'Highway to Nowhere' heads to the dump

Lillian Duckett was a teenager when Baltimore officials bought the Mulberry Street home she shared with her eight siblings, parents and grandmother, and then tore it down.

The Ducketts were among the nearly 3,000 residents who were uprooted from their predominantly black West Baltimore neighborhood four decades ago to make way for a highway project to connect Interstate 70 with I-95. But construction stopped nearly as soon as it began, leaving a concrete bridge that rises near the site of the Ducketts' former home and ends abruptly in a grassy slope.

Duckett sat in her current home, which overlooks the ill-fated project, on Friday as 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 story of this new beginning is really a story of communities coming back together," said O'Malley. "Of communities moving Maryland forward by becoming better connected. It's a story of the connections that advance progress."

But Duckett, like many of her West Baltimore neighbors, is skeptical that the parking lots slated to replace the highway will heal the neighborhood.

"I'm trying to figure out how this is going to benefit the community," said Duckett, 60. "There aren't any stores around here. And there are lots of vacant homes."

After all, Duckett pointed out, it was government officials who advocated for the highway. Construction on the six-lane highway was halted in the early 1970s after intense opposition from communities to the west, but not before hundreds of homes were demolished and neighborhood bonds destroyed.

A related project, which would have ferried Interstate 83 traffic through Fells Point and Highlandtown, was blocked in part by the efforts of then-community activist Barbara A. Mikulski, who used the battle to launch her political career.

On Friday, O'Malley perched on a large piece of machinery and drilled the first holes into the concrete structure. Workers will topple the bridge deck and support pillars from Pulaski to Monroe streets, removing 51,000 cubic tons of concrete, earth and steel beams and planting shrubs and trees, state transit officials said.

Local firm Potts & Callahan has been awarded the demolition contract — which is funded by federal stimulus dollars — and work is expected to be completed by next summer, officials said.

The second phase of the project, expected to cost an additional $6 million, involves the creation of two new parking lots, adding 335 spaces for MARC train commuters. Residents will be able to walk across Payson Street from Mulberry to Franklin streets as the roadway is reconnected for the first time in decades.

The proposed Red Line tracks are expected to flank the parking lots and then rejoin each other to the east.

Officials said they hoped the project would attract transit-oriented development such as shops or new housing. The site was not included in the group of 14 rail stations announced in June to receive tax breaks and state funding.

Officials and community leaders were jubilant at Friday's event, saying the demolition of what Rawlings-Blake called "the concrete behemoth" would inspire more projects in the area.

"It's more than a parking lot," Rawlings-Blake said. "It's reconnecting a historical community. It sends a message to the community that we have a chance, not to turn back time, but to move forward."

City Councilwoman Agnes Welch, who has lived near the site for more than half a century, battled plans for the highway, which displaced more than 900 households, five dozen businesses and a school.

"I never thought I'd live to see this day," Welch, 85, proclaimed again and again as she embraced old friends.

"Before this, it was an area of the city that reminded you of suburbia, green spaces, lots of trees," she said. "People used to walk down to the Gwynns Falls to go fishing. It was a wonderful place to raise a child."

West Baltimore Coalition President Zelda Robinson, 69, described the old neighborhood as a stable community where neighbors gathered for "coffee breaks in the morning and rose gardens in the afternoon."

"We had every amenity every other neighborhood has now," she said. "A fresh produce market, grocery store, White Coffee Pot."

Edna Manns, 60, recalled the old neighborhood as a place "where everybody looked after everybody else's kids." But once the road went up, she said, the community split, home values decreased and residents fled.

Now many of the homes along this stretch of Franklin Street are vacant. Some are covered in boards emblazoned with graffiti; in others, windows frame views of the sky.

Across the roadway, on Mulberry Street, most of the homes are occupied and appear well-tended. Eric Williams, 31, said he welcomed the demolition of the highway and the construction of the Red Line, although he wonders if it will make any real difference in his neighborhood.

A few houses down, Duckett's son, James M. Coombs Jr., said it was depressing to see the abandoned highway each time he opened the door. But he questioned whether parking lots — even if lined with green spaces — could unite the community.

"It's a question of how much the city allows people to access it," said Coombs, a 35-year-old veteran of the war in Iraq. "It could just be a nuisance and an eyesore.

"It's hard to look at this landscape and find hope in it," he said.

Duckett said that she cherished her current home on Mulberry Street. She had vowed to move back to the street after her family was displaced from her childhood home, a few blocks down.

Her parents accepted less than the value of that three-story house, with its gleaming marble steps, and squeezed the family into a smaller house in Edmondson Village. Duckett and three sisters slept in the attic.

Returning to the old neighborhood to attend church, Duckett saw the familiar places being destroyed — the grocery store where Mr. Ruby handed dolls to girls and toy trucks to boys at Christmas, the homes where mothers bleached marble steps and competed to grow the brightest flowers in pots made from tires.

She said she once went to community meetings about proposals for the MARC station lots, but stopped because she felt there was little information divulged about the plans. She wonders if anything could bring the fractured neighborhood back together.

But Robinson, the West Baltimore Coalition president, said the demolition of the "Highway to Nowhere" is a key step toward healing the community.

"The people desperately want change," she said. "They need change. We're going to build people up. They tried to destroy our heart, but we're here."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.



  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad