In 1948, a master highway plan for metropolitan Boston was developed, the Southwest Expressway, also known as the South West Corridor Project. The implementation of that highway plan is an example of how structural racism pervades so many aspects of our daily life. This plan was part of a proposed nation-wide system of highways and it included extending an eight to twelve lane highway, Interstate 95, through Boston and Cambridge.

The impetus for a nationwide system had been building since the 1930s, but was postponed by two momentous events, the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II in the early 1940s. After WWII, the idea was revived and planning resumed, propelled by an incentive to provide jobs to the returning veterans of both WWII and the Korean War. The planning for this effort evolved into the Federal Interstate Highway Act of 1956 which provided ninety percent Federal funding for this $25 billion, 46,000 – mile Interstate highway system. This funding guarantee allowed the state of Massachusetts to begin land acquisition through eminent domain for the metropolitan Boston component of the system.

Most structurally racist policies were/are innocent of malicious intent at their conception, but an innocent intent does not alter a deleterious outcome. The development of the Federal Interstate Highway Act of 1956 clearly proves how racism is so embedded into this country’s DNA that even policies with no apparent connection to sociology are used to reinforce that structural racism. The highway system was designed by engineers for maximum efficiency to provide the most direct routes from newly developed suburbs to the urban centers that drove the economy.

Many citizens are not aware that those suburbs were also directly and indirectly, federally funded, i.e., supported by the tax dollars of each citizen. When private developers built vast tracts of housing to accommodate the many veterans returning home from the wars, white veterans could purchase homes in those suburbs with Federally guaranteed FDA loans, but covenants prohibited African Americans, veterans or not, from purchasing homes in the same suburbs. Those covenants were encouraged by the Federal Government under the guise of protecting property values, and they effectively limited the areas in which African Americans could reside.

The communities where urban Blacks were forced to settle did not receive the same level of funding to maintain them and a natural result of this government disinvestment was a deterioration of those physical environments. The next phase of that downward spiral was that those urban communities began to be imbued with negative connotations in the minds of many because they were not maintained to the same level as communities where whites predominantly resided.

Boston was not exempt from the structural racism that informed much of how the government developed and implemented planning policy.

The lower income community, which was predominantly African American, was crowded into the deteriorating neighborhoods of Roxbury, parts of the South End, Dorchester, Mattapan, and parts of Hyde Park through the practice of housing discrimination that prevented them from living in communities of their choosing.

Once restricted into limited communities, they were not able to maintain their neighborhoods because of redlining, a policy of withholding credit and services from certain areas which causes the selected areas to fall into decline. The result was that many African Americans who were able to purchase homes, could not borrow against them to make the necessary repairs to maintain those homes.

At the turn of the century, the government had chosen a swath of land that ran through the middle of Boston which effectively split the lower-income communities from the more affluent communities of Back Bay, parts of the South End, the Fenway, Jamaica Plain, and West Roxbury, as the location for a system of railroad tracks for the diesel trains that serviced the local manufacturing industry.

By the late 1960s, a final design for the Master Highway was completed, and it was to be located primarily on the land where the old diesel train tracks were. The Cambridge leg of the highway was also planned to divide that city along demographic lines. More land than that contained in the railroad right-of-way was required to accommodate the width of the highway. That land was acquired by eminent domain and demolition was soon underway. That government consolidation of property took an unfair toll on those communities on, “the poor side of the tracks.” It destroyed neighborhoods, long-time residents were displaced, families were uprooted, and it quickly demolished over 120 acres of land. Over 143 acres were eventually consolidated by the end of the project. Activists began to organize protests to the project, but the neighborhood destruction continued. Meanwhile, the diesel trains continued to run, and they continued to spread pollution throughout the affected communities.

Simultaneous to this activity, a major new retail development was under construction for a high-end shopping mall, Copley Place, to be located at the intersection of Back Bay and the South End. When three-acres of neighborhood townhouses were demolished in 1968 to make way for a parking garage for this new retail mall, the local community had enough. Things came to a head when on April 4th, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN, and protests to the Viet Nam War became more aggressive. The pent-up anger in the community over what was happening on a national level as well as a local level reached a boiling point. On April 25, 1968, twenty-three protesters were arrested at Tent City protests led by community activist, Mel King. After they were released on bail, the protesters returned to the site and refused to move. Within three days, over 300 people were living in tents at the site and thousands more came to support them with food and supplies. That protest was successful, and the garage idea for the mall was scraped. The protesters entered into negotiations with the developers and a 268 – unit mixed income housing complex for the site was the outcome.

Emboldened by that success, activists, including Mel King, Chuck Turner, Byron Rushing, and many others, began to organize hundreds of demonstrations to the I-95 connector through Boston and Cambridge. “Stop I-95: People Before Highways,” became their slogan. The protests were so overwhelming that Governor Sargent cancelled plans for the highway and re-evaluated transportation plans for the region. In 1973, Sargent persuaded Congress to pass the 1973 Federal Highway Act which for the first-time transferred highway funds to local mass transit projects. The citizen-led protest group organized into the SW Corridor Land Development Coalition. Their focus was to redevelop the corridor with three modes of rapid transit: a relocated MBTA Orange Line, the commuter rail; system and Amtrak. An additional focus was to ensure that vacant land in the corridor was developed primarily for the benefit of the local community.

In 1974, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the parties involved, in 1977, design and engineering began, and in 1979, construction began. A local Black firm, Stull & Lee, served as the urban designers and architectural coordinators for project which included eight subway stations and a five-mile linear park. They were also the architects for one of the largest of the stations, Ruggles Station. Numerous other minority consultants and contractors were awarded contracts through this project. In 1987, the MBTA Orange Line opened for service, and in 1988, the housing complex that resulted from the Copley Place protests finally opened, it was appropriately named, Tent City.

Important components of this $800 million project were: a nearly five-mile, 50 – acre linear park that was adjacent to the Orange Line, this park includes 20 playgrounds, 16 basketball and tennis courts, and over 90 community gardens; the high level of community participation that was involved, 15% of planning and design fees were set aside for community participation which included 32 working community task forces; public art was integrated throughout; a one-year construction training program for local high school students was utilized by over 175 students; and finally, the project was seen as a catalyst for neighborhood development.

That development included the construction of a local community college, Roxbury Community College for 1500 students, construction of two new high schools, construction of a regional indoor track and gym that was named in honor of a local basketball legend, Reggie Lewis, and development of over 1,000 units of affordable housing.

The development of the Southwest Corridor is a prime example of how citizens took the initiative to design the community that they wanted, rather than simply accept the one that was thrust on them. The result of that challenging and courageous effort benefits the entire Boston community.

By Rosalyn Delores Elder

Additional information: Southwest Corridor Park, People Before Highways by Dr. Karilyn Crockett, Boston’s Canceled Highways, Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, Goody/Clancy

2 Comments

  1. This is an important article and I plan to share it particularly with young people in the Roxbury area. Power to the people!

  2. This is a well-researched history of Boston’s racial discrimination. I lived near Roxbury Crossing and often bicycled the Southwest Corridor but never knew its history. Thank you!

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