Friday, June 4, 2021

Can the scars of the "Highway to Nowhere" be healed?

There are brief moments in history where everything seems possible. With Biden's gigantic plans for infrastructure and recovery even fixing the "Highway to Nowhere" seems to be a possibility.  This monstrosity of past urban planning and transportation (see original plans here) elicited so far only mild interest since its completion, not because its injustice and negative effect on the surrounding communities weren't blatantly obvious, but because undoing it seemed utterly impossible in a City plagued by needs that always exceed its resources many times over. 

Account of dwelling units destroyed by highway alternatives (1960): The highest 
number is indicated for the only segment that was built:
 1,313, dwellings, the majority in fair or good condition (Link)

But today is a different day: Big budget plans are being hatched inside the Washington Beltway and white America slowly begins to see that the country's inequities did not just happen due to some divine scheme, but that they were planned and intended and that transportation was just one of those tools. The Highway to Nowhere is no exception. 

Shrugging the shoulders in face of its ongoing impact, therefore, just continues the injustice and extends the guilt that comes with its creation to this day. I wrote about this highway on this blog under the title "the ultimate insult" in 2016. Since then the collective re-thinking has further progressed.

In "the ultimate insult" I described the road project this way:

That one piece of the [East-West] 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. 

Going nowhere fast: Wasted space, destroyed homes
(Photo: Philipsen)

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".

In 2021 the Highway to Nowhere is back in focus thanks to the federal Reconnecting Communities Act, and the Economic Justice Act with $435 billion “in immediate and long-term investments in communities of color to address systemic racism and reverse decades of historic underinvestment,” (Press release). Maryland officials have their eyes on this 1970s testament of failed transportation and want to remove Baltimore City’s “Highway to Nowhere,” the 1.3 miles of expressway that was built in the 1970s, cutting right through the densest part of West Baltimore, the only segment of a giant imagined network of freeways that was actually realized.

“We are fully committed to finally ending this long-standing monstrosity” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland.

“It’s never too late to undo the wrongs of the past.These used to be very vibrant communities, very close-knit communities”  Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-District 7.

Sens. Ben Cardin and Van Hollen are co-sponsoring the Reconnecting Communities Act to target communities like West Baltimore separated by highways.

“They were built kind of with the mandate of going through the cheapest land possible,it really bisected—it separated—a neighborhood, a very vibrant neighborhood at the time.” Dr. Celeste Chavis of Morgan State University. 

“The highway to nowhere is the poster child for inequality and systematic racism in our country,” Mayor Brandon Scott.

 The sunken highway with its six 1.3. long freeway lanes and a median which was originally designated for a west extension of the Baltimore subway has elicited big ideas and much smaller actions for decades: 

  • Already, the western end of aborted ramps, retaining walls and bridges has been level to become additional parking for the MARC commuter station. 
  • Already the City used the median strip for a gigantic tree planting effort after the Red Line was choked off by Governor Hogan in 2015, an act that many see as another symbol of institutional racism in transportation.
    Tree planting in the median (Bluewater)

  • Caves Valley, owner of the Metro West Center at the east end of the freeway imagines the overpasses and ramps at Martin Luther King Boulevard to come down in favor of a normal urban intersection, freeing up a significant land area for development.
Other ideas floated over the years, are less practical or far more expensive:
  • Two 1.3 mile long murals painted onto the sometimes 30' tall concrete walls flanking the expressway (Sun article)
  • a 1.3 mile linear park imagined as a sunken inverse of the elevated New York "Highline" park. (ULI Report), Rodricks article)
  • a big linear lake
  • and a dirt-bike park (Sun letter)
  • A mixed use redevelopment with transit

All the ideas suffer from the fact that they are not born from the minds of the communities facing the Highway to Nowhere every day. Instead they are produced by students, artists and professionals who see the highway folly as a canvas to think big. In that, they approach the problem not very differently than Robert Moses once did, when he was involved in the early expressway planning stages that go as far back as 1948. 

ULI report: "Creating a beautiful boulevard"

For a true reconciliation project that undoes at least in part the historic and current injustice, whatever is done should help to undue the past damage. This means real physical connectivity from north to south far beyond the stark concrete bridges that span the "ditch" today. All the "linear" proposals" that do not overcome the deep cut going through the communities would just paint a scar with make-up, potentially deepening the separation. True healing would make the cut go away. 

Gerald Neily, "Baltimore Inner Space", mixed use and transit

Mayor Scott recently participated in a conference call of mayors speaking with Biden's new Transportation Secretary Buttigieg. Scott told the BBJ:

The right way to do this is to right the wrong without further displacing a Black community, without further ignoring what they want (BBJ)

One way to reverse displacement is to recover the lost space by filling the giant gash. 

This would be a gigantic effort with a staggering price tag, were it not for one other gigantic project, also with a giant price tag, being imagined nearby. I am talking about the B&P tunnel replacing todays age old tunnel under West Baltimore with a repaired old tunnel and three new bores. Those new tunnel tubes would produce potentially enough dirt to fill the ditch and the "spoils" would come out right where today's MARC station is.

And while we are talking about the synergy between big projects, let's also hope that the Red Line could be revived. Hogan will leave office in 2 short years; couldn't a Red Line revival be in the offing along with the big infrastructure bills hatched in  Washington? After all, that project had been designed all the way to the details over 13 years with a price tag of more than $250 million for design!  Even if the ditch were filled, couldn't at least a tunnel space be left, through which to run future transit?

West Baltimore communities started conveningearlier this year to discuss West Baltimore's future (The grass roots effort is for the West Baltimore Masterplan. This should be the place to put the Highway to Nowhere on the agenda and to come up with a plan that addresses the past injustices, the current needs and the future potential of this big scar that put West Baltimore on the decline. Time to reverse this trajectory!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA  - All my blogs in one place!

Previous articles about the Highway to Nowhere:

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 From Displacement to Opportunity: Overcoming US Highway Injustices