Mikulski's legacy starts with the 'battle of the road'

Mikulski's most enduring legacy might be in Baltimore, not Washington

By the time Barbara Mikulski ran for Congress in 1976, you could see the scorched earth of the battles she and others had fought against a federal highway plan that would have turned downtown Baltimore and some of its best neighborhoods into an ugly savannah of concrete.

From the empty lots of Sharp-Leadenhall, near Federal Hill, to the infamous "Highway to Nowhere" in the Franklin-Mulberry corridor on the west side, to the vacant fields along Boston Street in Canton, there was clear evidence of the heavy-handed, dull-headed effort to raze rowhouses and run interstate highways through the heart of the city.

It was the fight against the federal highway expansion, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that launched Mikulski's career.

It might be her most enduring accomplishment.

People who today enjoy Canton, often cited as the hottest part of town, might find it hard to believe, but for a couple of decades, a big stretch of that neighborhood was empty.

In 1968, the city, confident that federal highway dollars were on the way, razed about 300 rowhouses along Boston and Elliott streets for what was known as the East-West Expressway. Planners wanted to connect three interstate highways (95 to the east, 83 from the north, and 70 from the west) right through Baltimore. Leakin Park, Fells Point, the Inner Harbor — these treasures were all included in the plans.

Mikulski, a proud graduate of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and a community activist, enlisted in the freeway revolt. She helped form SCAR — Southeast Committee Against the Road — and that group collaborated with preservationists in Fells Point.

The highway battle lasted nearly a decade.

The activists won and Mikulski had made a name for herself, but not before blocks upon blocks of rowhouses had been demolished, particularly on the west side.

Still, imagine what her native city would have looked like today had Mikulski not prevailed.

Canton came back strong from that near tragedy. Fells Point survived and thrived. New housing came to the vacant lots of Sharp-Leadenhall. The Inner Harbor? Baltimore would have been a very different place — maybe no place — had the Inner Harbor been cut off from the rest of the city by that highway.

I first met Mikulski on a street corner in Highlandtown on election day 1976, and she was already a seasoned politician — affable, keenly observant and interested in the person shaking her hand.

She was running to replace Paul Sarbanes, who was leaving his seat in the House of Representatives to run for one in the Senate. As Mikulski walked around Eaton and Claremont streets that day, it seemed like she knew everyone in the neighborhood.

Or maybe they all knew her.

And not because she had been on the City Council since 1971. Not because she had run for the Senate in 1974 (the only election she ever lost).

Most people in that neighborhood seemed to remember her from "the battle of the road."

Mikulski in action — at a fundraiser or testimonial, or at a news conference, or at breakfast at Rallo's or Jimmy's — always knew how to be smart without pretense, wise without arrogance; she never seemed to float above the people around her.

She'd show up at a quiet rowhouse gathering of old friends and supporters with no entourage, no big deal. There'd be a couple of jokes, a little sarcasm, some nostalgia. You don't get to use the word "authentic" much when it comes to politicians, but it's certainly right next to "diminutive" and "feisty" when we describe Maryland's senior senator.

Liberal? Yeah, I guess, by modern standards, she qualifies as liberal. But her career spanned the time when Democrats were being instructed to move to the center to survive, and that's more apparent in Mikulski's record than you might think.

Just one example of her centrist survival instincts: In 2002, she opposed new gas-mileage standards in minivans.

"I'm an industrial-strength environmentalist, not a pure environmentalist," she said. "I believe in energy conservation, but I also believe in job conservation."

She was worried, mostly, about how the increase in fuel-efficiency standards might hurt the General Motors minivan assembly plant on Broening Highway. The Senate voted down the higher mileage standards. GM closed the Broening Highway plant three years later.

That was the end of an era, of course.

And Mikulski's retirement from the Senate will mark the end of an era as well.

Some years ago, over breakfast, Mikulski, still exhibiting the conscience of a social worker, spoke passionately about working in the Senate to close the "digital divide" — that is, avoiding the creation of another American equality gap, in which only the well-off and well-educated have access to the Internet. She said closing the digital divide would be her "legacy issue."

Maybe so. There are a lot of parts to the Mikulski legacy.

But the one Baltimore long-timers remember — and newcomers should know and appreciate — was the fight against the highways, way back when.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He also hosts "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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