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Retro Baltimore

Interstates could have ripped through Fells Point, Mount Vernon. A new book chronicles Baltimore’s urban planning saga.

The "Highway to Nowhere," looking east below Monroe Street, as seen from the parking lot for the West Baltimore MARC station.

A new book chronicles the losses and gains behind a brutal campaign to bring interstate highways into downtown Baltimore and the older neighborhoods we now consider essential to city life.

“Stop the Road: Stories from the Trenches of Baltimore’s Road Wars” by retired city planner E. Evans Paull tells the story of 1960s-1970s Baltimore, when John Waters was making his first films and the city’s bureaucracy was gung-ho to rip neighborhoods apart.

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The lost battles include the “Highway to Nowhere” in West Baltimore-Harlem Park, where 10,000 people were uprooted and their homes crushed for what was to have been Interstate 70 into the city. Parts of the rowhouse-filled Canton waterfront were demolished in anticipation of a highway that never arrived.

Perhaps the main survivors are the now beautifully preserved Fells Point and Harbor East; the road was once slated to slice through Thames Street. After the highway fight dust settled, property values stabilized and preservation and revitalization took root.

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The story was not unique to Baltimore. A whole generation of public works officials, highway engineers and politicians came to espouse interstate highway construction.

The story begins in 1944, when New York City master builder Robert Moses became a paid consultant to Baltimore. He prepared a “Baltimore Arterial Plan,” which said, “the more neighborhoods that are ‘knocked out’ the healthier Baltimore will be in the long run.”

It sounds ghastly today, but the city government paid good money to hear Moses seriously argue for digging a depressed interstate highway along Centre Street, just one block south of the Washington Monument.

Moses was not greeted skeptically in some quarters. The Baltimore Sun printed an editorial mentioning the southern part of Mount Vernon: “Save for a handful of ancient houses, mostly small and in decay, there is little to be proud of in this part of town.”

Baltimore was a different place in the 1940s, wrote Paull.

“There was one astonishing finding in Moses’ 1944 report: Baltimore’s buses and streetcars were carrying two-thirds of all trips, including 1.3 million transit trips in a single day.”

People walked to the corner, caught a streetcar — transit schedules were adhered to, and the streetcars were frequent — and went about their business.

But the city’s elected elite wanted to prepare for the future, and there was highway construction money gushing from Washington during the 1950s. Downtown Baltimore’s business leaders were desperate to compete with the Beltway and all that followed.

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Paull reports that from the beginning, Baltimore residents rebelled.

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Black Baltimore neighborhood leaders — in Rosemont, Harlem Park and Sharp Leadenhall — fought back, as well as their white counterparts. The Fells Pointers were adamant.

“Stop the Road” is a nuanced account of an emotional time. For all the engineers’ desire to make Baltimore a spaghetti of highways, many local officials knew it was not right. Too many people would be displaced; too much history would be lost.

The players emerge — Mayor William Donald Schaefer, activist Tom Ward, future U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, and Fells Point’s Lucretia Fisher and Robert Eney. At Leakin Park, where I-70 now ends but was envisioned to keep going, there were fighters Art Cohen, Stuart Wechsler and Carolyn Tyson.

The "Highway to Nowhere," a 1.36-mile highway cutting through West Baltimore, is seen adjacent to a block of mostly vacant houses. (Johnny Miller / africanDRONE)

Paull has done his homework, a lot of it.

He gets down to the reason the roadbuilders were finally thwarted. It was savvy crusaders like Victor and Shirley Doda, who ran a Fort Avenue funeral home. They demanded that nearby Fort McHenry be respected. No highways, please, to desecrate a War of 1812 site and the birthplace of the National Anthem.

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Shirley Doda beat the book’s antagonist, Mayor Schaefer.

She staged a protest outside City Hall one afternoon, in time for news cameras, featuring a woman dressed in a rented gorilla costume. She handed out bananas inscribed with a warning, “Don’t monkey with Locust Point.”


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