Friday, April 8, 2016

The ultimate insult: The Highway to Nowhere

This is the fourth in a series of explorations of urban spaces which were  ruined by traffic engineering and need to be saved by better urban design.

There is no better story to tell about traffic ruining a city than one that involves the legendary Robert Moses himself. And yes, Robert Moses had his hands not only in modernizing New York, he had a hand also right here in Charm City. The challenge the way City planners, consultants and Moses saw it, was to connect the various Interstates that came marching towards Baltimore City only to end at the City limits and then dump their traffic into the local streets. Traffic planners had groused about this prospect ever since WW II ended and the talk about freeways took on and ever more urgent importance.
Robert Moses

A key element in the puzzle was the East-West Highway, a freeway connecting I-70 with I-95. As we know, this connection was never made and transcontinental Interstate 70 ends suddenly and unglamorously at a park & ride lot just outside Leakin Park. That one piece of the connection that got built is difficult to be identified as a part of a bigger undertaking, it is too isolated and disconnected, hence it is called the Highway to Nowhere. Because the other parts to the east or the west were never built, the built segment is utterly useless. Nevertheless it unfolded its full destructive potential by clearing out thousands of homes in its path, everything between the south side of Franklin Street to the north side of Mulberry Street was cleared from Pulaski Street to Paca Street, disconnecting the neighborhood of Harlem Park from those of Poppleton and Franklin Square and Midtown Edmondson neighborhood from Penrose. Robert Moses, a planner, authoritarian and, many say, also racist, saw an opportunity to "clean-up" the "slums". He supposedly said, "the more of them that are wiped out, the healthier Baltimore will be in the long run". Well, he was dead wrong.
The disruptive freeway cut Fremont Avenue in half and left intrepid
pedestrians jumping barriers. The path in the median shows that
this is a frequently sought connection

Recently this one mile piece of inner urban freeway gained national notoriety through President Obama's Secretary of Transportation who used it to illustrate why a new federal approach to highway planning is needed.

Interestingly, Baltimore activists fighting the freeways had recognized early on that the freeways were destructive and that a fight against them would require collaboration between the black westside communities the white ones on the east. A city-wide interracial coalition against inner-city expressways called Movement Against Destruction (MAD) was created. In the end MAD did prevent the demolition of 28,000 housing units and saved a number of historic neighborhoods from the bulldozer. Most eventually became flourishing communities. The City's Inner Harbor was spared a gigantic fly-over and an elevated massive expressway interchange. Maryland's Senator Barbara Mikulski owes her political carrier to this fight. On the other side of the issue, freeway proponents and consultants confused residents by promoting the project as transportation leveraging community investments. As part of the east west expressway an  east-west metro line was planned to run in the median of the freeway with stations envisioned as development hubs, not unlike the contemporary talk about Transit Oriented Development (TOD).
The one mile "freeway" is a bleak canyon through once vibrant
communities (photo: Gerald Neily)

But in the end, the saved communities were mostly white and the only two realized elements of the freeway plan, the Highway to Nowhere and a I-395, displaced African Americans in Rosemont, Harlem Park and Sharp Leadenhall. The promised community investments never materialized, nor did the metro line; instead the now bifurcated neighborhoods never recovered from the blow and experienced accelerated decay. As then councilman Tom Ward, an ardent opponent of the freeways had pointed out,  freeway related "slum clearance" resulted also in a significant loss of property tax. Thus the displacement of thousands of homes created a double whammy: the injustice of losing one's home coupled with an additional tax burden on those left behind in the ransacked communities.

The affected West Baltimore communities never forgot. To this day this  especially bad case of Baltimore road folly still taints almost any  discussion about transportation in Baltimore.
The western end of the freeway was recently demolished for two
commuter parking lots. Payson Street was reconnected and the lots were
designed for future TOD development. (photo: ArchPlan)

Secretary Foxx, an African American who had experienced the impacts of urban freeways in his own community as a youth in Charlotte, NC (where he would become later Mayor), did not fail to mention the latest insult that was dealt to the people of West Baltimore. In an ominous reverberation of past broken promises, the Red Line, touted as a community revitalization tool  and job creator, disappeared as well. It would have given the Highway to Nowhere finally some meaning by connecting the isolated and dis-invested communities of West Baltimore to downtown, the Metro  and the prosperous areas to the east, but the new Governor declared it famously a "boondoggle" and struck fully engineered as it was from his transportation portfolio.
On the eastern end of the "Highway to nowhere" sits the abandoned urban
renewal complex of what used to be the Social Security West  complex.
The buildings are abandoned and have recently been auctioned off to
Caves Valley Development. The transaction is not final yet.

Sometimes it takes time and distance and another blow to find the simple truth in long and complicated struggles. The truth of Baltimore's freeway battles is, that overall Baltimore came out less damaged than many other cities. But just as in many other places, all the damage occurred in African American communities.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

A detailed report about the Baltimore freeway battle can be found at Raymond Mohl's account or in the document "The Baltimore Interstate Highway System by UM
 Professor Garrett Power.
Andrew Giguere Thesis,  College of Arts and Sciences of Ohio University, 2009

See also on Community Architect this week's article From Displacement to Opportunity: Overcoming US Highway Injustices

Harlem Park.From the Bureau of Urban Renewal and Housing Authority Collection,Langsdale Library Special Collections.