A life-altering I-15 project wasn’t in Grandma Molly’s retirement plan — not for a second time

Molly Segura and her family have lived in their Guadalupe home for more than 60 years. They may have to move to make way for a freeway expansion. Molly had to relocate decades ago for the same road.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Molly Segura talks about her life in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. Segura, 101, was once displaced from her home to make space for Interstate 15. Now, her current home is just a block away from the freeway and her family fears they may be displaced again if it gets expanded.

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There are a few things Molly Segura refuses to give up.

One of them is walking, even though each step has become tougher and slower lately. Another is washing the dishes, because, well, she heard standing at the sink for a while is good for her back. And if you ask her family members, they’ll tell you Segura elbowing anyone who stands in her way also counts as a form of exercise.

At 101, Segura is still spunky but a little less spry than she was in her younger years, so it’s important to her to keep moving. But her new exercise routine isn’t all she’s trying to hang onto.

After spending more than half her life in her home on 400 North in west Salt Lake City’s Guadalupe neighborhood, a state-led proposal to widen Interstate 15 might mean Segura and her family will have to pack up and leave.

“I want to stay as long as I can,” she said. “Or as long as [I can until] they throw me out.”

Although the Utah Department of Transportation has not completed its study detailing how the estimated $1.6 billion proposal would affect homes and businesses, Segura fears her house would be in the project’s path.

And it wouldn’t be the first time the freeway chased her from her home.

Old home reduced to rubble

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Molly Segura talks about her life in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. At right is one of her daughters, Corine Giron.

In 1959, as a new I-15 sliced through California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Montana, it forced Segura and her family from their home between 800 West and 900 West.

“It was nice,” Segura said of her former house, “very pretty.”

Sure, it was also old, but in the three years her loved ones lived there, they forged memories of a neighborhood that was forever changed by the highway.

Segura’s daughter Corine Giron fondly remembers the school, the library and the now-demolished Arcade Theater.

“We always would go to the theater on weekends,” she said, “and paid a quarter.”

The old home had to be razed to make room for construction, so Segura and her family bought a new house and got to work on moving their belongings, sprucing up the landscaping and even building a garage.

Segura remembers the transition well: She has a living reminder of it in her daughter Denece. That moving-day-turned-birthday is a milestone in her family lore.

“The very day we came in, brought our stuff and she said, ‘OK, I’ll see you later,’” Giron said. “She took off… came [back] with a baby.”

Segura still laughs at the feat of giving birth to Denece on moving day. “Quite a surprise,” she said. “New house and new baby.”

Interstate could be widened

Segura has become a fixture in the Guadalupe neighborhood since she moved into her “new” house 63 years ago.

She became a grandmother, then a great-grandmother, then a great-great-grandmother. She worked as a seamstress at a tent company and as a bus driver for Guadalupe School.

Area kids call her “Molly Tamale,” and others simply call her “Grandma Molly.”

She crocheted, crafted quilts and sold them at fairs. She hosted game nights and dance parties at home. And once she won $50 at a jitterbug dance competition.

“I did everything, honey,” she said.

Her current house faces a dead-end street intercepted by a noise wall blocking the whoosh from I-15. Her family worries that wall will creep closer to her home.

UDOT is proposing to widen the interstate between Farmington’s Shepard Land and Salt Lake City’s 400 South. The department recently closed a public comment period for two potential expansion plans for the interstate.

In one option, the corridor would include five general purpose lanes, an express lane and an auxiliary lane in certain areas in each direction. The other option would be similar, except the central express lanes could be reversed to serve morning and evening traffic demands.

Tiffany Pocock, manager of the I-15 widening project, said in a text message that her team members will spend the coming weeks and months looking at comments they received during the comment period and refining the proposals.

“As we do,” she wrote, “we will work to eliminate and minimize as many impacts as possible.”

Pocock said more information about potential impacts will likely be available this fall, when the department releases the draft environmental impact statement for the project.

A neighborhood in flux

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Molly Segura with family in her Salt Lake City home on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. From left are Denece Martinez, Segura, Giron, Becky Benavidez and Leah Benavidez.

Now that she’s more than 100 years old, the pace of life for Segura has slowed. She has a dedicated spot on the sofa with a piece of packing wrap behind a pillow nearby, spending hours popping its bubbles.

Outside her walls, however, everything is moving faster.

New homebuyers and renters struggle in a hot housing market, and west-siders — even before the freeway expansion proposal was revealed — have grappled with fears of displacement.

One of them is Becky Benavidez, Segura’s granddaughter, who lives in Segura’s house with her daughters. If I-15 is widened, Benavidez also would have to find a new home.

“I put so much money into remodeling and the upkeep in the house, I would be very sad because there’s sweat and equity in it,” Benavidez said. “It’d be hard to let go.”

Benavidez has spent most of her life in the house. Now that the possibility of tearing it down exists, she wants answers from transportation officials.

“I don’t see the need as great as they think it is,” she said. “I don’t think it’s worth the money. And it’s definitely not worth pushing families out.”

Benavidez said her community has dedicated time and effort into making the neighborhood attractive, livable, walkable and safe.

“It would be a shame,” she said, “for them to come in and just ruin that.”

Stories like Segura’s are evidence of how accommodating and resilient west-side communities have been in the face of change, Salt Lake City Council member Victoria Petro said. But this time the state has a chance to give them some breathing room.

“It’d be really nice if this time our resilience wasn’t tested,” she said. “And maybe our prosperity was invested in.”

Some properties in the area became noise walls for I-15 and I-80, Petro remembers, and the roads also exposed residents to higher pollution.

Despite these challenges, Guadalupe residents worked to create one of the city’s most eclectic and community-rich spaces, bringing beauty to parcels that stand between highways and train tracks.

“They might be one of my favorite neighborhoods in the whole city,” Petro said, “because they literally defy odds by being who they are.”

And for Segura, a second life-altering construction project wasn’t in her retirement plans.

Whether the expansion of the interstate upends her home for a second time or not, Grandma Molly said she plans to stick around.

“I’m still here,” the centenarian said. “And I’m going to stay here for another 10 years.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.