Stop the Road, stories from the trenches of Baltimore's Road Wars

by Evans Paull

Now on sale through Amazon and Barnes & Noble

stop the road the book

So, when you’re telling the expressway story, I want it to be told… in terms of people, and in terms of the sacrifice that some people made for the majority. And to me, they are the heroes… And just somewhere I want recorded the people who saved their own community.

   Then City Councilperson [later Senator] Barbara Mikulski, 1974

Speaking of the African-American neighborhoods that would be eliminated by a proposed East-West Expressway in Baltimore, Robert Moses… would not mince words. “The more neighborhoods that are ‘wiped out,’” Moses said, “the healthier Baltimore will be in the long run.”

   Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, referring to Robert Moses, the New York highway mogul whose 1944 Baltimore Arterial Plan served as the forerunner of all subsequent highway plans.

During a visit to her former neighborhood in 1988, Mercedes Stevens succinctly summed up Baltimore’s battle over Interstate Highways: “If the Expressway had been built, you’d say ‘well, who wants to live there anyway?” Stevens was talking about her family’s former home on South Decker Street in Canton, but she could have been talking about Montgomery Street in South Baltimore, William Street in Federal Hill, Ellamont Street in Rosemont, Aliceanna Street in Harbor East, or Lancaster Street in Fells Point.

Twenty-seven years prior to Stevens’ visit to Canton, Baltimore’s team of consulting engineers released the highway scheme that seems now as if it had been designed for the express purpose of preventing Baltimore’s old-line waterfront neighborhoods from becoming havens for young people renovating houses and enlivening storefronts. The Expressway Consultants’ 1961 plan, which the author has dubbed the “Future Investment Prevention Program,” guided the eight-lane East-West Expressway to cross South Baltimore at Montgomery Street, swipe through Federal Hill (taking a large chunk out of Federal Hill Park), cross the Inner Harbor with a 14-lane low level bridge, occupy Harbor East with a colossal 6-level interchange, rip through the heart of Fells Point at Broadway and Thames, and then follow the Canton waterfront all the way to the Canton industrial area, thereby cutting off all of the southeast neighborhoods from the harbor.

Thankfully, the engineers’ plan was halted before the Road Gang started laying down asphalt, but that was not due to the engineers’ failure to gain the backing of Baltimore’s economic and political establishment, all apparently beguiled by the promise of almost limitless federal dollars devoted to bringing cities into the auto-dominated age. That Baltimore is not saddled with expressways barging their way through these historic waterfront communities is a testament to those operating outside of the power structure, a rare victory of the outsiders and the powerless over the insiders and the powerful.  

This is the story of those outsiders and how they managed, against all odds, to gain the upper hand. Amongst this ragtag band of neighborhood activists, preservationists, environmentalists, and 1960s idealists, there is only one household name: Senator Barbara Ann Mikulski. While the senator’s good name does deserve to be on the marquee for the Road Wars saga, there were so many others, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Baltimoreans should know and revere the names of the saviors of Fells Point: Bob Eney, the beloved Fells Pointer whose unmatched knowledge of, and unbridled enthusiasm for 18th and 19th century architecture could “turn a slum landlord into a preservationist;” Lu Fisher, who was thrust into leading the battle to save Fells Point after the ill-advised purchase of a condemned house (bought with 100 percent love and 0 percent due diligence); and Jack Gleason, the guy that miraculously bonded the ethnics with the preservationists, thereby uniting southeast Baltimore in opposition to The Road.

Modern-day Baltimoreans also owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Tom Ward, the cantankerous ex-councilman and judge who almost single-handedly carried the anti-expressway banner through the mid-1960s and saved the Mt. Royal cultural district from death-by-expressway.

My interviewees ran out of superlatives when they described Joe Wiles and Mary Rosemond, two of Rosemont’s stalwart leaders. Wiles’ quiet but effective diplomacy forced a rerouting of I-170 around Rosemont, a legacy that was largely unknown until Wiles was prominently featured in author Earl Swift’s sweeping history of the Interstate Highway System (The Big Roads). Out of tens of thousands of anti-highway activists all across the country, Swift chose Wiles to represent “The Human Obstacle” to building highways through cities.

Another ordinary guy, Harlem Park’s John Wells (a bus driver and former resident of public housing) won an astonishing victory for all displaced families when he convinced the city, the state, and the federal government, to offer up to $5,000 ($25,000 today) over “fair market value” for acquired homes. 

These are just a few of the individuals that changed the trajectory of expressway plans to the benefit of the city. Councilman Norman Reeves, a muscular dystrophy victim, brought incredible strength and determination to the cause of saving Leakin Park. Civil rights activist Stu Wechsler played a starring role in creating the first large-scale inter-racial protest movement, the aptly named Movement Against Destruction (MAD). Sharp-Leadenhall’s Mildred Moon brought her community back from the gallows after two highway plans and one urban renewal plan almost obliterated her proud African American Community.

The change agents also came from within the bureaucracy. Referring to themselves as “the fifth column,” Bob Embry (Housing Commissioner) and M.J. Brodie (Deputy Housing Commissioner) quietly supported highway opponents. The unsung heroes also took up residence in Baltimore’s highway consulting team–Nathaniel Owings and Stew Bryant quite literally saved Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor, acting in complete contravention to the wishes of their clients. In the category of consultant-client relationships, theirs is a story like no other.

The Road Warriors left a remarkable legacy, all due to ordinary people rising to the occasion, meeting the challenge, and defying conventional wisdom. Refusing to be silenced or dissuaded, they took the mantle of leadership when their elected leaders failed to represent the interests of the community. But there is also one story of appalling and catastrophic failure. The “Highway to Nowhere.

In 2016 Anthony Foxx, Obama’s Transportation Secretary, was looking for a place to hold a staff retreat. This place needed to illustrate the point that past transportation programs and policies have too often been unfair and inequitable for communities of color. Foxx decided that Baltimore’s “Highway to Nowhere” was just the backdrop that he needed: a highway that was originally conceived as “Negro Removal,” and that was constructed at a time when there was a completely known risk that it may never link up to the other 2,115 miles of the I-70.

There is no feel-good part to the story, no redemptive storyline behind this failure. There are only the dual questions: how did we let this happen, and what can be done to replace this monument to bad planning and racial insensitivity? 

The latter question is now, finally, particularly timely, as Congress is finally discussing infrastructure investments that include “correction of historical inequities.” Baltimore’s leaders have raised their hands and said, in effect, ‘we have your poster child for those historical inequities.’

Baltimore, it seems, has managed to gain notoriety at both ends of the expressway controversy spectrum. While Baltimore’s Road Wars are famous nationally for saving Fells Point, Federal Hill, and the waterfront, the city is also infamous for building the Highway to Nowhere.

This is a story of Baltimore at its best and at its worst all at the same time… a story of the mob retaking “Mobtown” … a story of monumental struggle for the “Monumental City.”