Ever since a 1.4-mile stretch of highway was built and never completed in West Baltimore, it has defined the neighborhoods around it. For some, it’s a reminder of the true cost of its construction: displacement and division of once vibrant communities.
Now, residents could have a chance to influence what happens to the “Highway to Nowhere.” But some people don’t know if they want change at all.
Baltimore will get a $2 million federal grant to go toward a planning study, which will inform opportunities for redevelopment of the highway, a section of U.S. 40 that runs from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the West Baltimore MARC station. When you stroll through the neighborhoods along the corridor, though, and ask residents about the highway, many have learned to adapt to it. Others are far more concerned about what they see as more pressing issues in their neighborhoods, such as vacant houses and road conditions.
Kinsley Darden, a longtime resident of West Baltimore, said it’s best to just leave the highway alone. It’s a section of a road where he doesn’t have to deal with street lights. He also thinks closing the highway or redeveloping it will lead to other headaches, such as dumping — and not just trash, but even dead bodies.
“If they shut it down, it will become a big landfill,” he said.
Darden said the city and other government officials don’t care about the areas around the highway. Baltimore residents, he added, have also stopped caring. Several other men seated next to Darden on marble steps chimed in with suspicion over whether the city really would do anything with the highway. They’ve heard it all before.
Their responses are not a surprise to Ariel Bierbaum, an assistant professor of urban studies and planning with the University of Maryland.
“A lot of our transportation infrastructure historically has been built to privilege and provide access for and to wealthier, whiter, and more suburban communities at the expense of urban, lower-income, Black communities,” Bierbaum said. “From urban renewal to federal highway construction to the cancellation of the Red Line, residents in West Baltimore have experienced deep harm at the hands of the public sector and their infrastructure projects. The harm as well as the cultivated mistrust are passed down from generation to generation.”
“It’s not so much that ‘This is fine and this is great,’ so much as ‘This is what it is because this is how we’ve always been treated’,” added Bierbaum, who’s also affiliate faculty at the National Center for Smart Growth within the university’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.
Distrust can also be fueled by empty or overstated promises about projects, Bierbaum said.
The Highway to Nowhere was supposed to connect Interstate 70 with Interstates 83 and 95, but was never completed. And there’s no refuting that there was tremendous opposition from the start to the project, which ran straight through several Black neighborhoods. In a letter in the University of Baltimore’s Special Collections and Archives, a former president of the Western Community Improvement Association called the roadway “a proverbial pimple on the ass of progress” and that it was “destroying not only the appearance of the community, but the families within that community.”
The opposition eventually won their long battle and the construction crews packed up and left. But not before the damage was already done with over 1,000 predominantly Black residents displaced and 971 homes and 62 businesses were demolished — only adding further insult to the fact that many didn’t want the highway in the first place.
Lyndon Williams, who owns properties near the highway, said he’d like to see new housing rebuilt in the area.
Williams was a child when people were displaced and he doesn’t think it was worth it to build the highway. He wasn’t aware of the recent announcement about the federal grant but the money, he said, should go toward fixing the boarded-up houses in the neighborhoods and the condition of the roads.
“We aren’t going to have any vehicles with these raggedy streets,” he said, noting the pothole-ridden roads damage cars.
NaaOfeibiah Vanderpuije, who helps run a corner store on North Payson Street, said the portion of the highway that exists might complement the neighborhood if it were better maintained. It’s a “hazard,” but she is “spoiled” by it because it helps her get to her family’s other business downtown without the hassle of lights. Other than that, the highway doesn’t really provide much, she said.
“If you’re going to use it, use it efficiently. If not, do something better with it,” Vanderpuije said.
Nakitah Holland thought more grass would be better in the area. Otherwise, she doesn’t know what else they would do. She pointed to a building near Penrose Avenue and North Gilmor Street and said her grandmother used to live there, and she always cherished her big yard with so much grass. Whoever put the potted plants on some of the overpasses along the highway, she said, “was onto something.”
Mitigating decades of the highway’s history in West Baltimore won’t be an easy task, said Uwe Brandes, a professor of practice with Georgetown University. And, there isn’t any step-by-step guide for addressing it, he said. This isn’t an “off-the-shelf” moment, he added, it’s “a moment where there needs to be a deep reflection of what has happened in the past, the state of the community today, and where this community wants to go in the future.”
For Glenn Smith, whatever’s done with the highway needs to be a project that has value equal to that of the damage the roadway caused when it was constructed. There’s not much that can accomplish that, he said, except to revive plans for the Red Line, a 14-mile east-west transit project former Gov. Larry Hogan nixed in 2015. The Red Line would have provided another transportation option near the “Highway to Nowhere.” The hope was that it would play an important role in easing travel and congestion and connecting city and suburban communities, spanning from Woodlawn to Bayview.
Smith, whose family was displaced from their Lauretta Avenue home during the construction of the highway, said transit-oriented development would bring life back to communities. Before the pandemic, Smith said a group of residents who grew up near the highway got together, reminisced and talked about the good times before it was built. The area thrived with jobs, entertainment options and plenty of grocers and other food options, he said.
Retired U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski opposed the highway expansion in the 1960s and 1970s. She helped form SCAR, Southeast Council Against the Road, and in many ways, her freeway revolt catapulted her career. Mikulski would like to see a project that prioritizes transit, creates economic development and generates neighborhood revitalization.
“The best way to honor the grievance of the past is to look at what we can do now on a transit-related project that would link up the job centers in that corridor, starting in Baltimore County all the way to Bayview,” she said.
She hopes the city makes the best use of the “Biden bucks” and connects with communities in other parts of the country about how they are addressing similar infrastructure. What’s redeveloped, Mikulski added, has to be desirable, feasible and sustainable and those who were most affected by the highway need to be included in the process.
Building back trust and listening to the community is a major part of the engagement process, said Theo Ngongang, deputy director and chief of policy with the city’s Department of Transportation.
“We do not intend for this to be a public sector-led venture. We want the west side to be with us every step of the way,” he said. One listening session took place in February, and the planning study will take at least two years to complete, Ngongang said.
Planners and other professionals involved with projects, Bierbaum said, need to understand that communities are entering conversations about redevelopment with narratives and memories from the past, and that can’t be ignored.
“It’s all about trust and relationships,” she added. “Projects move at the speed of trust.”