When I was growing up in Memphis in the 1960s, the Feds unveiled a plan to build a short stretch of Interstate 40 to connect East Memphis with downtown.
The proposed corridor of concrete would run through Overton Park, a 342-acre green space of old forest and open fields in the heart of the city. The park features a zoo, an art museum and a handsome bandshell – where young Elvis Presley once played.
After the path had been determined and many in-the-way houses had been razed, a small advocacy group, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, was able to face down “progress,” thwart construction and save the park. Today ghostly vestiges of that gap still exist.
Other cities across America have not been so longviewed or lucky. Neighborhoods have been knocked around and cities rent asunder to make way for innercity highways.
Now the Congress for the New Urbanism – a conglom of architects, academics, planners and philosophers – wants to turn back the clock and free some cities of their freeways. The CNU has drawn up a list of Top 10 Freeways Without Futures that it would like to dismantle. With the help of NPR’s Graphics Editor Alyson Hurt, we spotlight a trio of them here:
New Orleans: I-10/Claiborne Overpass
When an elevated highway was built in New Orleans in the 1960s, it loomed over — and lumbered through — some vibrant neighborhoods. About 500 houses, businesses and other structures were leveled. According to the CNU report, “Tremé —one of the first free African-American communities, and once one of the wealthiest — was left physically divided and socially marred.” If the movement to reclaim the real estate is successful, it could resurrect 40 or so city blocks and 20 or more blocks of open space.
In Detroit, a one mile long, four-lane spur — begun in 1959 — cuts through downtown, affecting several districts, including Riverfront and Eastern Market. Now several local organizations, including the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, are hoping to convert the highway into a pedestrian-friendly space. In February 2014, the group held its first public meeting to discuss alternative possibilities for the concrete corridor.
San Francisco: I-280
In the 1940s, the California Highway Department proposed a network of highways in San Francisco that would have carved up a lot of neighborhoods, according to the CNU report. “But, San Franciscans resisted by staging America’s first Freeway Revolt.” Now there are discussions of turning the stub end of I-280 into a boulevard. “If done correctly,” the report adds, “San Francisco will continue to be the most cited example of successful urban freeway removals in the world.”
There are lots of upsides to tearing down highways, Tim Halbur of the CNU tells NPR, “not the least of which is a matter of social equity. In the era of freeway expansion, whole neighborhoods — usually full of lower-income people –were plowed through with elevated highways. These highways destroyed the social and economic connections that knitted the community together.”
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