This week: Lost Highways
Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey
Monday, Nov. 27, 2000; 1 p.m. EST
In the Interstate Era of the 1960s and early '70s, Congress still
ruled Washington like a fiefdom. Then a fight over some freeways inspired a biracial, neighborhood-level movement to fight the federal power and to oppose the plan to pave over the District of Columbia.
Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey -- whose article "End of the Roads" appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine -- were online on Monday, Nov. 27, to field questions and comments about the article, the protests and the
roadways that might have been.
Bob Levey is a Washington Post columnist. Jane Freundel Levey is a
writer and Washington historian. Their book, "Washington Album: A Pictorial History of the Nation's Capital," was published this year by Washington Post Books.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Woodbridge, Va.: I'm from Phoenix, where there is no comprehensive mass transit and freeways rule. Growth has outpaced all projections. The area regularly gridlocks during rush hours and new roads are budgeted for decades in the future. Insensitive projects were withdrawn for neighborhood considerations, just like those in your informative article.
My question is: Are there regrets for not building more freeways here? While leaving Washington without certain freeways saved neighborhoods, are there plans to alleviate the congestion with transit expansion and/or more freeways?
Bob Levey: Truckers certainly have regrets, and so do some suburbanites who truly believe that their commutes would be pure bliss if only enough freeways had been built. But no politician has made a serious move since 1976 to resurrect the Bartholomew freeway plan.
Laurel: Very nice article. It had been a while since I'd read about Julius Hobson or the Three Sisters Bridge about which I had heard so much in my childhood.
The one area into which I'd wished you dug more completely is the extent to which the same thing was happening across the country, although less successfully than in Washington. It was a practice, if not a stated policy, of the Interstate Highway planners to target African-American neighborhoods in urban areas, figuring that they wouldn't meet as much resistance. In most cities they were right in that effective protest couldn't be organized quickly enough. But destruction of black neighborhoods did become one of the rallying points of the civil rights movement outside the South.
Jane Freundel Levey: Many thanks! It's an interesting conundrum: race and class versus the powerful. I'm not sure I would agree that African American communities were necessarily targeted because they were black; more often, they were poor and politically powerless. That made it easy to move them out. But remember that Southwest Washington also housed white ethnics -- working class -- and they were pushed out as well. Then again, in D.C. we had Commissioner U.S. Grant III who went on record with a proposal to move the city's African Americans to "the back of Anacostia. . ."
NW D.C.: Excluding D.C. for a second (ha! giggle, snort snort), what's the worst city or area you've ever encountered for traffic? I've found Los Angeles to be less annoying than our fair burg.
Bob Levey: Choke! Cough! You've got to be brain-addled by smog.
The last time I was in L.A., I had a 7:45 a.m. flight to catch -- on a Sunday. I figured I'd allow 45 minutes to drive 23 miles to the airport. Hey, it was a Sunday!
I almost missed the flight. It was bumper-to-bumper all the way from the San Fernando Valley to the L.A. Airport -- on a Sunday before dawn!
I'll take D.C. any time. Especially since we have a Metro.
Laurel, Md.: Among eastern cities, the D.C. area has among the fewest highways per capita, one of the most extensive mass transit systems, and the slowest work commutes. Your "End of the Roads" appeared to glorify the lack of progress in the region.
Most row houses I've seen in D.C., even in good neighborhoods, are old and in terrible condition. Do you really feel that 4,000 old houses are so aesthetically valuable they justify a lack of infrastructure for hundreds of thousands?
Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey: The issue about aesthetics can be argued until the cows come home. The issue about highways in D.C. turned on pavement versus places where people lived, places that were just fine, thank you very much. In addition, today's developers practically have to be forced to build residential spaces in the city; if they weren't, we'd have downtowns that were truly dead at night rather than the somewhat reviving D.C. we are working toward today.
Arlington, Va.: Fascinating article on the roads (or lack thereof) in this town.
My question relates to a new bridge in the downtown area. After the spectacular failure of the Three Sisters Bridge mentioned in your article a generation ago, would there be any chance of building any bridge between Arlington and the District today?
It seems to me that the major bottleneck inside of the Beltway is the fact that there are only five bridges between Arlington and D.C. Whenever there is an incident on one of those bridges (sinkhole on Chain, bomb scare on the 14th, roadwork in Georgetown just off the Key) then the others instantly grind to an all stop. And even when there is not an incident, the roads in Arlington leading to the bridges are clogged during the rush hours (Route 123, Glebe, roads in Rosslyn, 66 after HOV, and 395). As a longtime Arlingtonian, we need a new bridge, and not one between Herndon and Rockville (although that will help too).
As a side note, another world capital, Paris, has 23 bridges (I think, anyway they have a lot -- and so does London) over the Seine. Why is Washington stuck with five over the Potomac?
Bob Levey: I can't imagine a neighborhood on either side of the river that would permit a new span. Besides, it isn't just the bridge that might alleviate traffic woes. It's freeways that lead to the bridge, on either side -- and those have absolutely zero chance of happening (yes, I know that I-66 inside the Beltway may be widened -- get ready for a HUGE fight over that).
Washington, D.C.: I enjoyed the article, especially the profiles of Booker and Abbott. But let's not forget who really stopped Natcher's attempt to force the city to accept the freeways.
While the ECTC was gathering a few dozen people to march on picket lines and disrupt hearings, Congressman Robert Giaimo of Connecticut was gathering votes in the House of Representatives to release subway funds from Natcher's control. Thanks to his efforts, on Dec. 2, 1971, the full House voted 195 to 174 to release the D.C. share of Metro funds without forcing the city to build the Three Sisters Bridge. Following this defeat, a very rare case of the full House overruling an appropriations subcommittee chairman, Natcher never again seriously threatened Metro. And without that threat, the D.C. government had no reason to build the freeways.
Essentially there were three challenges to the freeways: in the streets by the ECTC, in the courts by Peter Craig (and his pro bono counsel, Roberts Owen), and in Congress by Robert Giaimo. Craig and Owen bought time, and Giaimo stopped Congress's blackmail. The ECTC, however noisy, did relatively little to change the minds of people in power. Radical protest can make a difference, but in this case the real victory was won by people working within the system.
Jane Freundel Levey: Hello Zach! Glad to see you on-line and looking forward to your upcoming essay on Metro in the Spring-Summer 2001 issue of Washington History magazine.
Enough commercials! You're right that Giaimo cracked the whip in the House, but the real power behind the compromise, as we said in the piece, was the Nixon administration. If we left the impression that it was the ECTC that did the entire job, that's a flaw of the writing. It was a collaboration: Nixon, the Hill, the D.C. legal community, and the protesters.
Cleveland Park, D.C.: I found your article to be quite fascinating, and I am very curious about what exactly the highway planners had in mind for Cleveland Park. As a resident of the neighborhood, it's almost impossible for me to imagine a freeway running through the Victorians on Macomb Street.
What were the plans for Cleveland Park? Where would the highway have run, and what portion of the homes and/or businesses there would have been torn down?
Bob Levey: The Freeway That Would Have Eaten Cleveland Park would have begun in Georgetown (at the terminus of the Three Sisters Bridge), gone due north through Glover-Archbold Park, then northeast, more or less along Nebraska Avenue (past American University). It would have "met" Wisconsin Avenue right near Fannie Mae and Sidwell Friends School, obliterating both. Then it would have gone due north, through Friendship Heights and Bethesda, to the point where Rockville Pike, 270 and the Beltway all meet at Pooks Hill.
Metro Media Relations Office: Very good piece, guys. It made for very fascinating reading and served as a reminder of how Metro came to be back in the '60s and '70s. Well done!
Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey: Many thanks, and hats off to all of you. As Walter Fauntroy says in our piece, can you imagine this area WITHOUT Metro?
SE D.C.: Great article!
As a District resident, I am feeling a little resentful of the people living in Virginia and Maryland acting like we are selfish for not thinking of our city (yes, some of us actually LIVE here) as a place where we are obligated to cater to their commuting needs. The question about saving rowhouses because they are not in mint condition is a case in point. Yes, you work in D.C. Yes, your federal tax dollars are invested here (sometimes) but we are not solely here to house your workplace. It would be lovely if we could accommodate the people in the suburbs by all moving out of D.C. and paving over the city. But then we'll be competing with them for road space on the morning commute.
It is not always about the financial bottom line. There are still real people living here.
Jane Freundel Levey: Thank you and amen. This is a fully fledged city -- work and residential. Home to real people.
Rockville, Md.: I was born and raised in Woodley Park and now live in Rockville and commute to McLean (ugh!) every day. I also recently wrote my master's thesis on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project in the context of sustainable development. In the past 20 years I have watched traffic in this area get worse and worse. I am curious about your opinion on how Washington might be different today if any and/or all of the proposals for loops in and around the city had been built. I wonder if maybe commuting patterns might not have changed so dramatically from suburb-to-city to suburb-to-suburb. I know this is a fairly abstract question, but it just seems to me that all these highways would have caused a profound change in the socio-economic structure of the city.
Jane Freundel Levey: The suburb-to-suburb commuting, and the development of "edge cities" and other nodes of urbanization were not foreseen by the original highway planners, at least not according to our research. The point was to ease travel from suburb to downtown in order to save the decaying downtown, and to speed interstate travel and thus interstate commerce (not to mention international defense). Planners seemed genuinely surprised that the Beltway gave birth to so many new commercial/business centers. Not to duck your major question, but I think if all those loops had been built, we'd be unbuilding and burying them today like Boston is.
Riverdale Park, Md.: It was a good piece, I thought. It brought my childhood screaming to the front of my consciousness. I wasn't I red-diaper baby; I was an ECTC baby. I think my father is shown in the photo of the front of the house on 10th Street. And I know I was there when Reggie Booker was arrested, and just out of the frame of the photo from the Three Sisters Bridge march. What all of those folks did -- and many more whose names are remembered only privately -- was change the way the city viewed itself. It's funny, too, I don't recall anything like press coverage at the time. Not that it wasn't there, it's just that I don't think any of the news organizations at the time had any way of knowing how much the Emergency Committee was doing to save the city.
Bob Levey: On the contrary, there are hundreds of photos on file, both here and in the Star collection at the Martin Luther King public library. This was a very well-covered event at the time. I'm not sure I agree that it changed the way the city viewed itself. If that were true, why the continuing apathy about home rule?
New York, N.Y.: I'm Sam Abbott's daughter, Nancy, and I want to thank Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levy for their story about the struggle to stop the highways and build the Metro. This chapter of previously untold history shows what citizens, united in coalitions, can accomplish if they are single-minded and stick together. We were relentless -- because we had to be. The citizens' coalition, with ECTC at the center, both stopped the destruction of people's homes and communities and jumpstarted the Metro. Many of the people who led the fight are getting on in years now -- I want to give them a special thanks for their courage and belief in democracy, and what they accomplished. Black and white, rich and poor, urban and suburban, young and old, liberal and conservative, these people moved mountains. Thanks again to the writers for telling the tale. Needless to say, this article just scraped the tip of the iceberg.
Jane Freundel Levey: Great to hear from you! I often wonder what we could accomplish today if, borrowing from that noted voice of reason, Mark Plotkin, we all just got mad enough again! Your dad was one of the many reasons Bob and I love living here.
Takoma Park, Md.: Actually this is a statement. The freeway that would have gone along Wisconsin Avenue would NOT have obliterated Sidwell Friends; that section of I-70S was to be a bored tunnel.
It was to the east, where this Cross Park Freeway would have plowed through neighborhoods in Mt. Pleasant where the injustice was.
for more details.
Douglas A. Willinger
Takoma Park Highway Design Studio
Bob Levey: You're both right and wrong. The route I described was on the books longest. But many other variations (including the one you cite) also made appearances over the years. This made writing the article unusually difficult, and it made the creation of the map super-difficult. How nice it would have been if there had been one plan that sat on the boards for 22 years. Didn't happen that way.
Alexandria, Va.: As a native of 42 years, I enjoyed learning more about some of the things I recall hearing about growing up. I remember the controversy over the Three Sisters Bridge, but I wasn't aware of the extent of all those other freeways that were proposed -- that map was fascinating.
Certainly in retrospect all those roads seem ridiculous. On the other hand, it's something of a shame that 395 and the SE/SW Freeway end so abruptly, without providing a direct way through the city without traffic lights.
Dr. Gridlock has occasionally mentioned a Barney Circle project that apparently would link the eastern end of the SE/SW Freeway to northbound Kenilworth Avenue, thus leading to 295 north and 50 east without going through the hoops that are necessary now. Did you find out any more about this in your research? Is there any timetable for this happening?
(BTW, you CAN get into the RFK parking lot from the SE/SW Freeway.)
Bob Levey: The Barney Circle project is under active discussion, but as usual, the issue is money. D.C. would have to come up with far more than 10 percent of it, as I understand the debate. That's a major strap for a city that has many other fish to fry.
I will grant you that it is utterly maddening to have to cross the Anacostia and then loop back via local streets to get onto northbound I-295. But we've been living with that madness for 35 years now.
As for being able to get into the RFK lot via the SE-SW Freeway, yes, you can do it -- but only when they open the gates to the lot. When they don't, you have to turn around and loop back up to Barney Circle. Hardly an "interstate experience."
Washington, D.C.: Thanks for your excellent piece. Peter Craig is my husband and it was wonderful to see some recognition for his heroic struggles against the highway lobby. What you did a really fine job of highlighting was the multiracial nature of the coalition, and how folks across this city worked together to stop highways from destroying their neighborhoods. It makes one wonder what similar kind of issue might get that kind of support today? Fixing our schools? Environmental protection?
Jane Freundel Levey: How nice to hear from you! What impresses both of us was the cooperation among not only the range of the citizens, but among the range of powers. Partly that was because Nixon was hoping to establish Republican support in Virginia, and that Virginia commuters needed Metro. I wonder, with you, what it would take to get a president interested in his own back yard.
Mt. Rainier: I was pretty young and very inattentive when this struggle against paving D.C. was going on, but I'd like to say a great big thank you to all the people who fought against the freeways and for public transit. I think D.C. is just a beautiful city, and the powers-that-were would have destroyed most of it. And thanks to you both for giving us the history of it.
Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey: A pleasure.
Washington, D.C.: As a resident of Brookland since 1957, and the widow of a man who spent 40 hours a week for 10 years fighting the freeway system as a member of the ECTC, I can relate that without us, as catalysts, there would be freeways here as in other major cities like Baltimore, where they can vote for their congresspersons. Responses?
Bob Levey: Again, the missing ingredient is the president. He would have been a fish out of water in any debate about Baltimore freeways. But in D.C., as I hope our piece shows, Presidents Johnson and Nixon (in different ways) were instrumental in breaking up the logjam, and in leaning on Rep. Natcher to free up the Metro money. For better or worse, Congress still runs D.C., and the president cuts major ice here.
Many thanks to your husband for fighting so long, hard and well.
WDC: Not a question, really, and maybe more appropriate for Dr. Gridlock... but I saw a car with Virginia plates reading "WIDN I66"!
While I got a laugh out of it, I have to disagree -- more roads and wider roads promote more growth, more traffic, and more sprawl. ALWAYS.
Bob Levey: Once again, take a look at the quote from Walter Fauntroy at the end of our piece. The minute you build them, said he, they are full.
Arlington, Va.: Why did your otherwise excellent article omit any mention of the Arlington fight against I-66? Surely it would have been much harder to ward off the Three Sisters Bridge if Arlingtonians had accepted the connecting freeway on the Virginia side.
Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey: Sounds like our next piece. Seriously, we wanted to confine ourselves to the D.C. side of the river this time around. The Arlington fight came later, and didn't involve as many strands of politics.
Silver Spring, Md.: Was there a typographical error in your statement "More than 200,000 housing units were saved from destruction."? In a city of roughly 600,000, that would mean that one of every three residents would have had their "housing unit" destroyed by highway construction. I find that very hard to believe.
Bob Levey: That figure referred to housing units across the metropolitan area, not just in the city.
Other end of the NE corridor: Excellent work!
Here in Boston our highways were stopped too, including some which would have levelled many of our vibrant neighborhoods.
But we still more than double the number of cars in the city each workday. Opponents decry transit as a cost-ineffective showpiece that still leaves us with congested roads each morning. I don't want to agree with that, but the fact is transit loses money, and we do still have traffic jams. How would you counter such an argument?
Bob Levey: Baby stuff: We need to subsidize transit the way we have always subsidized roads. No transit system in the world pays for itself at the farebox. As long as we all understand that going in, we won't begrudge the subsidies.
Bowie, Md.: Dear Bob and Jane Levey,
Harland Bartholomew was married to my mother in 1955. He spoke within he family strongly against a bridge across Roosevelt Island, favoring a tunnel to preserve the view. He would not have cared for the Three Sisters bridge; maybe that was a compromise. Your article is very good.
Jane Freundel Levey: Wow, is this a hometown we have here or what? Seriously, we both were very intrigued by what we learned of Harland Bartholomew and hope to learn more. Clearly he was more than a draftsman of highway routes!
20037: As much as the Bartholamew plan was overkill. I used to live in vienna, it took me 20 minutes to get downtown on a weekend. I now live in Wheaton, it takes me 45 minutes. Same distance (approximately 13 miles) but Vienna to D.C. has I-66 Wheaton to D.C. means I have to drive down residential neighborhoods on 16th or 14th St.
Just plain stupid there is not a better route.
Bob Levey: You'll forgive me, but the last time I checked, a beautiful, nice, clean, cheap Metro ran from Wheaton to many points in downtown Washington.
Try it, you'll like it.
Maryland: Hi. Nice article.
D.C., even in the late 1960s, was a majority black city -- the article even mentioned that it was the first major city with a minority majority. Given that, why did race become an issue in the battles for freeways? Doesn't it stand to reason that in a majority black city, such roads would go through majority black neighborhoods?
Jane Freundel Levey: Thank you!
We seem to get stuck on the semantics here: unfortunately for many people, "black neighborhood" equates with "powerless neighborhood." While that may be true, the fact was that many of the endangered neighborhoods were primarily white, although most were black, and nearly all were politically inexperienced in a city where local politics didn't exist in the 20th century until 1967. That it was a "majority black" city doesn't mean it was all African American.
Arlington, Va.: My first thought when I read that there will be a hotel room shortage in D.C. once the convention center is done was more people will be staying Arlington and using the Metro (and expanding the Arlington tax base).
How badly is the convention center going to muddle transportation (along with lack of hotel rooms close to it).
Jane Freundel Levey: Good question. Convention centers are supposed to be built on the edge of major highways so that 18-wheelers can come in and unload the grand pianos or yachts. . . I'm amazed that we have conventions featuring hard goods here now, and that we're hoping to attract more. The new center may be bigger, but it still doesn't tackle the delivery problem. Hotel rooms are much easier to solve by comparison.
Alexandria, Va.: A follow-up piece on the Virginia side would be equally fascinating, given the continuing controversies over the Wilson Bridge and I-66, not to mention 95/395/495. Hope that's something you can find time to pursue.
Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey: Time? What's that? It's a great idea. Maybe in 2009.
Rockville: How come you didn't talk about the consequences of not building these roads? Today, D.C. does have the second worst congestion after L.A., so the previous writer was correct?
Bob Levey: I can't imagine that 28 additional miles of freeways inside the District would have contributed to economic growth in the slightest. In which industry? Gas masks? If you remove people who live there (and those freeways would have done that), you drive economic growth outward, to wherever they have to move. Freeways would have turned D.C. into a theme park, and an utterly empty shell at night.
Bob Levey: Many thanks to all for such excellent questions.
Jane Freundel Levey: Bob Levey and Jane Freundel Levey: Sorry we couldn't take them all. We couldn't get to the discussion of the families that are going to be displaced for the Wilson Bridge and other planned projects, and that topic deserves further debate. Have we learned from the past? Or do we remain stuck there? Take care!
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