Monday, October 10, 2022

“Stop The Road”: The book that describes how the "Road Wars" changed Baltimore

Baltimore's Department of Transportation is in the last editing phase of an application for $2million design money under the federal "Reconnecting Communities" with the goal to fix the worst effects of the "Highway to Nowhere" (H2N), the 1.3 mile piece of expressway that bifurcates West Baltimore in the US 40 alignment. 

The federal resolve of making up for destroying especially communities of color through highways all around the US germinated under Obama's Transportation Secretary Foxx and is continued by the current secretary Buttigieg. Insiders say, the Reconnecting Communities grant program has "Baltimore" written all over it. 

Evans Paull, author of
"Stop the Road"

Evan Paull's brand-new book "Stop the Road" a detailed account of Baltimore's "road wars" is very timely. Retired city planner Paull's memories and research of Baltimore's fights against destructive freeways spawned a generation of politicians and activists and, in the opinion of Baltimore developer Bill Struever, has shaped Baltimore like nothing else. (The author himself places them in significance after the creation of the B&O railroad). 

The author was kind enough to send me a copy. In the following article I want to share my impressions from the perspective of someone who came to Baltimore just after the road war battles had ended. Many younger folks in Baltimore are in the same boat, the road war stories are part of legends, often distorted and not accurate. The diligently researched book sets the record straight.

Paull's motive for the book was to show how outsiders can win against the establishment, something that happens rarely, he notes in an interview with Baltimore's radio personality Nestor Aparacio. Paull wants us to get to know the unsung heroes, Bob Eney who had Federal Hill and Fells Point placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the spring of 1969. A pivotal move that helped decide the war that raged for over a decade and ended in 1980 when then Mayor Schafer finally dropped the destructive highway plansIt's those unknown heroes, Paull says, who held sway over the engineers and planners of the time. The late doctor Jack Gleason who had invented the Fells Point Fun Festival as fundraiser to cover the staggering legal bills, is another. Many, many others are noted and some I will mention later. Fittingly, the book launch was to happen at the Fun Festival on October 1, but the remnants of hurricane Ian forced it to be rescheduled for October 28-30. 

Poster of the highway

One interesting aspect is that thanks to the road wars Baltimore has far fewer urban freeways than many other cities. Movements like the Movement Against Destruction (MAD) then chaired by another unsung hero, Art Cohen, Joe McNeily Director of South East Community Organization SECO, or Volunteers against the Destruction of Leaking Park (VOLPE)  as well as RAM in West Baltimore prevented highway design atrocities that would have wiped out Rosemont, Harlem Park, parts of Poppleton, Federal Hill, the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Locust Point and Canton and parts of Leakin Park.  All the places that were saved are seen today as Baltimore's success stories. The creative naming of the warrior movements is particular evident with VOLPE which makes fun of the other VOLPE, the National Transportation Systems Center, still in place today. The activists envisioned a court case VOLPE vs VOLPE. 

Paull chronicles the wars as far back as 1942, including the short 1945 interlude involving none less than Robert Moses. a guy Paull describes as a master builder but also as “ master race kind of guy”. In the years up to 1957 alone, nine separate plans for a city-wide freeway were developed. So many more should follow that it is actually hard to follow the course of the various battles. At no point did things go smoothly.  Already in 1945 a council hearing on the matter was sunk by 1500 booing protesters, Paull quotes from the Baltimore SUN archives. 

Helpfully, Paull points out that in the 1940s 1.3 million transit trips occurred on any given weekday, i.e. more folks got around on streetcars and buses than by car. Clearly the road builders envisioned another future and, unfortunately, they got it. Today’s total MTA ridership is less than 20% of that historic ridership, even before Covid when transit experienced a slight uptick, even though the region has vastly grown, with a shrinking core City. Paull writes that “Baltimore is now paying for the road not taken”.  This is a word play and could be interpreted as “we neither kept the transit nor did we get the roads”.  In fact, money saved from the not built freeways was spread all around the state in preparation for Don Schaefer’s run for Governor. This failed transportation policy was repeated when Governor Hogan dismantled the Red Line project and spent the gained dollars on useless highway projects everywhere, except in Baltimore. As a result, Baltimore's transit is anemic and its roads and bridges continue to crumble.   

A freeway across the Inner Harbor. One of many crazy suggestions

That just a 1.3 mile freeway fragment was eventually built when the rest of the big freeway dreams conceived by folks like Robert Moses and the roadway mafia had mostly crumbled, sheds a harsh light on the often overlooked racism that was tacitly or openly part and parcel of the urban freeway craze  from the beginning. Baltimore demonstrates with clarity that the freeways were preferably built in black communities not only because the least resistance was expected there but often with the express purpose of "Negro removal" which was often veiled in the official  term of "slum and blight removal”. Although, Paull is careful to point out that Moses' report envisioned the displaced to be relocated in cookie cutter Corbusier style high rises right along the freeway. In Moses' words:  “it is neither necessary nor desirable to disperse this class to other areas”. Not that we are so much more advanced, this is also what the Republican Baltimore County contender for the office of Executive says in the fall of 2022.  But I am digressing.  

Paull’s book reveals many forgotten  details that straighten out some of the narratives and myths that have evolved around the road wars  For example, per his telling it wasn’t Fells Point or Federal Hill that first launched the historic slingshot against the powerful highway Goliath, but it were bohemians on tiny Tyson Street which had evolved into one show-and-tell block near Read Street that had garnered national attention as successful private renewal. Their being in the path of the 1957 freeway connector and their opposition was the first blow that began a long chain of reductions, revisions and delays that eventually should derail the the powerful highway planners.   

I-170 at what is today Martin Luther King Blvd. together with
urban high-rises to accommodate the replaced residents

Interesting insights galore: Paull points to Baltimore Planning Director McVoy as the inventor of a vision for the Inner Harbor as early as 1956, long before Roberts Wallace Todd or Jim Rouse or other "fathers" of HarborPlace were on the stage. That his successor still suggested a giant freeway across the harbor in 1960, was therefore doubly inexcusable. Of course, it wasn't without any reason: Mr Darling, the Planning Director of 1960, thought an elevated freeway would take traffic off the surface roads and would actually help the Inner Harbor vision of his predecessor. Not a totally crazy thought, if one sees today how the heavy surface traffic on Pratt, Lombard, Light, and Key Highway is strangling HarborPlace, a direct result of the existing freeways ending abruptly and feeding into these roadways.  

A kind of bombshell revelation in Paull’s book is that even those who are usually celebrated as the fathers of today's Inner Harbor, Walter Sondheim and Marty Millspaugh among them, initially supported Darling's Inner Harbor flyover. Maybe they considered it as the lesser evil, compared to an even bigger freeway bridge suggested by highway engineers, signaling the beginning of a serious inside feud between engineers and planners that would further escalate as we shall see.  Later in 1963, under Mayor McKeldin, the early Inner Harbor vision was taken up again, but McKeldin, too, initially stuck with  the bridge idea, simply insisting on a beautification of it. Only then councilman Tom Ward argued consistently for transit, for preservation and against all highways ("No highway anywhere"). This makes him a preferred member of Paull's road wars hall of fame. Not one tp paint things in black and white, Paull devotes a separate chapter to Ward and describes him as a crank whose combative manners eventually brought his political career to an end. Still, the man is credited with a string of successes in defeating the egregious road plans. While Ward couldn't prevent the Highway to Nowhere, he helped save Tyson Street by preventing the connector piece of H2N to I-83.

The fracas between engineers and planners about the right bridge across the harbor led to another well known phenomenon: More studies, sometimes on a silly scale.  A study at exorbitant cost and practically no value was conducted in 196.  $7.2 million later (in today’s dollars per Paull’s account) engineers of Wilbur Smith submitted supercharged highway plans that solved nothing but more than doubled the suggested miles of freeway in the City. Barely created, the study disappeared in the dustbin of history.  Wasteful expenses, bribery and flawed cost estimates plagued the entire process.

It becomes clear from Paull’s accounting, that the Baltimore road wars were greatly helped by the national reckoning that took place in the 1960s. A reckoning that yielded the civil rights movement plus powerful national laws protecting historic and environmental assets.  Baltimore warriors used these new laws to great effect. The new awareness also made the racial component of the highway plans more obvious: “White men’s roads through black men’s homes” (DC road warrior Sammie Abbott).

As someone who had spearheaded a less car centric transportation policy through traffic calming in Stuttgart Bad Cannstatt in the mid seventies, I always felt a strong kinship with Baltimore’s road warriors. The concept of "traffic calming" though, would, except for a couple of tepid attempts in Bolton Hill, take another 40 years before it arrived in Baltimore. Many of Paull's hall of famers I had thankfully the pleasure to meet after I came to Baltimore and after the road wars, people like Stu Wechsler, Michael Seipp, Charlie Duff, Joe Neilly, Steven Bunker, Art Cohen, Zelda Robinson, Glenn Smith Joyce Smith and Arlene Fisher to name just a few.  

Another intriguing item is a interdisciplinary planning group that Baltimore's highway planning yielded: The Urban Design Concept Team (UDCT) that contributed several almost tragic chapters to the story. The acronym shares three letters UDC with the still existing AIA Urban Design Committee (UDC) which I chaired for years and which got involved in the preparations of the Reconnecting Communities Grant by recently organizing an event in which stakeholders of many arenas presented their concepts of overcoming the scar that is the Highway to Nowhere. 

A 1970 rendering of the UDCT that shows three blocks of cover of the 
sunken expressway (now H2N) with mixed use

The historic UDCT  was a creation of the Federal Highway Administration half a century ago. It was installed in Baltimore as an experiment in recognition of the turmoil that a pure engineering approach brought when it applied to freeways in cities. Baltimore became ground zero for an interdisciplinary experiment of complementing the freeway planning with urban design that was supposed to add some bottom up planning elements and responsiveness to community needs. Reflective of the activist spirit of the times and the new legal landscapes from preservation and environmental laws, UDCT was supposed to look also at the "social, economic and historic impacts so that the road could become... a part of the city"(Transportation secretary Boyd). 

Baltimore architects Archibald Rogers and George Kostritzky (whom I would later meet ), founders of RTKL which became Baltimore's largest architecture firm, were part of these almost impossible attempts of influencing the mad roadway plans from within so that they would be less destructive. But soon the engineers felt "relegated to draftsmen" and pushed back while several UDCT members became double agents, frequently leaking documents to highway opponents and becoming activists themselves. Thus the UDCT approach became part of the road war itself and the actors were ground up between suspicions from the engineers and the community alike.

The chapters of the book that deal with the politics, the intrigue and the machinations especially in the three years between 1967-70 when the UDCT was active, are sometimes difficult to follow with all the variations of alternatives numbered all the way to 10A with 3A being a plan attributed to the UDCT planners. (3A laid the groundwork for the Fort McHenry Tunnel we see today which spared all historic communities and eliminated all harbor crossings).  Paull gives the 3A option a lot of credit, because it was the first case where the planners had successfully broken out of the straitjacket of the solutions they had been given by engineers.

As noted, all this fell into a period of great national turmoil with Martin Luther King's assassination and the 1968 unrest that followed. The modifications that the UDCT achieved were not big compared to the scale of the epochal change of that period. The multidisciplinary attempts of architects and advocacy planners to make the atrocious highway plans more palatable appeared more like lipstick on a pig, even if they were undertaken with heroic gestures at the time. 

It is notable that sticking with Highway to Nowhere segment was publicly announced only days after the 1968 unrest, in the same callous way as the Baltimore Red Line transit project in the same corridor was killed only months after the 2015 unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Moreover, when construction of the H2N began in 1973 all other parts of the connecting system were in serious doubt. When it was completed 10 years later, it was obviously obsolete, connecting on neither end.

Today's best practice thinking in planning pretty much represents the same mindset that the UDCT had in 1967. This either attests to how progressive the UDCT idea was or how little progress we have made since then as a profession.  The method of enhancing a transportation project with amenities was advanced by then Mayor Dixon in the Red Line "community compact". It is largely still what DOT envisions for the "community input" after they would receive the "Reconnecting Communities" grant. In fact, one of the UDCT renderings (never built, of course) shows a mixed use redevelopment on a three block cover over the expressway. A remedy that closely resembles what is sold as the cat's meow today in "reconnecting" projects over urban freeways like the one in Rochester. 

More than 50 years later, the US is still on course of building more and wider highways, still has no high speed rail network and is now facing the fact that transportation is the largest climate change contributor. These observations are mine not Evan Paull's. He touches on those issues in his chapter perspectives, but I wished Paull would have said more about the current state of urban planning with its tax increment financing, private public partnerships, and community benefits agreements and continued lack of transit. After some 40 years of being active in planning, he would have the perspective and the distance to provide more judgement than he did.  

It can’t be my task to recount the entire book here. Maybe this small teaser entices you to buy the book and find out yourself, how history really unfolded and how much of that history shaped Baltimore and how much of it has been distorted into urban myths. As I tried to show, much reaches deep into our current day issues. Evans tells the story without righteousness indignation, without jumping to judgement with a fine sense of irony, letting the unearthed sources and voices speak for themselves. Along the way we get a lot Baltimore’s history and the necessary context in which the players acted. As noted, Paul isn’t into abstract summaries or theories, he grounds the narratives by real people many of which he interviewed and leaves it at that. 

 “Stop the Road” is a book that brings a useful historical perspective to our current often oversimplified debates.   Paull isn’t making anything nicer or simpler than it really was, he just provides details and context.  As such the book is very useful for assessing the many issues that especially younger people would experience as brand new. The structure of the book, first more chronological and then more geographical seems to suggest that chapters should stand on their own. This results in many strands of the stories being repeated, many characters are repeatedly reintroduced. At times that can be confusing, a bit more streamlining of the narrative arc could have been helpful.

Evans Paull's book is now available everywhere

Still, the more we understand how we got where we are, the better will be the plans for what should come next. One of the lessons of Baltimore’s road wars is that in the heat of battle the most reasonable plan (in this case one penned in 1949) may remain hidden in plain sight for more than 30 years thanks to incremental small minded thinking. Another is that we don’t always cherish what we have for lack of fantasy. That clearly comes to light in the chapter about Fells Point where the local councilman did not see anything worth saving there: “it’s a slum, I want it torn down”. Another lesson is that without federal laws regarding preservation, air quality and parks local warriors wouldn’t have had their key weapons.

The book is focused on Baltimore; other cities are barely mentioned, even though many others were hit much harder by the freeway craze. It isn’t clear if that is only because they lacked Baltimore’s warriors or because of some other circumstances.  Paull’s narration doesn’t yield the silver bullet or the one shining general that brought home the victory. Instead he quotes his interviewees' own summary: “We  lost every battle, but we won the war”. In other words credit goes to death by a thousand cuts: Delay tactics, creative alliances, politics, solutions and a good amount of subterfuge, deception  and uncovering fuzzy accounting math of the highway proponents. All these tactics have now become so omnipresent that they can have unintended consequences. For example, they can hobble or kill well conceived projects such as electric distribution routes, high speed rail corridors, busways or wind turbine installation. Obstruction is not always good.

Looking ahead, as Baltimore's grant application does, it is apparent that while Baltimore was a leader in the fights against the urban freeways, it is now behind when it comes to remediation. Boston finished its famous ditch project a long time ago, Seattle's burying of its freeway is far advanced, Dallas built an award winning park on a portion of a downtown freeway and Rochester finished mixed use development on a part of their own ditch. Detroit just recently received $105 million from the current Infrastructure Bill to construct parts of its I-375 removal

By contrast, Baltimore's $2 million ask for planning is little and late by comparison. The City must make communities real partners for the remedial plans, not just recipients of ideas created by others. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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