Looking for a U-turn on the freeway to nowhere

Looking at the stretch of six-lane highway that separates one West Baltimore neighborhood from another, Glenn Smith remembers what it used to be.

“50 years ago you would see a lively neighborhood. And where we are, you had a real community, ”he said. “It was like a Norman Rockwell painting. Now there is a void.

Smith was a teenager when the notice reached the door of The Fort, his beloved family townhouse on Lauretta Avenue: his family and about 1,500 of their neighbors are expected to leave their predominantly black community so workers can build. an extension of Interstate 70.

But after the Smiths and their neighbors moved in 1969 and 971 homes and 62 businesses were destroyed to make way for the freeway, the partially constructed project was canceled. The workers left something behind: a 1.39 mile sunken highway with a series of viaducts replacing the once dynamic blocks. For Smith, it is “a monument to what has happened to our community.”

Now Smith and other former residents have a chance to shut down: President Biden’s infrastructure bill, said to be the biggest federal investment in infrastructure projects in more than a decade, could provide funding in Baltimore to redevelop the freeway to nowhere.

US Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen are calling for the US jobs plan to include money to redevelop failed projects like the highway. They also introduced the Reconnecting Communities Act, a similar law that would provide money to revitalize communities affected by the construction of the interstate road system. Provisions of this bill are included in Biden’s ambitious package.

“This bill will provide a program with resources that could help heal those kinds of divisions and really provide opportunities for these neighborhoods to revitalize themselves,” Van Hollen said last week on WYPR Midday program.

The freeway was originally designed as a means of connecting Interstate 70 from the west to Interstate 95. Opposition from white suburban residents, who cited environmental concerns, ended the the construction of the highway in the early 1970s, before it could displace their communities.

The freeway now carries US 40 local traffic between the West Baltimore MARC Station and Martin Luther King Boulevard. It takes less than two minutes to get from one end of the highway to the other. Pedestrians can use the sidewalks on the overpasses to cross it, but the harsh environment has divided neighborhoods along its path, without connecting them to amenities, jobs or reliable transportation routes, Smith said.

It is a monument to racism embedded in transport infrastructure, he said.

“It was like a normal Rockwell painting”

Of all of Smith’s painful memories related to the freeway, the racist characterization of the predominantly black area as a ghetto in need of improvement always hurts.

“Everything was perfect: a confined community with supermarkets, movies, clothing stores, whatever you need. You didn’t have to go, ”said Smith, now in his sixties. “They were strong, prosperous neighborhoods that they just took back for nothing.”

Families in his neighborhood were so close that the children were always within earshot of a trusted adult, he said. There was virtually no violent crime and an unspoken rule that children could play wherever they wanted until the street lights came on. Most middle-class families had parents who worked at Bethlehem Steel. People took turns throwing waist parties – where you pay whatever your waist length is to get in – and babysitting each other’s kids.

This collectivist spirit helped Smith’s family survive. His mother died when he was five, leaving his father Edward with eight children aged 17 to one.

“The mothers in the community, because of the proximity to the community, felt that they would take care of my family’s children,” he said. “We had five block mothers.

Grief over the loss of the family home haunted Edward until his death, Smith said.

“I don’t think he’s ever been able to recover from the loss of that connectivity with a community,” Smith said. “He was a man who worked two jobs for as long as I can remember to support his family. Someone comes in and says, “We want your house.” You take that money or we’ll take it anyway. It is devastating.

Le Fort, a corner townhouse with green canopies, was spared demolition at the eleventh hour after the project was canceled. But the Smith family had already cut their losses and moved away. HUD sold the Fort and the rest of the houses in the neighborhood.

There was resistance to the freeway from residents of West Baltimore in the 1960s, but it was not as effective as similar movements in the white suburbs due to deep-rooted racism, Smith said.

The highway to nowhere “was never intended to improve our community at all,” he said. “It was to bring other communities through our community without having to interact with us.”

“It was also that these areas were considered conducive to destruction,” said Audrey McFarlane, a professor at the University of Baltimore law school, specializing in land use and urban development.

“It was deliberate. We said to ourselves, “This is the best way to contain the black movement in other areas.” One of the approaches to segregation has been either dispersal or confinement, ”she said.

Neighbors left the West Baltimore Strip at various intervals as the HUD bought their homes. Smith left the Fort at the age of 19 and joined the Marine Corps shortly thereafter. When he returned to Baltimore two years later, relocating to Cherry Hill, he often drove from his job downtown through his old neighborhood to remember. Sometimes he noticed that a former neighbor was doing the same thing. They got out of their cars and looked at the highway together.

Six years ago, Smith and his former neighbors began monthly meetings to remember. Over 30 people gathered to break bread and share their hopes. Grandparents showed new grandchildren; former neighbors next door have been making jokes that have gone on for decades.

COVID-19 has reduced the group to around 10 people, Smith said.

“Determine the way forward now”

The Senate adopted a Trillion dollar version of infrastructure bill last month, a lean version of the original $ 2.3 trillion bill Biden submitted. The final package included much less money for public transit, clean energy projects and replacement of lead pipes than the original proposal. And the cash reserve initially proposed for redeveloping projects like Highway To Nowhere has grown from $ 20 billion to $ 1 billion.

And Bill faces a tedious road to fruition in the House. President Nancy Pelosi has said she will not vote on the bill unless the Senate passes a separate, even more ambitious, $ 3.5 trillion set of social policy laws.

Across the country, there are thousands of miles of unfinished highways that have disrupted or destroyed communities like Smith, from Richmond, Virginia, to Oakland, California. If the infrastructure bill passes, they will be pitted against each other for funding.

Senator Van Hollen said he spoke to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who would oversee the distribution of funds, and “made it clear that the impetus for this federal fundraiser was the highway to nowhere in Baltimore.”

In the meantime, however, local leaders should “roll up their sleeves, determine the way forward now,” said Joe McAndrew, vice president, regional mobility and infrastructure for the Greater Washington Partnership.

“It will make us more competitive in the future for those big bucks that could actually materialize,” he said. “There are many projects which, unfortunately, due to the decisions of our grandfathers, have divided our communities. “

It means digging deeper into a lingering question: what exactly should happen to the highway to nowhere?

These plans would be determined based on extensive community input and public awareness, city, state and federal officials said.

“In America, the noise of construction generates feelings of progress, prosperity and opportunity,” Mayor Scott said at a highway press conference earlier this summer. “However, that same sound in one America, the one we find ourselves in right now in West Baltimore, often causes fear of unequal displacement.”

The Baltimoreans have floated around a plethora of ambitious ideas, from building everything from an off-road motorcycle arena to a public park. The Urban Land Institute and the Baltimore Development Corporation released a 2018 report which found that the Highway To Nowhere had “the potential to become a dense and active node in a more functional urban corridor” if pedestrian infrastructure, green spaces, retail centers and grocery stores more favorable ones were built.

The report also called for a potential redevelopment to include enough space for a 20-foot hallway – space that could be used to build the Red Line, a plug-and-play railroad project touted by advocates of the transit equity that Governor Larry Hogan overturned in 2015, calling it “unnecessary boondoggle.”

The senses. Van Hollen and Cardin are asking for funding to revisit the project in Biden’s infrastructure bill – although that would require a governor willing to back the railway line.

The return of this project is Smith’s hope for the Highway To Nowhere. Hogan’s cancellation was “a slap in the face and a kick in the ass” for transit advocates, community members and planners who have spent more than a decade designing a West Connector. “Is that they hoped to bring jobs and stability to struggling neighborhoods,” Smith said.

“And after working so hard for something… it reminds me of the highway to nowhere,” he said. “What was done was they said ‘here’ and shoved it down our throats no matter what the impact.”

West Baltimore communities torn by the freeway to nowhere deserve nothing less than to be reconnected by a world-class transit system that would strengthen the local economy, he said.

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