Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Freeway Revolts: A Brief History of an Important Baltimore Grassroots Movement

by guest blogger Greg Freidman

There once was a plan to build a major east-west expressway through the middle of Baltimore City. The idea for such an expressway had been around since at least 1917, but things really got going when Robert Moses came up with a plan in the 40's. With the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s  and the overwhelming support of the business and political establishment the highway became a near certainty. Had the expressway been built as planned , thousands of people would have been displaced, Leakin Park would have an expressway running through it, and neighborhoods such as Fells Point, Highlandtown, Canton, and Federal Hill would have been permanently disfigured.

But as part of a nationwide movement that came to be known as the freeway revolts regular people got together and fought back. In Baltimore the main organization driving the effort against the expressway was known as MAD or the Movement Against Destruction. The organization, essentially a coalition of neighborhood groups and individuals, was most active in the late 60s and early 70s. and transcended barriers of geography, race, and class. It was also for the most part (but not completely) successful. Among those active in the freeway revolts was a certain social worker turned City Councilwoman by the name of Barbara Mikulski.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with Art Cohen one of the movers and shakers behind MAD to hear about how this amazing grassroots movement got started and achieved its goals. For more information about MAD you can visit its online archive which is hosted by the University of Baltimore Langsdale Libary right here.

For a detailed explanation of the route the East-West Expressway was to traverse you can check out Scott Kozel's Roads to the Future website. And while I strongly disagree with some of its conclusions another excellent article on the Expressway can be found here (note that this is a PDF).

On  how the idea of the East-West Expressway came about:
... Robert Moses came to town in the early 1940s. There had actually been talk about having an expressway in Baltimore since 1917. But it didn’t really get steam going until Moses came and he suggested an east west highway straight through the middle of town. Of course it would have been totally unacceptable on the east side of town because it would have gone straight through Hopkins Hospital!... It sort of lay dormant for a number of years and then in the 50's it came in again because under President Eisenhower, the interstate system came into being...

On the founding and naming of MAD:
I came to Baltimore as a legal aid lawyer in September 1967. I came from Washington DC. I was assigned to East Baltimore where I lived as well as worked....So I was assigned to legal Aid East and that's where I worked for [the next 16 months up through early 1969].In August of 1968 I was approached by two people. One was Stu Wexler who had worked with CORE locally and had been involved in a lot of local things and Jimmy Rouse (who's the son of James Rouse). They said there was a new coalition being formed to oppose the plans for the East-West Expressway and because I had come here as lawyer, they said they need a lawyer who would be willing to serve as their attorney. It was volunteer. Everything in the group was volunteer. And I was interested in the issue and I said sure. The fact that they'd asked meant something too. I had respect for both of them...

The group as I remember it did not have a name for the first couple of months...This one person came from West Baltimore he happened to be a psychiatrist living and working there. He came for two meetings that's all, but what he did was he gave us a great gift. He said “I've got a name for you. You need a name. Here's what I'm suggesting, the Movement Against Destruction (M.A.D).”... It was a great name it described how people felt about the expressway coming through their neighborhoods.

On the uniqueness of MAD and what contributed to its success:

The unique thing about M.A.D. It was the first time in Baltimore that there was a coalition made up of neighborhood groups from across the city of diverse income groupings, of diverse race (African -American and White)... But just the fact that you could reach across between the white and black communities was just sensational. It was very effective and people worked together very well. And you could be a member of this group as a neighborhood association or as a mini coalition of neighborhood associations. There was one called S.C.A.R. (also see here) (the Southeast Council Against the Road). And there were some other ones across the city that were organized sub-regionally. You could also be a member as an individual if you wanted to.

The thing that made MAD unique was that it met every single week. [The archdiocese] gave us the use of the Catholic Center downtown at the southwest corner of Mulberry and Cathedral. And that was a great place. We'd meet there at 7 o'clock on every Monday. We also were blessed by having people in our group who had special skills. We had one person, Barbra King, who did research  andworked with the League of Women Voters... Whenever we had an issue that needed some digging she could do it for us and would. We had another person who was from the Church of the Brethren who was assigned to Baltimore as a sort of missionary placement. His name was Lin Butler and he had an incredible skill. He was our secretary for most of the time that I was there, he would be at every meeting. And within a day of the meeting a piece of paper would go to everybody that was on our list. On one side of the piece of paper were the minutes for the previous day's meeting and on the other side  would be the agenda for the next meeting. And it provided a high level of continuity from meeting to meeting. That really helped us....

Our way of operating at MAD was  by consensus. We didn't really need to vote. And the people there were seen representatives of their neighborhood groups. So if they were doing their jobs they did not arrogate to themselves any special power. They would take issues back to their group,  clear them with whomever they needed to clear it, and then come back to us. So there was an accountability that was very helpful.

On the damage that had been done from the condemnation lines:

By the time I got into this in August 1968 the condemnation lines had already been laid down. And in some ways a lot of the damage from the expressway planning had been done... These were people who lived their whole lives in Canton, Highlandtown, Fells Point, West Baltimore, South Baltimore too. This was very, very disturbing for a lot of people and there were stories of elderly people who  died of broken hearts from the idea of having to move from the neighborhoods that they had lived in all their lives and to which they were deeply committed. What I'm saying is there was some damage that was already done that could not be reversed even by MAD. What MAD was able to do with the help of others was prevent the building of the expressway.

 On a very interesting map:

One of our members, Jack Bond, who just died two years ago, worked for a local car rental agency and he came to every meeting. I think he lived in Roland Park. He came up with a wonderful suggestion once... Why don't we design an expressway ourselves that only took six houses? The mayor's (Thomas D'Alessandro III, the president of the City Council (William Donald Schaefer) and, Joe Axelrod  the highway engineer, who lived in Annapolis (the other three homes taken by the map were those of Greater Baltimore Committee head,William Boucher, Bernard Werner a consultant to the State Roads Commision, and Dr. F. Pierce Linaweaver the city public works director). So basically to make a long story short, we developed a sketch of this expressway, and it got picked up by a Sun reporter (scroll down to the fourth article). She went around and interviewed everybody. Mayor Schaefer and all these other people. It got a lot of attention. It was using ridicule to make a point, that these people didn't have to get out of their houses. They were planning for everybody else.

On flying a banner on a plane at the City Fair:

One time I worked on a banner...that was 220 ft wide. It was about as wide as the expressway would have been with all 12 lanes. It said “Stop The Mayor's Road”. We carried it into the city fair. This was the pride and joy of the city officials... to have this downtown fair. And we walked on there with this thing. And it took them 20 minutes to see what was going on and they threw us out. The next year what we did was we rented an airplane. We each kicked in  $25 and we had it fly over the city fair. And there was nothing they could do about that.

On the V.O.L.P.E. V. Volpe Lawsuit:

Richard Volpe was the head of the US Department of Transportation. He was the defendant. The plaintiffs in that case were the Volunteers Opposed to the Leakin Park Expressway (V.O.LP.E.) They came up with that name on purpose. And in fact their lawyer I believe was pro bono from Piper and Marbury at the time. He's now the city solicitor, George Nilson.

On an inspirational meeting at Edmondson High School and MAD's turning point:

One of the big turning points for us I believe was in 1969.  A public hearing was scheduled for early in the summer. It was one of the first public hearings on on the 3A plan and we got them to postpone it. This was because they were not following their own federal regulations, which required that public hearings be preceded by public informational meetings.   We insisted that they follow their own rules.  As a result, they first held this informational meeting  at which they described what the issues were.  It was held in Edmondson High School in  June of 1969.

People from the community were invited to come and learn about what the highway engineers planned to do. And Rosemont was a very controversial area. [The highway] was coming down from Leakin Park. It would have come down from Rosemont to join up with Franklin Mulberry. Rosemont was a stable middle-class African-American neighborhood.  Joe Wyles (a prominent African-American activist) was from there and a number of other MAD people were too. They just felt it was going to destroy their community and there were some alternative routes for Rosemont, several different ones. And one of them involved going through a cemetery south of Edmondson Highway which had generally white people [buried in it].

Anyway Rosemont, was a middle class area. People had come to this  explanatory meeting and the engineers were in the front [with] the planners... And you had these two groups and they're sitting on opposite sides of the Edmondson High School auditorium. One is white, generally younger and the other's black of all ages but somewhat older. They were sitting on opposite ends of the auditorium and this young white guy who was  the spokesman for the white  group gets up and says “we do not want this highway to go through the cemetery and even though there are rules about disenterring people and reenterring them we don't want these graves disturbed. They mean a lot to us our kinfolk are there” and so and so. When he was through, this elderly African-American man from Rosemont, he says “I've moved 3 times in the last thirteen years because of changes in these condemnation lines. "Hey, sait a minute," he says, I'm alive now, you're talking about dead people. I'm alive right now and I'm threatened by this road. And our neighborhood is threatened by this road.” It was very eloquent. Anyway they each made their point and then all of a sudden the young white guy gets up. He didn't want to be played off against the African-American. He says “we're against the road because it's going to mess up our cemetery with our dead loved ones. You're against the road because you're living in this area. Let's get together and fight it together. and you saw this group of people move together in that auditorium. I imagine there were whites who had never sat in an auditorium with blacks before and that was emblematic of the kinds of things that happened, people pulling together.

Anyways 2 months later in August. they had the public hearing, and it was big.   It went on for three days. 600 people attended. Most people testified against the road plans. Everybody except for two groups: the Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Baltimore Committee. And they did not speak in favor of the road.  Instead, they just put in written testimony.  The hearing got well covered in the press.


From my interview with Art Cohen and my own research about MAD, several things stand out to me. The first is that MAD was an organization made up of regular people and not just elites. It was also a truly multiracial coalition where blacks from West Baltimore worked together with whites from south and east sides. A remarkable feat given the large scale white flight that was taking place at the time. Another characteristic of MAD is that it was not dominated by any one person. Of course it had leaders but it was clearly a group effort with no one person taking all the credit for the work that was done. The third and final observation I’d like to note, is that for all its successes MAD failed to stop construction of the “Highway to Nowhere”. (Those interested in learning more about the “Highway to Nowhere” and MAD’s fight to stop it should read Andrew Giguere’s Masters Thesis on the subject). As painful as it may be it is always important to learn from them so that they will not happen again.

I’m a big believer that one cannot plan for the future unless they understand the past. Through understanding both the successes and the challenges faced by MAD it is my hope that those who wish to speak truth to power on transportation or any other issue will be able to draw inspiration and guidance.


1 comment:

  1. The link at the end of the article goes to a dead link. Here is the corrected link.


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