Fifty years ago, June 24, 1973, is a date that should be marked on every civic leader’s calendar as a cautionary tale for decision-making gone awry. That is the day that the infamous Highway to Nowhere went under construction, despite the 100% known risk that the Franklin-Mulberry segment might never meet up with the other 2,115 miles of Interstate 70.
It is telling that exhaustive archival research has produced no evidence that city leaders even paused to consider whether proceeding with the highway segment was a good idea. The significance of the decision is twofold, one obvious and one not so obvious. The not-so-obvious impact is this: If you have ever wondered why Baltimore is saddled with a second-rate transit system, you can trace our transit deficit to this same date: June 24, 1973.
The obvious impact: The ill-fated highway was also an accelerant for the decline of the Harlem Park neighborhood and other parts of West Baltimore.
Alton West, a former resident of Harlem Park and a city housing inspector, explained how the blight spread out from the highway corridor to the adjacent blocks, but then beyond.
“Just call it the domino effect or whatever you want. It just fell and kept going,” he said. By the “late ’70s, it was like the spread of cancer … it was just inoperable.”
The acquisitions to build the highway, concurrent with the 1968 riots, were followed by the precipitous decline of manufacturing in this region and then the devastation of the crack-cocaine epidemic. These factors combined to send the community on a downward spiral from which it has not recovered.
That the highway ended up as an unconnected piece of interstate, producing almost no transportation benefit, adds salt to the wounds. Today’s civic leaders, including Mayor Brandon Scott, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Rep. Kweisi Mfume and others justifiably point to the highway as an example (perhaps the best example in the whole country) of the unfair and discriminatory manner in which highways were planned to plow through lower-income African American neighborhoods.
To understand how and why the city unthinkingly blundered its way into one of the most horrendous decisions in the history of Baltimore, I’ll share information collected in the archives for my book, Stop the Road, Stories from the Trenches of Baltimore’s Road Wars.
We start in the mid-1940s, when public works mogul Robert Moses came to town and proposed an east-west expressway specifically designed to eliminate African American communities in East and West Baltimore. It was a sign of the times that Moses did not bother to cloak his proposals with do-gooder objectives; rather, Moses was explicit about “Negro removal”: “The more [of these] neighborhoods that are ‘wiped out,’ ” Moses said, “the healthier Baltimore will be in the long run. … We do not propose to tear down familiar and cherished landmarks. … Nothing which we propose to remove will constitute any loss to Baltimore.”
A 1960 Baltimore City Planning Department expressway plan continued the Robert Moses-like rationale, contending that “Not only would the clearance of many of the buildings along the proposed route not harm the city, one can go further and say that their removal would be advantageous.” Planners often misjudged communities such as Harlem Park, because, as one commentator phrased it, “the problem, though, is that these neighborhoods weren’t really slums. … While the housing was run-down due to overcrowding and poverty, the neighborhoods at large were still [socially and economically] functional, full of churches, groceries, restaurants, and shops.”
In the mid-1960s, Mayors Theodore R. McKeldin and Thomas (“young Tommy”) D’Alesandro III (both known as progressives for their eras on racial issues) adopted the East-West Expressway plan that implemented Moses’ vision and that tore apart the Harlem Park neighborhood. Neither stopped to reconsider the racial underpinnings of the highway plan. The condemning of properties proceeded in the late 1960s through 1971. Then, in December 1971, William Donald Schaefer took the helm.
Schaefer, as a city councilman, had been gung-ho for the highway plan for at least the past decade. As mayor, now in command of the road-building apparatus, Schaefer and the highway plan became one. If you were against it, you were against him. Schaefer was the guy who would kick all the skeptics and critics to the curb and get the job done. As Robert Embry, a former housing commissioner, told me, “He was a stubborn person, and he didn’t want to be pushed around. … He didn’t want to hear all this criticism and controversy. And I don’t think he cared particularly where it went, but when there was a plan to go someplace, he saw it as his job to get it done.”
Only a few months after taking office, Schaefer was handed two setbacks to his highway building aspirations: In June 1972, an injunction stopped the Leakin Park segment, and in October, courts stopped the city from acquiring more houses in Fell’s Point.
Thwarted by court decisions that were out of his control, Schaefer was looking for someplace, any place, where he could demonstrate his resolve to overcome all obstacles and get the highway built. That place, unfortunately, was the Franklin-Mulberry corridor, now the Highway to Nowhere.
When challenged whether it was good policy to build Franklin-Mulberry when the Leakin Park segment was under a court-ordered injunction, Schaefer resorted to what I am almost certain was a trumped-up rationale. He said, had the city not gone forward with constructing the highway, the city would owe $5 million ($36 million today) back to the federal government for funds expended in acquiring properties and carrying out engineering studies. The evidence from archival research is that, between 1970 and 1983, the city dropped highway alignments going through Federal Hill, Fell’s Point, Canton and Rosemont. Other segments were shifted in location — only I-95 was built as per the 1973 plans. I have found no record of any consideration that the city might be forced to reimburse the federal government for upfront highway planning costs for any of these dropped and changed segments.
You could say that building the Highway to Nowhere was Schaefer’s “Damn-the-torpedoes” moment – the torpedoes were coming from every direction, but, if anything, the growing obstacles served to increase, rather than dull, Schaefer’s resolve. The personality trait that (in Embry’s words) “he didn’t want to get pushed around” was undoubtedly his undoing for this and other wrong-headed decisions he made, still prosecuting the expressway plan long after it made any sense. In his later years, Schaefer confided to colleagues that his dogged pursuit of the highway plan was a big failure, some in his inner circle would reveal.
Only one month after the Highway to Nowhere went under construction, Congress finally adopted legislation that “Busted the Highway Trust.” That is, prior to July 1973, the highway user taxes authorized in the 1956 highway bill could be used for one purpose and one purpose only: building interstate highways. The new reforms allowed cities a dollar-for-dollar substitution, finally allowing them to trade their highway funds for transit.
Many cities did exactly that – Washington, D.C., for example, traded in $1 billion in highway funds in favor of Metro, with a result that D.C. made enormous strides toward the complete transit system we see today.
Back in Baltimore, Schaefer turned a deaf ear to this opportunity. Had he been more open-minded, had he moved forward with scoping out transit alternatives to expressways, a much earlier version of the Red Line might have been planned and implemented in the mid-1970s. It would have been a natural: the Red Line traversed the same corridors as the two expressways (I-70/West Baltimore and I-83/southeast Baltimore) that were later dropped. Plus, the Franklin-Mulberry corridor had already been cleared, so substituting a transit line would have been cost-effective and relatively painless.
For the communities of West Baltimore, that early version of the Red Line would have been a lifeline, connecting to both suburban and downtown job centers and helping to offset the loss of manufacturing jobs in the later decades of the 20th century.
Baltimore had a chance to gain a leg up on a complete transit system that would have been an important asset, a real game-changer, for downtown, the city’s neighborhoods, even the region, but we failed. Fast forward to recent headlines about redevelopment of the Highway to Nowhere and a Red Line relaunch.
Let’s hope that this time, we succeed.
E. Evans Paull is a retired city planner and the author of “Stop the Road, Stories from the Trenches of Baltimore’s Road Wars,” Boyle and Dalton, September 2022. For more about the book go to https://stop-the-road.com/the-book/, or follow the book on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Baltimore-Road-Wars-1940-1980-109994791288651.