The Highway to Nowhere, Explained but Inexplicable

Highway to Nowhere

It was a cliffhanger. The City was facing a federal deadline to get I-170 under construction before July 1, 1973, but they could not start construction until the Federal Court ruled on the lawsuit brought by the Movement Against Destruction (MAD). Bill Hellmann and David Wagner would later serve as highly respected agency directors for Maryland’s Department of Transportation and Mass Transit Administration, respectively, but in June 1973 they were staff to the Interstate Division of Baltimore City (IDBC), carrying out the policies of Mayor William Donald Schaefer. Fellow IDBC staffer, Gene Bober remembers “Hellmann and Wagner were really very hardworking guys.” He recalls that Hellmann was “up till midnight for weeks… [Hellmann and Wagner] had the courthouse staked out waiting for the judge’s decision.” When the judges ruling came down (MAD lost on all points), “Hellmann got on the phone to the contractor who already had the bulldozers on the site waiting to go, so that they could say to the Federal Highway Administration, ‘Okay, we’ve met the deadline,’” and the City prevented the loss of as much as $90 million in federal funds.

About 38 years later Bob Leonard, a Virginia Tech professor and West Baltimore arts activist, characterized the Highway to Nowhere as “West Baltimore’s Katrina,” but with permanent and festering impacts. He said, “Katrina blows in and blows out and there’s a huge residue and consequence, but the event of that disaster happened ‘ka- bam!’ Conversely, the consequences of [the highway]… look like the effects of a hurricane that stays. Decades long in its motion, and the turmoil is continuous.”

How, exactly did this happen – that the City worked overtime to get underway with a project that was later described as West Baltimore’s permanent Katrina?

In examining the record, I have found little that puts this decision in a favorable light. Starting with the origins of the Franklin-Mulberry alignment in the 1940’s, following through to construction in 1973-79, the City’s decision-making was deeply flawed and, at least initially, racially biased. In 1944 New York master builder Robert Moses, brought to Baltimore as a consultant, was completely direct as to his objectives. “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 like 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.”

The Franklin-Mulberry section was condemned under Mayor McKeldin in 1967, cleared under Mayor D’Alesandro from 1968 to 1971; then William Donald Schaefer was at the helm for that June 1973 decision point. In 1973 there were two factors that called out (loudly, in my view) for a reevaluation. One was that, just to the west, the Leakin Park segment had been enjoined by the US District Court in June 1972. The other was that 35 miles to the south, the House-Senate Conference Committee was finally making progress on legislation that would “Bust the Highway Trust,” that is, to finally allow cities to cash in their highway chips and fund mass transit instead. That long overdue change was ratified just two months later, August 1973.

But Schaefer did not pause to reevaluate. Other parts of the highway plan were blocked by legal actions in Fells Point and for Leakin Park, and the Ft McHenry bridge/tunnel was slowed by regulation. Schaefer was anxious to demonstrate his resolve to complete the expressway plan; so, he was building it in the only place that he could. The question is: is that the whole story, or were there other factors that offer some justification for what is now termed a “monstrosity” (by Senator Christopher Van Hollen, Jr.) and the “poster child for inequality and … racism” (by Mayor Brandon M. Scott).

A number of explanations have been offered, some legitimate, some dubious, some poor judgement: that the City would owe $5 million back to the federal and state governments for engineering plans, property acquisition, and relocation expenses (dubious); that the impending federal deadline forced the decision on Franklin-Mulberry before the resolution of the Leakin Park injunction (legitimate); and that Schaefer was betting that, by building Franklin-Mulberry, the City would improve its chances of getting the Leakin Park and/or Gwynns Falls segments approved (poor judgement).

But, more than anything else, the decision on Franklin-Mulberry goes to the core of Schaefer’s adherence to carrying out a highway plan that made less and less sense as time went on. Bob Embry (Housing Commissioner under both D’Alesandro and Schaefer) commented in general about Schaefer’s resolve to build the expressway system, saying, “He was a stubborn person, and he didn’t want to be pushed around. He saw his job is to get things done, and he didn’t want to hear all this criticism and controversy.”

My view: Schaefer absolutely let bias enter his decision-making process, but it was mostly his pro-highway bias, rather than racial bias, that trumped all other considerations. Bill Hellmann said it succinctly, “In retrospect, the Franklin-Mulberry corridor was a terrible decision.” He pauses and then repeats for emphasis, “Let’s just say a bad decision.”


Photo credit, Dan Rodricks, the Baltimore Sun.

For Harlem Park history, the Baltimore Heritage page and the CHAP page for the Old West Baltimore Historic Area. 

See also the Arch Social Club for current cultural and physical renewal of West Baltimore.