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Searching For A Turn-Around On The Highway To Nowhere

The view east along U.S. Route 40, also called the Highway To Nowhere.
Famartin/Wikimedia Commons
The view east along U.S. Route 40, also called the Highway To Nowhere.

Looking out onto the six-lane stretch of highway that separates one West Baltimore neighborhood from another, Glenn Smith remembers what used to be.

“50 years ago, you would see a bustling neighborhood. And where we're standing at, you had a real community,” he said. “It was like a Norman Rockwell painting. Now there's a void.”

Smith was a teenager when the notice came to the door of The Fort, his beloved family rowhome on Lauretta Avenue: his family and about 1,500 of their neighbors would have to vacate their predominantly Black community so that workers could build an extension of Interstate 70.

But after the Smiths and their neighbors moved out in 1969, and 971 homes and 62 businesses were destroyed to make way for the highway, the partially-constructed project was cancelled. Workers left something behind: a sunken, 1.39 mile highway with a series of overpasses that stand in place of once-vibrant blocks. To Smith, it’s “a monument to what happened to our community.”

Now Smith and other former residents have a shot at closure: President Biden’s infrastructure bill, which would be the largest federal investment into infrastructure projects in more than a decade, may provide funding to Baltimore to redevelop the Highway to Nowhere.

U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen are advocating for the American Jobs Plan to include a pot of money to redevelop failed projects like the highway. They’ve also introduced the Reconnecting Communities Act, a similar piece of legislation which would provide money to revitalize communities harmed by the construction of the Interstate Highway System. Provisions of that bill are included in Biden’s ambitious package.

“This bill will provide a program with resources that could help heal those kinds of divisions and really provide opportunities for those neighborhoods to revitalize themselves,” Van Hollen said last week on WYPR’s Midday program.

The highway was originally conceived as a way to connect Interstate 70 coming from the west with Interstate 95. Opposition from white suburban residents, who cited environmental concerns, ended the highway’s construction in the early 1970s, before it could displace their communities.

Now, the highway carries local U.S. 40 traffic between West Baltimore's MARC station and Martin Luther King Blvd. It takes under two minutes to drive from one end of the highway to the other. Pedestrians may use sidewalks on the overpasses to cross it, but the hostile environment has divided the neighborhoods along its path, without connecting them to any amenities, jobs or reliable transit routes, Smith said.

It’s a monument to the racism baked into transportation infrastructure, he said.

“It was like a Normal Rockwell painting”

Of all of Smith’s painful memories tied to the highway, the racist characterization of the predominantly Black area as a ghetto that needed improvement still hurts.

“Everything was perfect: a contained community with supermarkets, movies, clothing stores, everything you need. You didn’t need to leave,” Smith, now in his 70s, said. “These were strong, thriving neighborhoods that they just scooped away for nothing.”

The families on his block were so close that children were always within earshot of a trusted adult, he said. There was hardly any violent crime and a tacit rule that children could play wherever they wanted until the street lights turned on. Most middle class families had parents who worked at Bethlehem Steel. People took turns hosting waistline parties — where you paid whatever your waist length was to enter — and babysitting each other’s kids.

That collectivistic spirit helped Smith’s family survive. His mother passed away when he was five, leaving his father Edward with eight children between the age of 17 and one.

“The mothers in the community, because of the closeness of the community, felt that they would nurture the children in my family,” he said. “We had five block mothers.”

The grief tied to the loss of the family home haunted Edward until his death, Smith said.

“I don't think he was ever able to recover by the loss of that connectability with a community,” Smith said. “This was a man who worked two jobs as long as I can remember to support his family. You have somebody come in and say, ‘We want your house. You take this money or we're going to take it anyway.’ That's devastating.”

The Fort, a corner rowhouse with green awnings, was spared demolition in the eleventh hour, after the project was cancelled. But the Smith family had already cut their losses and moved away. HUD sold off The Fort and the rest of the houses on the block.

There was resistance to the highway from West Baltimore residents in the 1960s, but it wasn’t as effective as similar movements in the white suburbs because of the deeply entrenched racism, Smith said.

The Highway To Nowhere “never was meant to improve our community at all,” he said. “It was to get other communities through our community without having to interact with us.”

“It’s also that those areas were considered suitable for destruction,” said Audrey McFarlane, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law specializing in land use and urban development.

“It was deliberate. It was thought, ‘This is the best way to kind of contain Black movement into other areas.’ One of the approaches to segregation has been either dispersal or containment,” she said.

Neighbors left the swath of West Baltimore in different intervals as HUD purchased their homes. Smith left The Fort at age 19 and joined the Marine Corps shortly after. When he returned to Baltimore two years later, settling in Cherry Hill, he’d often drive from his downtown job through his old neighborhood to reminisce. Sometimes he’d notice a former neighbor doing the same thing. They’d get out of their cars and stare at the highway together.

Six years ago, Smith and his former neighbors began monthly gatherings to reminisce. Upwards of 30 people convened to break bread and share hopes. Grandparents showed off new grandchildren; former next-door neighbors cracked decades-long running jokes.

COVID-19 has whittled the group down to about 10 people, Smith said.

“Determine the path forward now”

The Senate passed a $1 trillion version the infrastructure bill last month, a pared down version of the original $2.3 trillion bill Biden submitted. The final package included far less money for transit, clean energy projects and lead pipe replacement than the original proposal. And the pool of money that was originally proposed to redevelop projects like the Highway To Nowhere shrank from $20 billion to $1 billion.

And the bill faces a tedious path toward realization in the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will not vote on the bill unless the Senate passes a separate, even more ambitious $3.5 trillion package of social policy legislation.

Across the country, there are thousands of miles of unfinished highways that disrupted or destroyed communities like Smith’s, from Richmond, Va., to Oakland, Calif. Should the infrastructure bill pass, they’ll be pitted against each other for funding.

Sen. Van Hollen said he’s spoken to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who would oversee the distribution of the funds, and “made clear that the impetus for this federal pot of money was the highway to nowhere in Baltimore.”

In the meantime, though, local leaders should “roll up their sleeves, determine the path forward now,” said Joe McAndrew, the Vice President, Regional Mobility & Infrastructure at the Greater Washington Partnership.

“It will make us more competitive in the future for those big dollars that actually may come to fruition,” he said. “ There's a lot of projects out there that, unfortunately, due to our grandfathers' decisions, divided our communities.”

That means delving into a lingering question: What, exactly, should happen to the Highway to Nowhere?

Those plans would be determined from thorough community input and public outreach, city, state and federal officials have said.

“In America, the sound of construction generates feelings of progress, prosperity and opportunity,” Mayor Scott said at a news conference at the highway earlier this summer. “However, this same sound in one America, the one that we're standing in right now in West Baltimore, often provokes fear of displacement in inequality.”

Baltimoreans have floated around a slew of ambitious ideas, from building everything from a dirt bike arena to a public park. The Urban Land Institute and the Baltimore Development Corporation issued a 2018 report that found the Highway To Nowhere has “a potential to become a dense, active node within a more functional urban corridor” if more supportive pedestrian infrastructure, green spaces, retail hubs and grocery stores are built.

The report also advocated for potential redevelopment to include enough space for a 20-foot corridor — space that could be used to build the Red Line, a shovel-ready rail project touted by transit equity advocates that Gov. Larry Hogan cancelled in 2015, calling it a “wasteful boondoggle.”

Sens. Van Hollen and Cardin are calling for funding to revisit the project in Biden’s infrastructure bill — though doing so would require a governor willing to back the rail line.

The return of that project is Smith’s hope for the Highway To Nowhere. Hogan’s cancellation was “a slap in the face and a kick in the butt” to the transit advocates, community members and planners who spent over a decade designing a West-East connector they hoped would bring jobs and stability to embattled neighborhoods, Smith said.

“And after you've worked so hard for something... it reminds me of the Highway To Nowhere,” he said. “What was done was, they said ‘here’ and shoved it down our throat, regardless of what the impact was.”

The West Baltimore communities torn apart by the Highway To Nowhere deserve nothing less than to be reconnected by a world-class transit system that would bolster the local economy, he said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.