By now I’ve read quite a number of books and any number of blog posts — including this new good one on Vox — about the gutting of U.S. cities by highways. I know about the connection of highways to racism; I know that highways very often cut neighborhoods off from the rest of their cities; I know that highways were thought to be an important part of urban renewal, and as far as I know the people who used that term did not mean it euphemistically — they really did believe they were revitalizing their cities.
But that’s all abstract. I fundamentally have never been able to put myself back into the minds of people who thought that this was a good idea. When I walk around Boston and I find that large parts of the city have had the life sucked out of them by urban-renewal projects that are today universally condemned, I’ve not yet been able to put myself in the heads of those who made these decisions:
- The West End: wiped out and replaced by brutalist architecture and by North Station.
- The North End: cut off from the rest of Boston by I-93 until the Big Dig righted a great historic wrong. (Jane Jacobs goes into some detail about this, as I recall, in Death and Life of Great American Cities.)
- Haymarket: wiped out and replaced by a parking garage (which is thankfully slated for replacement by a space where people rather than cars will live).
- Scollay Square: wiped out and replaced by the brutalist (I.M. Pei-designed) City Hall.
- The Mass Pike: a gash torn through the city.
- The New York Streets neighborhood in the South End: a residential neighborhood bulldozed and replaced by newspaper printing plants, which moved out a few years ago and today are being quickly replaced by affluent-people housing.
- The boundary between the South End and South Boston: a tangle of highways. It was probably unimaginable for that highway to come down, even before the Big Dig happened, so the best idea the Boston Redevelopment Authority has for this boundary is some funky lighting for those who walk under the highway between neighborhoods (see page 29). South Boston and the South End are, for all practical purposes, isolated from one another.
(Even taking down the highway would still leave walkers crossing over a rail yard. I wonder if anyone’s worked through a plan in detail for the transformation of that South End/South Boston boundary into a livable space.)
- The lovely Southwest Corridor Park, a linear walking/biking path that stretches from Back Bay down to the Arnold Arboretum, built atop what was supposed to be the Southwest Expressway. It’s a beautiful park, but it’s there in part because people’s homes were bulldozed to make way for the highway. By this point, though, the city’s residents had had enough of urban renewal, and protested until the project was stopped. (Had all the parts of this highway project gone through as intended, I would have been able to look out the window in my Cambridge apartment and see I-695 standing where Brookline Street is today.)
Of course I’ve heard all the benign explanations. The future was believed to lie in automobiles: people would commute into the cities for work and commute back to the suburbs at night, and the bulldozed parts of the city weren’t actually that nice anyway. But what I fundamentally have not been able to build yet is the historical imagination to put myself in their shoes. Books like Building A New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950-1970 believe that pre-demolition Boston wasn’t anything worth writing home about, whereas books like A People’s History of the New Boston treat it as a problem of organization: plenty of people objected to having their houses destroyed, but they weren’t organized politically. By 1970 they had organized, and the orgy of destruction had ended.
So I still need to put myself back in the shoes of Mayor John Hynes, standing over the map of Boston and deciding what would be bulldozed and what wouldn’t; or of Mayor John Collins, agreeing to tear the Mass Pike right through the middle of the city. I need to understand how decades of mistakes — which we’re only correcting, piece by piece, today — didn’t seem like mistakes at the time.