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:

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.