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Commentaryby Fern Shen7:06 amSep 24, 20100

Highway to Nowhere coming down? Not really.

How a small worthy project was hyped as huge and heroic by government press releases and a compliant media.

Above: “Highway to Nowhere,” looking east from the Schroeder Street overpass.

Huge Baltimore news had seemingly been committed.

“Highway to Nowhere Meets its End” the Baltimore Sun announced, on Sept. 11, the day after a ceremony that drew city officials in dress suits and high heels to a weedy piece of elevated interstate highway in West Baltimore, the stub end of a road that was never used.

Highway to Nowhere Heads to the Dump” said another headline, on the Sun’s website.

Could it be? Was someone dropping mega-bucks to un-do the mother of all post-war, highway building-boom mistakes – an interstate project halted by community protest in the 1970s but not before construction of a 1.4 mile portion that caused the demolition of 20 blocks of row-houses and churches on Baltimore’s west side. Entire neighborhoods were wiped out and nearly 3,000 people displaced.

Sending the “Highway to Nowhere” to “the dump” would be major.

It’s not just that it’s a puzzling gash in the city’s landscape, a strangely-widened segment of Franklin and Mulberry streets that suddenly drops down into a concrete canyon and then, after a-mile-and-a-half, resumes life as a surface street.

It’s also the source of decades of mistrust by Baltimore’s African-American residents toward government transportation projects that seem, in practice, more like slum-clearing campaigns.

Could someone actually now be filling in this canyon, healing the wound?

Well, no, not really

Turns out, they’re just tearing down the elevated end of the highway, from Pulaski to Monroe streets (a two-block portion of the 16-block highway that ends at Greene Street) in order to enlarge the Maryland Transit Administration parking lot for the West Baltimore MARC station.

The other 14 blocks — far from “meeting their end” or going to the “the dump” — are in fact being further cemented into the city’s permanent landscape because they are part of the $1.8 billion Red Line plan.

West MARC Station parking (Google Maps)

West MARC Station parking is yellow, the place they’re expanding is purple.

The controversial east-west light rail transit line is planned to run right through the middle of the Franklin-Mulberry “Highway to Nowhere” trench. Puffy headlines aside, the big ditch isn’t going to be filled in, it’s just going to have a light rail line join the cars already whooshing through it.

Filling in the huge canyon is not, of course, a notion that anyone has ever suggested seriously, although there has been planner-talk since 1970 of building “caps,” develop-able land-bridges across the highway. (A dusty plan for this idea has a projected completion date of 2043.)

The $2.5 million demolition project they are undertaking does restore a part of what was destroyed – with a parking lot for train commuters as its centerpiece. It’s an idea that critics of the original highway fiasco support: one side of Payson Street will be connected at surface level to the other. When it’s done, they will have united two city blocks that have had an elevated highway dividing them for almost 40 years.

What they’re uniting them with is, basically, an asphalt parking lot for commuters who are from outside the neighborhood, so to build good will, the MTA has organized a weekend farmer’s market there. The highway demolition and parking lot expansion is scheduled for completion at the end of next summer but in the meantime, these farmers’ markets, the product of months of collaboration between the MTA, neighborhood groups and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, have already begun.

What residents will have at the end of all this is: Payson Street turned into a though-street, two blocks connected by a landscaped parking area instead of an elevated highway, a farmer’s market and a layout the MTA says would suit future mixed-use transit-oriented development, should any ever come along.

It’s a worthy project but it’s kind of galling that its presentation by politicians and the press, blip though it was in the Baltimore news cycle, made it seem like so much more . . .

Rhetoric vs. reality

Within the press release on the day of the event, there was mention high-up that the groundbreaking was for “a segment of the infamous Highway to Nowhere.”

But pretty much everything else gave the impression the whole thing was going to come down, that ancient wrongs were going to be righted.

“The demolition of the roadway will reunite the communities of West Baltimore that have been physically separated since the highway’s construction in the early 1970’s,” the O’Malley press release said.

“The communities of West Baltimore have been frustrated and divided by this concrete wall for nearly four decades,” the release quoted  O’Malley saying. “It is time to remove the unnecessary divider, reunite communities. . .”

The Sun’s story reflected the same overall spin.

“Gov. Martin O’Malley, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other officials announced a $2.5 million plan to demolish the hulking dead end that has become known as “The Highway to Nowhere,” the Sun’s Julie Scharper wrote. She quoted several residents describing the grocery stores and other amenities the neighborhood lost and expressing skepticism  about the ballyhooed project, but never quite put together the reason why.

Back in the real world

Driving around “The Highway to Nowhere” on Sept. 11 seemed especially apt. As with gaping hole where New York’s twin towers used to be before terrorists blew them up, all that empty West Baltimore  space where structures and people used to be had a sad and haunted feel.

Relaxing in front of her Mulberry Street home after work, Rita Fisher discusses the planned demolition of elevated highway that is basically her front yard. (Photo by Fern Shen.

Relaxing in front of her Mulberry Street home after work, Rita Fisher is looking forward to the planned demolition of the elevated highway that is basically her front yard. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

The raised part of the highway destined for the wrecking ball was empty on that day, except for a few crows hopping in the grass. Residents say kids play football up there and that trucks dumped snow there during last winter’s record-breaking storms.

Rita Fisher, who lives on Mulberry Street, welcomes plans to knock it down: “That area ain’t doing nothing now. I don’t know who would build there, but it couldn’t be worse than it is.”

Having grown up in the neighborhood, she remembers playing in the area where the highway was built, remembers the basketball court that was there. An aunt of her whose house was in the way was relocated.

Fisher has worked for 20 years for LSG Sky Chefs, the company at Baltimore Washington Airport that makes food served on airlines.  When she doesn’t have a late night shift, she takes the light rail to work and said she would take the Red Line, if it were built.

“I’m glad they’ve got light rail,” she said. “It helps a lot of people.”  Perhaps a new light rail project would employ people, she said. “A lot of people are out of work.”

Patsy Jones and James Henry, on Payson Street, doubt the project will help them. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

Patsy Jones and James Henry, on Payson Street, doubt the project will help them. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

On the other side of the elevated highway, on Payson Street, a group of people were having a childrens’ birthday party on the sidewalk. The trees were decorated with balloons. Most in this group were dismissive of the project.

“We’ve got a highway to nowhere. They knocked down all my peoples’ houses for it,” said James Henry, 57, who was sitting on his front steps. “When I was a little boy coming up we had basketball courts. They knocked em down. My mother had to sell her house.”

“The highway ain’t going nowhere!” Henry said, looking south down Payson and gesturing back toward the blocks of the big road that will indeed remain unchanged. “And the Red Line? That’s not for us.”

“It can be a good thing, if they execute it right,” countered Patsy Jones, 55. “Maybe it could bring jobs?”

“They always say they’re going to hire people from the neighborhood,” Henry replied, “but they never do.”

“They don’t listen to what we say,” he added. “It’s already mapped out.”

“We have to attend meetings,” Jones said. “Tell them what we think.”

Communitygroups are discussing ways to re-make this Pulaski Street mural, painted on the part of the highway to be torn down. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

Community groups are discussing ways to re-make this Pulaski Street mural, painted on the part of the highway to be torn down. (Photo by Fern Shen.)

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