’s not an exaggeration.”

Finding the Clotilda

Community activist Joe Womack mingles ahead of the press conference into the finding of the Clotilda on Thursday, May 30, 2019, at the Robert Hope Community Center in Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Joe Womack, executive director with Africatown-C.H.E.S.S., an organization focused on making sure the community is “Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe and Sustainable,” said he’s worried that the truck traffic will be “doubled down on” if more diversion occurs after the toll bridge is built.

Womack said that the community should have been engaged in the I-10 discussions years ago, saying that he feels as if ALDOT is “only checking the boxes” in addressing their concerns.

Ludgood, though, said she does not believe ALDOT is intentionally trying to “impair or impede the possibilities of Africatown.” But she said it’s important for leaders to be watchful “on the front end” of the latest project before the project advances further and “we are in the midst of it and run the real risk of doing real harm in Africatown.”