,
National Road, 1800s. As the eastern terminus of this road, the port of Baltimore flourished.

A
West Baltimore, 1960s, from the 1970 Corridor report.

D
Robert Moses, controversial figure who helped design Baltimore's urban highways early on.

4
H.L. Mencken, former resident of West Baltimore and fierce opponent of the highway.

34
Ice House, proposed site for transit terminal.

 

3
Brice Gardens, near the Ice House.

 

A
Ice House.

 

A
Corridor Development study, 1970.

 

D
West Baltimore, 1960s.

 

4
West Baltimore, 1960s.

 

34
West Baltimore street vendor, 1960s.

 

3
Franklin St. near the western exit from the highway.

 

34
West Baltimore corner store.

A
West Baltimore's broken dreams.

 

Is the Highway to Nowhere Finally Going Somewhere?

The Long and Winding Road to the Redemption of West Baltimore
 

When I first moved to the Baltimore area in 1999, one thing I had to do was see the “headwaters” of US 40. In my hometown of Indianapolis, US 40 is THE main East/West artery, dividing the city into North and South. I was expecting something similar in Baltimore but found nothing of the sort. The National Road began in Baltimore in 1806 and by 1818 had reached Wheeling, WV. It continued to serve as the gateway into the American West for many years, benefiting Baltimore and its harbor tremendously. But the National Road kept shifting over the decades. Today it is very hard to trace as it moves Westward, taking on various names from one locality to the next, names like the National Pike, US 40, I-70, and the many different names within localities, such as Franklin St. in Baltimore or Washington St. in Indianapolis. Thus I was disappointed to find the National Road shifted hither and thither as it approached downtown Baltimore, appearing to terminate in the “Highway to Nowhere,” a freeway that was intended to connect downtown Baltimore with I-70 but was never completed. US 40 emerges from the Highway to Nowhere and continues east and then north up the coast. It does not terminate in Baltimore. In any case I found Baltimore's infamous Highway to Nowhere a fascinating if sad tale of how public improvements can sometimes completely miss their mark.

The Highway to Nowhere left a wake of damaged and depressed neighborhoods, justifying in hindsight the protests of thousands of residents who fought the highway, including H.L. Mencken, who lived a few blocks south of the project. Mencken died in 1956, nearly 14 years before construction, but plans for the highway started in the 1940s when America’s leading highway planner, Robert Moses, was hired to formulate the concept.

Moses was head of numerous commissions in New York City and helped to plan a great many urban renewal projects around the nation. He was always appointed and never elected to office, thus insulating him from the public outcry against disruptive urban renewal that wrecked neighborhoods. In the 1930s he worked for the New Deal, with the job of allocating funding for parks, roads, bridges and other major improvements.  However by the 1960s the public was not so eager for his heavy-handed development programs. He met his match in citizen activist and journalist Jane Jacobs, who successfully blocked several of his projects, including a freeway in Manhattan that would have devastated Washington Park and other historic neighborhoods. He built a reputation as the man who could "GET THINGS DONE," to quote Jacobs in her famous book Death and Life of American Cities, yet many questioned the ultimate effects of his planning style, which seemed to serve automobiles rather than people. Ironically, he himself never learned to drive a car. Franklin-Mulberry can loosely be described as one of his failures because he was an early consultant to the project and was the driving force (pun intended) behind America’s trend toward inner city highways in general.

The Franklin-Mulberry highway was just another depressed urban highway, similar to ones that worked fairly well in Detroit and other places. But what Robert Moses and his planning group didn’t understand is that Baltimore was not so much an automobile town as a rail town. As home to America’s first common-carrier line, the B&O railroad, Baltimore, with its clusters of row houses packed tight as barnacles, was somehow less resilient to the trauma of a highway trench compared with areas such as Detroit. Baltimore's urban fabric cried out for mass transit, in my opinion, not heavy handed urban highways.

Today, a major revitalization effort is underway: The Red Line light rail transit promises to inject life into west Baltimore. Of particular promise is the blighted area at the western end of the Highway to Nowhere, the current location of a small MARC boarding station. This is where the Red Line would intersect the MARC line, making it a perfect location for a for a major Transit Oriented Development. In fact the City's plans are considering a new terminal to be built in the current Ice House site, now a dilapidated ruin. This terminal could become a major amenity that attracts people from the suburbs back to the city and seeds the area with new businesses. However, the high crime and poverty are still formidable obstacles. HBO’s The Wire, for example, depicted nearby Brice Gardens (just one block Northeast of the Ice House) as a haven for drug addicts. Baltimore's residents know better than to accept the Wire at face value, yet the perceived stigma in this area is real.

The Red Line plan would provide the long-missing East/West link in Baltimore’s transit network, something many transit enthusiasts would embrace, it would seem. But there are plenty of critics. Debates continue over whether the line should be above or below ground in areas such as Canton and Edmondson Village, etc. Meanwhile, as the City bends over backwards to sell their plan to the public, and the naysayers fight it, one wonders whether Baltimore will ever catch up to the many rail cities around the world that leave American cities in the dust. Given that Baltimore is more or less the birthplace of rail transportation in America, one has to wonder, if passenger rail transit can't succeed in Baltimore, where can it? Or perhaps we are still overwhelmingly a car culture and will be for some time to come?

There is more than a bit of anxiety over whether the City has the wherewithal or capacity to turn back the tide that has left a vast swath of West Baltimore an urban wasteland. No one is claming the Red Line can perform miracles for the deep social and economic ills that plague the inner city. And City planners are also mindful of past failures to rejuvenate the area. The Franklin-Mulberry neighborhood teemed with life as far back as anyone could remember. In the early 1960s, small businesses were on every corner and sidewalks full of children. But all was not sweetness and light. The area had long been home to black residents who for generations had been told they could only live in certain areas and hold certain jobs. Poverty was high yet the old neighborhoods enjoyed a rich social fabric that had grown organically over generations.  The announcement in the 1950s of the proposed highway, right through Franklin-Mulberry, with nearby Rosemont considered as an alternate route, spread shockwaves of panic.  Home values plummeted and many people moved away. Finally, when the plans were solidified in the 1960s, special assistance was given to those who had been financially harmed by the panic, particularly in Rosemont. Why this panic was so severe is hard to say, except that it must have been partly because Baltimore was essentially a rail town, according to Gerald Neily, a former Baltimore City traffic planner. The proposed highway did nothing but frighten residents.  Nevertheless, City planners put on a happy face as they released their Corridor Development Study Plan for Segment 10 in 1970, a rosy report that detailed the many benefits of the highway. The report spoke of the total cost, where the funding would come from, and when it would be completed. Several prestigious planning and architecture firms participated in the study, which was endorsed by the political powers that be, including Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro (relative of Nancy Pellosi) and City Council President Donald Schaefer.

Clearly, Baltimore had a serious traffic problem in the 1940s through 1960s. Some residential neighborhoods had become major traffic arteries, for which they weren’t designed.  Franklin and Mulberry streets were particularly bad , with rowhouses typically 12 feet from the curb with steps extending even closer. The rumble of  traffic must have been very unpleasant for families in the area, not to mention the children, whose "front yards" consisted of 12' of sidewalk.

The 1970 Corridor Study included beautiful concept drawings of plazas and streetscapes in its tabloid-sized pages. A foldout showed the highway connecting the downtown with I -70. The phases of construction were nicely charted as were the financial figures. Sensitivity to the community was to be of paramount importance, emphasized by page after page of statistical data and wonderful programs and parks, along with full-page pictures of smiling children. The report explicitly stated that one of the priorities of the plan was to minimize disruption to the community. This was probably in response to the extreme disruption caused by earlier plans. New sociological principles were obviously employed to ease community fears, but it was obviously an afterthought, a gloss on top of an immutable decision that the highway must get built. The main impetus of the project was to boost downtown commerce, but the emphasis of the study was the needs of the people living in the affected neighborhoods.  There was to be a new program to encourage local businesses ownership. New jobs would be generated. Income would rise. Shopping would seem closer due to better roads. A school and community center would be built on a platform right over the highway. But something went terribly wrong. Later in the 1970s, opponents of the project finally stopped the project on the grounds that it would be environmentally disruptive to nearby Gwynns Falls Park. This is what killed the highway in the end. By then, some opponents may have considered that an incomplete highway was even worse than a completed highway. In any case, most if not all the amenities in the report didn’t come to pass, including the new school. The partial platform over the highway did not get built. Businesses packed up and left, as did thousands of people. Today many homes remain boarded up. Social changes were sweeping the country in the late 60s and early 70s. In the wake of Baltimore’s 1968 riots, black people were only too eager to move from their former places of confinement such as Franklin-Mulberry, into the newly opened areas such as Edmondson Village. And as industrial jobs started to severely decline, the local economy suffered further, leaving poor neighborhoods even poorer.

HBO’s recent smash-hit TV series, The Wire exposed a darker side of Baltimore, with some scenes shot nearby or within Franklin-Mulberry. Many people found it engaging and well written, while others argued it left the wrong impression by depicting crime and drugs exclusively. In reality, plenty of local residents are neither gang members nor drug users. Many are just getting by on low-wage jobs or government checks.  In any case, there couldn’t be a starker contrast between the depiction in The Wire and vision expressed in the 1970 Corridor Study.

One aspect that is seldom considered is that federal government policy itself was a factor in the decline of West Baltimore. City planners in the 1960s were facing time pressure since the 90% federal matching funds for new highways was supposed to expire in 1971. The project was probably rushed in order to take advantage of this ridiculously generous offer. Another federal program influencing trends on a macro level was the FHA housing program, which offered low-cost loans, often to people moving to the suburbs. The combination of new highways and cheap suburban housing loans was a double-whammy that would change the face of American cities. The trend took on such momentum that by the 2000s, tens of thousands of acres of farmland surrounding Baltimore and Washington DC were converted to suburban sprawl. As gasoline prices reached $4 per gallon in 2008, however, there is a concern that as oil diminishes, remote suburban development may become uneconomical or untenable. No one knows what the future holds, but it’s a wise bet that economic pressures will force people to move back to urban areas in large number at some point in the 21st century. Commuting 50 to 100 miles per day is a drain on the economy, at least as long as fossil fuels are used to transport commuters. That may improve if we switch to electric transportation, or find a way to get by on vastly lighter vehicles in general.

A seldom asked question: Could the decline of Baltimore’s inner city be much different than what occurred in ancient Rome? Remember that no single Roman ever saw more than than an incremental change during his lifetime. It took 500 years for the city of Rome to go from bustling metropolis to goat pasture by the year 700 AD. The decline in Franklin Mulberry these past 60 years is almost certainly on a par with anything experienced by any individual Roman. Another 440 years like the past 60, and it’s not hard to imagine Franklin-Mulberry devolving into depopulated pastureland, pockmarked by ancient rubble. While I do not like to dwell on unprovable doomsday scenarios, the causes of West Baltimore's decline are far more palpable: so much of it was caused by human miscalculation. The federal highway program had perhaps become overambitious, and FHA loans lured people away from the fantastically rich urban fabric that was West Baltimore into the far less sustainable suburbs. Then came the failure to correct the damage. Neighborhoods such as West Baltimore were left in a state of ruin, and no one went to jail for it. Today, as the City (and MTA) rolls out its latest transit solution, we can only hope it’s not too little too late.