Baltimore

The Wound in West Baltimore

How city planners killed a community

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A six-lane ditch of a highway runs through West Baltimore. You can enter it heading east on Mulberry Street or going west on Franklin; then you drive a little less than a mile and a half before you have to get off again. You end up on the same street you entered from, just a bit farther up the road. People call it the Highway to Nowhere.

Before that scrap of a freeway was built, the Franklin-Mulberry corridor contained a stable and vibrant black neighborhood. But in the 1960s and '70s, the government made room for the road by destroying 971 homes and 62 businesses. In the process, it displaced around 1,500 people—and destroyed far more property than was burned in Baltimore's riot of 1968.

The immediately defaced area was largely in the neighborhood called Harlem Park, but the effects radiated out much further. The nearby district of Rosemont managed to fend off the wrecking ball, but the fight still inflicted permanent damage: Officials encouraged residents to move, people became unwilling to invest in a place with an uncertain future, neglect settled in, and over the course of the '60s a cohesive black community became, in the historian Emily Lieb's words, "exactly the kind of blighted neighborhood that the roads were supposed to be eliminating." (In 1969, one Rosemont resident wrote to the head of Baltimore's Interstate Division calling the highway "a proverbial pimple on the ass of progress.") "The effects of that little underpass didn't just go into the 300 or 500 block," former resident Alton West told interviewer Andrew Giguere in 2009. "It just spread its wings either way. I guess just call it the domino effect or whatever you want…If the 400 block was affected, now the 3 and the 5 are…and after a while the 600 or the 100….It was like the spread of cancer."

It's certainly possible that these neighborhoods would have undergone a gradual economic decline anyway, given the city's deindustrialization and given that the black middle class soon found it easier to move away. But they would not have undergone such a sudden, severe, and destructive drop. And they would not have been replaced by that trench for cars in the Franklin-Mulberry corridor. The highway has been around for decades now, and it's still doing damage, by severing one section of the city from another and by discouraging any development near it.

All this for a freeway so unnecessary that when it was closed for a spell a few years ago, so a nearby parking lot could be expanded, hardly anyone noticed. "The way the entire expressway was shut down indefinitely without debate or even publicity, just to make it easier for construction crews, speaks volumes," Gerald Neily noted in the Baltimore Brew. "Motorists have been able to make the needed minor adjustments with ease."

What's still stranger is this: If the highway actually did go somewhere, the situation would be even worse.

The authorities had started kicking around plans to bring an east-west expressway to the city in the 1940s. One early proposal came from Robert Moses, the infamous official responsible for ripping out enormous swaths of New York. His scheme would have displaced 19,000 people. That idea didn't prove popular—Baltimore's H.L. Mencken called it "completely idiotic," and a lot of citizens agreed—but similar suggestions circulated throughout the '40s and '50s, backed by downtown businesses and federal dollars. By the early '60s, the government was calling for a new network of highways that would cut through communities across the city. Those plans sparked a grassroots revolt, led by groups with names like RAM (the Relocation Action Movement), MAD (the Movement Against Destruction), and SCAR (the Southeast Council Against the Road).

The larger push was defeated. Some neighborhoods that once had been slated for demolition, notably the harbor-adjacent areas known as Federal Hill and Fells Point, went on to prosper. Parts of the city would even see somewhat fruitful experiments in urban homesteading, though the government mostly stuck to a top-down, crony-capitalist approach to development.

But in West Baltimore, people weren't so lucky: A little piece of the planned network got built. When Harlem Park started to fight the road-builders, the city-wide rebellion against the freeways was just beginning to coalesce. Without as much momentum and militancy as the community groups that matured later, Giguere argues, the Harlem Park activists took a more accommodating approach to the fight: "Rather than protesting the road, the group elected to insure just compensation for those being displaced from the area." They didn't even get that much: The payments that residents received frequently were not enough to purchase a new house elsewhere. But they still took the money and left—they had to, since their homes had been condemned—and the area became a place of trash-filled, rat-attracting vacant lots and abandoned buildings, even before construction of the expressway began.

Most big American cities went through convulsions like this, as slum-clearance and highway projects destroyed working neighborhoods, disrupted people's lives, eradicated ordinary citizens' property rights, and amplified the effects of poverty. Most cities have their counterparts to the other ugly Baltimore stories of the last century too: Jim Crow laws and federally sponsored redlining, corporate welfare and mass incarceration. But if the saga's general contours are not unique, the details in each particular place are. In Baltimore, those details include a ridiculous road on the west side of town, a very short freeway that casts a very long shadow. It's no surprise that Harlem Park was hit hard by the April riot, along with the adjacent neighborhood of Sandtown. The Highway to Nowhere didn't kill Freddie Gray, but it put a poisoned wound in the place where he lived.

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  1. Robert Moses and Albert Speer would be proud.

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    2. Albert Speer would have wanted something useful.

  2. Thanks for the back story Jesse. I drive under that thing every day and always wondered what the deal was. I just assumed it was the Bawl’mer way: half-assed and never-finished.

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  4. Light the Joe signal!

    1. Let’s not and say we did. BTW:, see my comment below, he’s over at Kos now.

      1. Makes sense. The Kos kiddies probably all suck his cock, being a good and Noble government employee and all. Plus he’s found a place where nobody will ever disagree with his horseshit or challenge his idiotic assertions.

  5. Cleveland has a similar ridiculous stub of a highway, Interstate 490. I wonder if it similarly destroyed a neighborhood for no good reason.

    1. Can things in Cleveland really be… ‘destroyed’?

      For instance, if we set off a bomb in downtown Cleveleland, could it not be said that we did billions of dollars in improvements?

      1. You would willingly destroy America’s greatest treasure, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum???

        1. I couldn’t think of a better case for urban renewal!

          1. If you’re serious about your plan, let me know ahead of time. I want to go steal Joan Jett’s sneakers before they’re vaporized.

      2. Hey, Cleveland isn’t so bad. Or it wasn’t in the 1970’s and I’ve read reports that things are better now than they were then. The thing abut Cleveland is that, the Rock And Roll hall of Shame aside, most of its better features aren’t obvious to outsiders. The saying in my youth was “It’s a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit there”..

        Visitors are unlikely to be able to take advantage of the Cleveland Symphony (world class in my day), or the periodic exhibits at the Art Institute. The scrapyards in The Flats aren’t going to do a visitor a lot of good, but my Father once bought, dirt cheap, a bunch of golden oak church pews that made great bookshelves.

        If you do happen to visit the city, do look in at the Cleveland Arcade; it’s a gorgeous piece of Victorian Era architecture that modern malls would do well to imitate.

        1. You said “world class symphony” – huh huh, huh huh, huh huh….

          1. The Cleveland Orchestra is among the world’s finest.

            http://classicalmusic.about.co…..estras.htm

        2. I grew up in a similar rust-belt city (Rochester) in the 70s and 80s – believe me, it is very much worse than it used to be. I went to college in Buffalo and while not as bad as Rochester, it is also slowly going down the tubes. It makes me sad because beautiful, old cities are going to ruin and there’s nothing a sane person can do except leave.

          1. Rome NY used to have a SAC base and an AF Research Lab. When they closed the SAC base the AFRL hung on for a while but the city died a slow death. I would occasionally visit my customer in Rome…it was pitiful. Good food to the end though.

          2. Ah, Buffalo. I remember that instead of building the SUNY campus in the city where it would have renovated many dozens of great old buildings and built dozens more new ones along with all the revitalization that occurs when you put many millions into a failing but still worthwhile city, the idiots in charge built a pomo campus way out in the suburbs, giving us gigantic, ugly buildings surrounded by seas of parking lots. It was probably Buffalo’s last chance.

        3. Well. I saw Crosby , Stills, Nash, and Young in Cleveland once, so it used to be worth something. I think that was before the river caught on fire.

      3. You are now on an FBI watch list.

  6. Before that scrap of a freeway was built, the Franklin-Mulberry corridor contained a stable and vibrant black neighborhood. But in the 1960s and ’70s, the government made room for the road by destroying 971 homes and 62 business.

    This is what DailyKos refers to as “progress”. I mean, they hate to side with WalMart, but…

  7. Without government, who would build the roads?

    The Highway to Nowhere was originally signed as Interstate 170 and was meant to be a spur off of a segment of Interstate 70 that was eventually canceled because it would have gone through a park. Some things are worth saving.

    1. I had heard that the road was built by Ozzy Osbourne fans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmaBHyzHtMM

      1. Chris Rea had a better song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OA1V7cI28hI

  8. It’s always the public road system’s fault, isn’t it, Reason?

    1. Nah. Somehow, by god, it’s always the left’s fault.

  9. The politicians who make such abominations possible are soon forgotten. Their deals with friends in real estate and construction and the shady dealings go down the memory hole. I wish there were an easy way to point to such past catalysts of current problems and shame those politicians, and parade their names, whether they’re dead or alive, through the media. The crimes against the electorate and communities are legion — yet too many people look at the status quo and shrug their shoulders, and think “that’s just the way it is” or naively believe that yesterday’s leader’s were just stupid, rather than corrupt.

    1. Oh socialist…dear socialist, so untouched by the ravages of intelligence.

      1. My favorite part is where the politicians says: “I hear ya.” that cracks me up.

        Honestly, I didn’t think that a video clip criticizing the preferential tax treatment that corporations enjoy would be that controversial amongst libertarians. I put it here as a kind of olive branch because– mostly– I want to be friends with you guys and be able to join the Jeb Bush Revo[love]ution.

        1. I didn’t think that a video clip criticizing the preferential tax treatment that corporations enjoy

          Didn’t watch. What’ “preferential” treatment were they criticizing?

          The way taxes on businesses just get passed through to customers?

          Double taxation of dividends?

          Which one?

        2. I get the joke! Jeb Bush and Ron Paul are, lile, exactly the same! Gee, thanks

    2. Hey everyone! Lassie is trying to tell us something? What’s that Lassie, Timmy Geithner is stuck in a well of his own making?

      1. Cask of Amontillado

    3. Yeah, I can see why that would appeal to someone whose understanding of economics is limited to the way your knees jerk.

      -jcr

  10. “exactly the kind of blighted neighborhood that the roads were supposed to be eliminating.”

    That’s a stretch. Moses, for example, explicity stated that the intention of such roads was to make it easier to settle the suburbs – he and his builders didn’t give two shits about the land in-between except that it was cheap and full of easy-to-relocate residents.

    1. I didn’t get into this in the piece (other than in that quote), but one way the roads were sold to the public was as a way to eliminate urban blight.

      1. I guess people are gullible in all decades.

  11. people became unwilling to invest in a place with an uncertain future,

    This is something I’ve been noticing more over the years; it’s not just the freeways themselves that create blight, it’s the years and years in-between the planning and execution that kill neighborhoods. You don’t even need to actually build any freeways to send a neighborhood into free-fall, you just have to keep people uncertain about where it’s going to go or whether it will get built at all.

    1. I looked at a piece of rural property years ago. Beautiful place.

      When I found out that there were plans on the books to maybe someday build a dam that would perhaps flood the property, I walked away. Even though the odds of the dam every being built were probably in the neighborhood of 1 in 1000.

  12. Look up Interstate_170_(Maryland) in Wikipedia for the background.

    1. This one really is more comical than other “stubs” – it doesn’t even seem to connect to anything. You would think in any normally-functioning city this would have been erased decades ago.

      1. It’s more like proof-of-concept.

      2. If the “ditch” was filled in, would that be a start on the road to recovery for the neighborhoods?

  13. Obviously, this was all the fault of Ike and his dream of an Interstate Highway System to support a corrupt Military-Industrial Complex.

  14. Lets not forget forced busing for racial integration (late 1960′ court decision). Those who could avoid it, bid.

  15. This article is really excellent. This allows us to give serious consideration to this issue.

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  20. How did blacks in Baltimore fare when Nancy Pelosi’s father and brother were mayors?

  21. Is it odd that these racial disturbances of late haven’t been in cities in the Deep South?

  22. Didn’t these retards watch The Wire?

  23. Why does Reason have a gun control ad on the right side of the screen? Will they take any money from any advertiser? If I ran this joint, I’d tell that gun control group they can stick their happy horse shit you know where and after their done wipe themselves with the money they were going to give to me. I know, off topic, good article though, I’ve always tried to explain to people why a bullshit stadium or freeway won’t make a community any better off, most people scratch their head and mumble something about “the economy”.

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  25. Drove on that stretch of road today. It’s totally bizarre and empty during rush hour.

  26. So, a two mile stretch of highway constructed decades ago is the ’cause’ of the breakdown of black families in a ghetto. Hmmmm….not sure I buy into that.

  27. Two ways of looking at Robert Moses:

    1. An evil monster who destroyed the downtown core of cities.

    2. A prescient genius who saw the way the inner city cores were devolving and did his best to break up urban blight and move people into more liveable communities.

    I don’t know enough about him to make a decision on the above, but my guess is a little of both. He saw the way cities were going, didn’t like it, saw a way that was clearly better for many people, and did what he could to help them live a better life. And, he didn’t care what the fallout was.

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